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Fighting Through Prefight Anxiety

Fighting Through Prefight Anxiety: The Internal Battle Some MMA Fighters Face

A recent article by ESPN UFC analyst Marc Raimondi highlighted a side of MMA that many don’t ever get to see or hear about.

But anyone who has ever competed in a combat sport has likely either felt or seen the impact prefight anxiety can have on a competitor’s performance.

Stepping into an octagon, ring, or mat requires a certain level of mental fortitude. Participating in combat sports that have a mano-a-mano format builds character and confidence. But while many see MMA fighters as elite when it comes to physical strength, there’s a mental side of things that make these “warriors” much more relatable to everyday folks.

“Prefight anxiety is real,” as Raimondi writes in his piece.

The article cites UFC fighters such as Katlyn Chookagian, who lost a title bout to Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 247 over the weekend and said she sometimes thinks “maybe the bus will get in a car accident on the way over (to the arena),” Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who told Raimondi he has “envisioned an asteroid striking the arena” to cancel his fights, Darren Till, who has considered faking an injury to get out of his bouts, and even legends of the sport such as George St-Pierre and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who reminded everyone in prefight promotional videos before his recent TKO loss to Conor McGregor that he throws up before every fight.

“Every fighter thinks of those things,” Till told ESPN. “Every fighter asks themselves before they’re going out for a fight, why are they doing this to themselves?”

So how do fighters deal with prefight anxiety? Thompson told Raimondi that he tries to sleep in the locker room before his fights. UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman relieves his stress by dancing during his walk to the Octagon. But regardless of their outward appearance and expressed confidence, the anxiety of fighting is virtually always present.

“You’re smiling,” Cerrone told Raimondi. “But inside you’re scared.”

I, personally, can attest to much of what was written in Raimondi’s article. Throughout a 13-year amateur wrestling career, prematch anxiety was very real for me. Even against opponents that I knew I could beat, the fear of losing or being seriously injured always crept into my mind.

But I also wholeheartedly agree with something else that was brought up in Raimondi’s transparent piece. Raimondi writes: “The nerves subside when an alternative to fighting is no longer present, when it’s too late for an asteroid hit to cancel the event.”

He quotes Thompson as saying, “Once you get in the Octagon, everything goes away. You know you can’t run away now. There’s nothing I can do to prevent myself from fighting this guy. Once you’re out there, it’s on.”

While wrestling, as soon as I would shake hands at the center of the mat with my opponent and the referee’s whistle blew, all nerves went away and it was “on.”

Along with Thompson, Usman, Till, and Cerrone, Raimondi’s article also gives prefight anxiety testimony from No. 7-ranked middleweight Kelvin Gastelum, No. 3-ranked welterweight Jorge Masvidal, UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, Bellator women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, No. 4-ranked lightweight Justin Gaethje, former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski, UFC welterweight Matt Brown, welterweight Ben Askren, UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, and UFC bantamweight Megan Anderson.

Here are some of the most telling quotes that put this topic into perspective:

Thompson: “Some part of you — knowing it’s not gonna happen — it’s almost like you’re going out to die. To war…A lot of fighters say they’re not — you are. They’re lying. You are definitely scared going out there.”

Gastelum: “I call it a tornado of emotions, because you can get sad, you can get happy, nervous, scared, all at the same time.”

Masvidal: “Once that bell rings … the anxiety leaves. All that leaves and you go from being a stiffmeister to “woo!” Let’s go.”

Cerrone: “They bring you [to the arena] so early, so you’re sitting there backstage watching the fights, watching the clock because you have to figure out how many fights you have [before] I have to start getting ready. But your body’s not ready, for some reason. It’s the worst night of your life. I’m sick, my nerves are crazy, I go and throw up. I throw up every time, still to this day…You’re on live TV and you don’t want to look like an ass out of the gate.”

Macfarlane: “I always experience some form of anxiety. I couldn’t stop crying [before her first Bellator fight in 2018]. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I gonna be able to turn it off when I get to the cage?’ It was pretty gnarly. But I also think it’s a good thing to experience that feeling. Once there’s no anxiety, it’d be a strange sensation. To me, it would almost seem like, do I really want to be doing this or do I even care?”

Brown: “I love it. That’s what we do that s— for. This is a f—ing brutal sport, man. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If the consequences weren’t so high, it wouldn’t be no fun. I mean, people go skydiving, they do it to get scared. If there weren’t no nerves, they wouldn’t do it. What am I doing this for? That’s the game, man. And that’s what I love…You don’t repress it. It’s not good to repress it — you need the nerves. I want to be nervous.”

Anderson: “…if you become at peace with those nerves, and you’re like ‘Yeah, I’m nervous, it’s going to happen, I’m about to get into a fistfight, but I have a job to do.’ If you become at one with that, I think that’s when people traditionally do the best.”

How about you? Have you ever had prefight (prematch, pregame, etc.) anxiety? Do you think it’s a good thing in the grand scheme of things? And how did you overcome it?

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