MMA Psychology: Can religion make you a better UFC fighter?

The invocation of God's will in victory is a divisive feature of mixed martial arts. For many fighters, a celebratory shout-out for the Almighty…

By: James MacDonald | 7 years ago
MMA Psychology: Can religion make you a better UFC fighter?
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The invocation of God’s will in victory is a divisive feature of mixed martial arts. For many fighters, a celebratory shout-out for the Almighty is as intuitive as acknowledging the input of a strength and conditioning coach. But expressions of faith in such a violent, relatively trivial context tend to be polarizing, as a cursory glance at Twitter on any given fight night will confirm. It’s not difficult to see why. Attributing athletic success to divine will appears ripe for ridicule for any number of reasons.

Consider, for example, the implications of voicing the belief that your cage fight tops the list of a deity’s priorities. Such a claim seemingly betrays an almost pathological self-obsession. One might also question the fighter’s sense of sportsmanship, given that he is knowingly entering the cage with an omnipotent tag team partner. Until we devise a test that can identify unnatural levels of the Holy Spirit, testosterone to epitestosterone ratios and IV bans would appear to be the least of our worries.

But in all fairness, it isn’t particularly charitable to go with the most ludicrous interpretation of an individual’s beliefs. Caricature of this sort presupposes all sorts of things about the religious fighter’s perspective. The truth is we often don’t know enough about the worldview that underpins any given post-fight declaration of faith, and said worldview will likely vary from fighter to fighter.

“I would say God both inspires me and intervenes in my contests,” says UFC bantamweight Michael McDonald. “You can’t put a limit on God in any way, shape or form. If he chooses to intervene in the fight, that’s fine. In my first professional fight, I was caught in the deepest guillotine that I’ve ever been caught in, and I was about to pass out, and the guy just lets go for no reason. Things like that have happened, where it doesn’t make any sense to me.

“I think that God intervenes in everything. I think that God gives people a supernatural strength at times.”

“Take my second fight with Cole Escovedo, for example. In our first fight, he took me down and beat the living crap out of me, so it was obvious what he was going to do next time. He’s going to try and do the same thing. Why would he try and stand with me when that’s what I’m best at? But he chose to not try a single takedown and tried to stand with me the entire time, and he ended up getting knocked unconscious in the second round. Those are just a couple of examples of things I can’t explain, or don’t understand, why it happened like that. So in a sense you could say yeah, there was some intervening.”

“I think that God intervenes in everything. I think that God gives people a supernatural strength at times,” echoes former The Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Sanchez. “There have been moments in my career when I’ve had no energy, and all of a sudden I have this inner strength coming from somewhere. For me, that’s God giving me strength… So when I go to fight, I pray for strength. I pray for courage. I pray for the Lord to protect me and keep me safe, and of course I pray for success. With the success that I have, I’m going to bring success to him because my life is nothing more than being here on earth to give Him glory.”

Of course, the notion of divine intervention raises questions about free will. The sincere belief that fighters cannot take credit for personal achievements would seem to undermine any satisfaction they might derive from success. This has all sorts of ramifications, but particularly for an individual’s sense of self-efficacy. If accomplishments merely come at the whim of a divine puppet master, fighters taking pleasure in their own feats appears to make little sense. But then, it’s also possible the secular mind might miss, or fail to appreciate, some other path to fulfillment within this worldview.

“There was a time when I actually got mad and frustrated at God,” says McDonald. “I was like, ‘God, I’ve seen how you’ve intervened. I have seen how you’ve made me win sometimes. Am I even a good fighter? Who am I without you, God? Am I a good fighter at all? Because by the things you’ve made happen, you have made me win when I shouldn’t have.’ The response that I got was shocking and belittling€”in a good way. He just said to me: ‘Without me, you’re nothing.’

“When you just think about it in terms of fighting, it can be a confusing topic because people in general want to think that they are good. People want to think they deserve credit for their accomplishments, and when you just take a glance into the universe, how big some of these stars are, and God can just speak these things into existence. We had nothing to do with our own existence. We just woke up one day, and it was nothing that we did.

“You didn’t earn your family, your life, or anything you have. You didn’t have any say in whether you were born or the destiny that was planned for you. It was just given to you. When you think about it that way, when we start to say things like, ‘How good am I? How big am I?’ Dude, you are a speck. Your life is a vapor. It’s nothing. You are nothing in relation to the world. We think that everything we do is big stuff because we make a little bit of noise down here on earth. We are nothing. When you come to grips with that, it’s amazing when we see that God has marked us by majesty. There’s just awe and thankfulness that God would do this for me.”

