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Esther Lin

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Anger & emotion in MMA - A fighter’s mind

Roxanne Modafferi shares her thoughts and experiences, as well as those of her fellow fighters, on controlling their emotions inside the cage, and the processes fighters go through to do so.

I have heard all of these things said about fighting: That “fighting is an emotional thing.” That “there is no time for emotions in battle.” That “there are no emotions. There is peace.” (Jedi code). That “I do MMA to get out my aggression.” That “I got so mad I wanted to punch his lights out.” That “true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.” (Professor Charles Xavier)

MMA is a fighting sport — it’s trading punches, kicks, knees, and elbows, but it has rules, regulations, and structure. Where is the room in that for emotion? How much should it be involved? Should fighters use their emotions or try to suppress them? Do fighters get angry when they get hit hard or dominated in the gym or a fight? These are questions every fighter has to grapple with on their own terms.

So, I thought I’d survey some fellow fighters to investigate their thought processes — as well as explaining my own. I wanted to know if there would be a correlation between age, or experience, or gender. I found more similarities in everyone than I anticipated, and the differences in other factors.

Anger and aggression are two different things. “Aggression is intensity. Anger is an emotion. That emotion can be used as fuel, but only when properly focused.” That’s the philosophy of Piankhi “The Nappy Ninja” Zimmerman, (record 5 wins -3 losses, age 33). “It’s hard for me personally to control that kind of anger so I try to keep away from it. It’s not my style.”

The dictionary defines aggression as “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes towards another; readiness to attack or confront.”

Most fighters go forward and attack with energy and determination — that is aggression. But what is anger? What separates it from aggression? The dictionary defines it as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.”

Most fighters I spoke to agreed that actual anger should be avoided, or at least controlled, and not allowed to take over in fighting.

“Anger can be blinding if used inappropriately,” said Serena the ‘Southpaw Outlaw’ DeJesus (5-2 am, 1-0 pro, age 27). “When you’re angry – like if you get hit real hard – normal people go in like an idiot, swinging for the fences, and it costs them. So, I’m very cognizant of where my mental state is between aggression and anger.”

UFC fighter (and my TUF 18 teammate) Sarah “Cheesecake” Moras (5-4, age 30) said about anger in training, “It depends if we are in the zone and both throwing hard. If they land hard on me and I’m throwing hard back, it doesn’t bother me at all. If I’m going easy and someone goes hard against me it can piss me off, but I usually try to keep my calm and get them back for it.”

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Moncton-Moras vs Bernardo Trevor MacMillan-USA TODAY Sports

Shawn Dodoro (1-0 pro, 7-4 am, age 38) admits that he sometimes gets angry in training. “People that aren’t as skilled or technical, like on Saturday (during open mat kickboxing) they’re the worst. Because, they’re throw’n stuff – wild stuff that you’re not really used to – so you may get clipped with something. Then that kind of pisses you off, cuz you’re like ‘Okay, I thought maybe we were going a little light but now we’re not.’ So, now I gotta go hard. And next thing you know, you’re brawl’n out here on the floor; take’n somebody down and ground’n’pounded.”

It takes practice for a person to control their own anger, and function in a high-stress situation — and everybody reacts differently. Some people, like Serena, feel a little anger on occasion. “I try to be calculated, though,” she described. “I don’t act like a dumb idiot who swings just to get that big hard shot, because then you’re out of place and you get knocked out that way. I try and bide my time, find an opening to strike, and try to calm down again.”

Featherweight Bellator fighter Amanda Bell (6-5, age 30) said, “When I was an amateur, anger from being hit was a lot more common in sparring. I’d be so aggravated from getting hit that I’d tense up and get desperate to hit back somehow some way. If my mood is off and I’m distracted by something from my day, it seems to affect me when I’m sparring. I get more mad at myself than anything.”

Some fighters, like Bellator fighter AJ “The Mercenary” Matthews (9-8, age 31), feel differently in the same situation. “I don’t get that kind of (anger) reaction when I get hit hard. I can blame myself for those things. Even if there’s an agreement with a training partner that we’re not hitting hard; if I get hit hard, it’s probably because I moved in the wrong direction at the wrong time, or my defense wasn’t where it should have been at the right time. So I don’t get mad like that. I’ve never had a reaction to getting hit.”

Brandon “Ranch Dressing” Manoff (1-1 amateur, age 33) also said that he doesn’t feel anger in training, but instead, has been able to look at things objectively in an effort to improve himself. “I’ve always felt that everything is a good learning experience,” he said. “Even if somebody puts me in a bad situation, or dominates me, or gets a tap or a TKO situation. Anger clouds the ability to learn what I did wrong. So it’s taken a lot of practice, but ultimately if you can make a conscious choice to learn from it rather than get upset about the fact that you lost position or the round or whatever, it exponentially increases your ability to train better.”

Brandon added that both in life outside the gym and inside he’s made mistakes, but has made a conscious effort to accept the fact that he’s going to make mistakes, and react positively, rather than letting emotions take over.

Everyone I spoke with coped with emotions differently and used different techniques.


I don’t enjoy the striking arts anymore. I used to be really into Tae Kwon Do, Kempo karate, and kickboxing. But, one day I woke up and decided that hitting people wasn’t fun, I wanted to try the grappling arts instead. After many years of Judo and jiujitsu, I resumed striking in order to compete in MMA, but I don’t really enjoy it. I wonder if, because of that, I sometimes feel negative emotions when sparring.

Usually it’s only due to getting hit too hard, when I feel someone shouldn’t have thrown something (like an attack aimed to damage, a snap kick to the face that’s hard to block and can break the nose), or if I’m worried about getting a concussion. But, I also get frustrated with myself for doing something stupid. In that case when emotions well up, I get them under control by telling myself that I’m a Jedi and Jedi must never fight with emotions. I circle my partner for about five seconds and breathe deeply. Usually thinking about the Jedi mantra and envisioning the evil Sith gets me to calm down immediately.

What can I say, I’m a big dork. It helps me. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten mad while grappling, though.

Jedi Knight Roxy
Invicta FC

DeJesus explained her own process, “I try and step back and breathe for a few seconds. I think, ‘It’s not worth it. It’s not worth swinging yourself out of line and getting hit again.’ And then you’re not only angry, but you’re angry and dumb for doing that.”

Serena DeJesus (left) vs Courtney King in Fusion Fight League
Fusion Fight League

Dodoro added, “In a fight, I have to control it. I tell myself before I go in there that I have to be very very tactical. Have I gotten mad in fights before? Yes. There was only one I really got mad, because he kept kicking me in the groin — three times! After the third time, my coach pretty much said, ‘Are you pissed now? Are you mad enough?’ So I said told the ref, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ Ten seconds later, he was TKO-ed. But, sometimes I actually have to get mad to bring that aggression out — because I’m a more defensive fighter, in a sense.”

And Zimmerman said, “Control and focus are so important. I was angry once; unfocused, raged. I telegraphed everything. I fought like a wild animal and was manipulated, defeated. I vowed never again to fight angry. At any moment you can win or lose a fight. Emotions, other than becoming that perfect dominant version of myself, often lead to struggles and losses.”


Personally, I believe that positive emotions are good, as long as they don’t go over the top and distract. Negative emotions only hinder, and negatively affect your reactions and performance. A fighter must figure out their own way to think about, deal with, and control emotions. Becoming a successful fighter means not only training physical techniques in the gym, but also learning about yourself and how to handle yourself.

Leading up to my debut fight, fifteen years ago, I wasn’t sure if I should pump myself up with heavy metal music and scream and get all angry – like Goku going Super Saiyan in Dragon Ball Z – or if I should relax and chill out. I tried the first way and ended up walking a path somewhere in the middle. Now, I’ve settled on a “firm determination” mind frame — I listen to rock like Rob Zombie and Metallica and prepare my mind for violence. But it’s cold violence. I never feel anything during a fight.

“The line between anger and aggression can be very fine,” Bell admitted. “To me, anger is not completely a bad thing. You have to use it in a controlled way. It can fuel your aggression if you do it right. There have been times when a good punch to my face almost seemed to wake me up. I get upset but in my head something flips. From there, the feeling of ‘zeroing in’ on my target takes over and I feel everything start to come together seamlessly.”

Amanda Bell
Bellator

“I’m trying to pretend it’s a chess match — a fast paced chess match,” said DeJesus. “I’m anxious but I’m also feeling like I’m fighting for my life. Aggressiveness, a dash of anxiety, basic emotions you feel in a fight or flight situation. Everybody thinks that there’s this third guy in the fight (the ref) to keep it safe, but you could potentially get hit and you could potentially die. So I feel mentally and physically like I’m fighting for my life.”

Emotional control can be practiced in training, but only under extreme circumstances. I’ve only been able to do so when I’m sparring hurt, exhausted, or with a tough training partner.

Only when I’m pushed to my limit can I overcome my limits and grow.

But training is training, not an actual fight. It’s important for a fighter to have people they trust to push them, but not hurt them. Going ‘too hard’ can be a matter of opinion and perspective. Nobody wants to get injured in the gym. Some fighters have had to retire due to concussions that happened while training.

“I often put a limiter on my output, because broken or unfocused training partners can’t train,” Zimmerman said. “They can’t help you grow. I like showing the person that we’re here to spar, not fight. This way they realize, if I match their intensity and turn it up, it’ll not be good. I don’t get paid when sparring people with a chip on their shoulder.”

Eventually, everybody feels emotions differently in different situations. But, from what I can see in fighting, everybody has to work at controlling them in their own ways as well — depending on their personalities. Uncontrolled anger leads to sloppiness and mistakes in fights. There are people, such as myself, who avoid anger at all costs. And some, such as Amanda, who are able to control it, use it as fuel. But either way they key is control and the result is aggression.

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