Even for a non-believer like me there’s much to agree with here. McDonald is expressing a deterministic worldview, albeit of the theological variety. That our every thought and action is preceded by a chain of prior causes we had no control over is indisputable, and for many people this fact torpedoes the intuition that we have free will. Some religious people might balk at this suggestion, though. The concept of free will does a lot of theological legwork, so believers can occasionally find themselves taking pains to preserve it.

“There are only two plans: God’s plan and Satan’s plan. Our choice is to either live in God’s plan or Satan’s plan.”

“We have to have a choice in something,” McDonald argues. “When you think about God only in one way, it doesn’t make sense. When you just think about Him as a God of mercy, there’s no justice. When you just think about Him as a God of justice, there’s no grace. When you just think about Him as a creator, there’s no plan. He’s all of those things married perfectly together. We want to think we have all these plans, and it’s not true. There are only two plans: God’s plan and Satan’s plan. Our choice is to either live in God’s plan or Satan’s plan. That’s it. That is our only choice in this life.”

Moving beyond this philosophical rabbit hole, a common criticism of religious mixed martial artists stems from the perception that there is tension between their occupation and their faith. For some modern believers, violence is incompatible with the benign version of faith many receive from the pulpit. According to Joe Carter of, this perspective owes much to the publication of Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1896 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? and the resulting movement that emphasized following the example of Jesus.

This requires a rather selective reading of the more well-subscribed holy texts, however. An honest, faithful reading of The Bible or the Quran probably doesn’t get you Mahatma Gandhi. If fighters are so inclined, there is ample content to justify violence of any flavor. The example of Jesus is certainly more compatible with contemporary values, but finding a justification for pure pacifism requires some Olympic-level mental gymnastics. The view that people of faith are duty-bound to eschew all forms of violence is very much a modern invention, and one that isn’t cashed out with reference to scripture. On the contrary, fighters are probably on firm theological ground.

“I’ve had many times where I’ve questioned whether I want to be a professional fighter€”including quite recently. However, I have never once had problems with my job as a fighter in relation to my faith,” claims McDonald. “Anyone that thinks you can’t be a fighter and a Christian doesn’t have a proper understanding of the Gospel, and they don’t understand that Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord. They don’t understand that David was a man of blood and still a man after God’s own heart. They don’t understand how you can be a strong man who loves combat, not someone who’s destructive and wants to hurt people, but a man who loves combat.

“It says that Yahweh is a warrior. David says that God trains my fingers for battle and my hands for war. Think about that. God is so in tune with what I’m doing that he would train me personally. Anyone who doesn’t understand that should really look into the Old Testament€”and even the New Testament. The Christian man is not a weak man sitting in a church service in a suit and tie, who gets slapped in the face and says, ‘I forgive you.’ A Christian man is willing to lay down his life to protect those that he loves.

“People don’t even understand the meaning of [turning the other cheek]. What does that mean? Is it saying I can never stick up for myself? No, not at all. When something wasn’t right, Jesus flipped over tables in the temple. For example, if my wife is upset at me and says something mean, my immediate response should not be to fight her. What it should be is: ‘Have I wronged you? If I have wronged you, I’m sorry. Tell me how you feel, please.’ That is what that verse means.”

As touched upon earlier, the combination of religion and MMA is fertile territory for amateur comedians. Whenever devout fighters square-off, jokes about God picking sides practically trend on Twitter. It’s an obvious avenue for snark, and I’m as guilty of exploiting it as the next heathen hack. When Vitor Belfort was soundly beaten by Jon Jones in 2012, the temptation to poke fun at the Brazilian’s faith was irresistible. Could the fight’s outcome be interpreted as some sort of divine referendum on Belfort’s character? Had the Almighty communicated his preference for Jones in the most painful fashion? How often do fighters consider the theological implications of competing against their fellow believers, and how it might impact their relationship with God?

“When two men of faith fight, those two men of faith both understand that there’s only one winner, that God loves both of us the same,” Sanchez argues. “Our actions are gonna have reactions, and the choices we make are gonna determine what happens in our fight. There have been times in the past when I have fought other men who are believers, and I just leave it in God’s hands. I ask the Lord to bless my skills to be better than they’ve ever been before, bless my training camp, bless my game plan, and to give me the wisdom to be victorious. I feel that the Lord hears our prayers. I have been blessed with many victories, and I’ve had my defeats.”

But what about interpreting a loss in the context of faith? The physical and psychological trauma of losing in mixed martial arts is severe. Setbacks in football, basketball, baseball, tennis, etc. aren’t nearly so consequential. Witnessing a fluffy yellow ball fly past you isn’t quite the same as experiencing a shin to the temple. Over and above the cost to one’s health, the fear of public humiliation and negative social evaluation is at its peak. If a fighter holds God responsible for the outcome of a cage fight, any resulting trauma might be faith-shattering. And yet, this rarely seems to be the case.

“When your identity is not rooted in what you do, it doesn’t have the same effect.”

“Any disappointment, any pain, when you see it in the right perspective it’s not that big of a deal,” says McDonald. “Like when I lost to Renan Barao, in the world’s view that was my big opportunity. I was the youngest fighter in UFC history to get a title shot. I could have outdone Jon Jones by a whole year. And then I lose. I go home and it seems like everything is back to normal. It’s very easy to think, ‘Oh, I’m a failure. I’m this. I’m that. My life is over.’ That’s why people get upset when they lose. They think it says something about them.

“When your identity is not rooted in what you do, it doesn’t have the same effect. So when you have trust in God, you know He’s gonna take care of you. I know that my destiny and my life are secure. So when [setbacks] happen, it’s like, ‘Well OK, I failed. I’m not the championright now at least.’ We all fall short of the glory of God. Everyone fails at something. I bet Ronda Rousey and Anderson Silva never thought they would lose. Everybody loses. You just make the adjustments so it doesn’t happen again.”

“The most devastating loss of my career was when I fought BJ Penn, and I got beaten up really, really bad. I was close to God before the fight, but I had made bad decisions leading up to the fight,” adds Sanchez. “I know that sometimes you are gonna pray for things and the answer is no, and that’s something that people have to struggle in dealing with. Sometimes God says no. Something that happened to me that was hard to deal with was when I trained for Miles Jury. I was extremely prepared, and I made a bad decision. I ate some food that I shouldn’t have, and it affected my system really bad. I had to learn the hard way because I got very sick and had to fight like that. It was so disheartening because I knew I was so much better than how I performed, but I had to accept that it was my fault.”

Even without subscribing to any of the aforementioned supernatural claims, religious faith can still have utility in a sporting context. Through the lens of sports psychology, it isn’t necessarily relevant whether certain beliefs reflect reality. As I wrote back in 2013, even if a fighter’s prayers are ultimately being relayed to a dial tone, beliefs can still confer certain benefits.

“I think the placebo effect is what is operating here,” suggests Dr. Chris Stankovich, founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems. “Specifically, an athlete’s belief in God’s help is really no different at all from another athlete having a strong belief in wearing a particular piece of equipment that he feels ‘lucky’ wearing.  And yes, anytime the placebo effect is in play there is the possibility for an advantage when it comes to performance because of greater belief and self-confidence.”

Invoking the placebo effect isn’t to impugn any of religion’s underlying claims to truth. However, strong religious faith appears to reliably foster mental strength, even when individual beliefs are mutually cancelling. It’s somewhat ironic that sports psychologists can’t advocate for such an effective strategy. After all, religious faith isn’t a tool just anyone can pick up. Wielding a crucifix and a copy of The Bible during your ring walk won’t do you much good if the rest of your time is spent tweeting anti-theist quotes from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Fortunately, becoming devout isn’t the only path to mental resilience. Indeed, given Conor McGregor’s willingness to compare himself favorably to Jesus, it’s safe to assume his unshakable self-belief isn’t rooted in a profound reverence for the divine. There’s a much deeper point to be made about the importance of belief, irrespective of its attachment to scripture.

“I strongly believe that belief is an invaluable, irreplaceable component to maximizing human productivity and success,” continues Dr. Stankovich.  “The question then becomes: where does a person develop belief? For some it is their religion, while others find it through other things that inspire thema dying relative, or simply conviction toward doing something because it is good or right.  The stronger the belief, regardless of its source, the greater the focus and resiliency of the athlete.”

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James MacDonald
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