Who becomes a fighter? — The science behind the passion

What is it that defines the competitive mindset? What turns hobbyists into full-time fighters? Researchers are looking for answers.

By: Christopher A Baker | 2 months ago
Who becomes a fighter? — The science behind the passion
We're hard at work to discover just what makes fighters tick.

Public Enemy dropped the essential It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, the movie Colors redefined the meaning of red and blue, and a 7-year-old boy from Montreal walked into a Kyokushin dojo to learn how to deal with bullies. The year was 1988. Three and a half decades later, what do they have to show for it?

Chuck D and Flava Flav are hip-hop royalty. Sean Penn and Robert Duvall are feature film icons. And that first-grader from Montreal? He became arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time.

Georges St-Pierre is far from the only decorated combat athlete to find motivation in childhood trauma. Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, and Anderson Silva are just a few of the many great MMA fighters that tell a similar story. It’s no wonder that Daniel Larusso’s fictional journey from punching bag to Karate Kid resonated with so many people, just as the updated Cobra Kai does today. But most adolescents don’t pursue training to crane kick their abuser, and there are lots of reasons why people train that have nothing to do with bullying.

In the pre-Bloody Elbow days of 2006, Matt Hill from MMA Weekly asked some independent contractors on the UFC’s roster why they chose the life of a fighter. Their responses ranged from “the competition” to “the money” to “proving that training works,” among others. Cat Zingano famously started training to get in shape after having her son. There are equally good ways to get in shape that don’t involve head trauma, though. There are lots of ways to make money that don’t involve groin strikes.

There’s an almost endless number of ways to be competitive—even one-on-one competitions—that don’t involve losing consciousness. Something draws people into this life. Something separates Christian Bale playing a superhero from Roger Huerta KOing a football player twice his size who put hands on a woman. Can research help us understand what that something is?

A 2021 study found competitive fighters were more driven by self-expression than self defense

Zsheliaskova-Koynova (2021) investigated the reasons why people train a martial art or combat sport, and what differentiates those that train from those that take the next step and compete. The researcher found that non-competitors were more interested in self-defense and getting fit while competitors were more driven by the pursuit of competition and the beauty of the sport. Pretty much what readers would expect.

What they might not expect is that the same two motivations topped the list for both competitors and non-competitors. Namely, “Feeling Good” and “Development of the Will.” The researcher concludes that the most preferred motives for training a marital art or combat sport are positive emotional experiences (e.g.,feeling good, pleasure and thrill) and personal improvement (e.g., volition development, personal growth, self-confidence). This is what draws people in. In contrast, spiritual, social, and financial motivations were weak motives for participating.

That personal improvement tops the list while social motivations near the bottom illustrates the almost monk-like individualism of combat sports. As a former failed wrestler, I can say that both the individual one-on-one competition and the team comradery were positive parts of the sport in my experience. Wrestling has both individual and team medals, however. There is no team reward in MMA.

A key drive for fighters and martial artists is the positive feelings practicing the arts bring

Perhaps more attention should be paid, then, to ‘feeling good’ being the top choice for both competitors and non-competitors. This was a bit of a surprise to me. Everyone wants to feel good, but I don’t remember that motivating anyone in my wrestling room. Most of the time we felt pretty awful to be honest. There must be something different about the experience of training martial arts. It’s sounds more, well, therapeutic. Almost, medicinal.

Few authors chronicled the insatiable drive to feel good better than the late Anthony Bourdain. Whether food, alcohol, cigarettes, women, or heroin, Bourdain described the self-destructive nature of his unquenchable hedonistic impulses. His final addiction was to combat sports, BJJ to be precise. In 2018, not long before his tragic suicide, Mr. Bourdain told Charles Thorp of Men’s Journal the following:

“Look, I’m an addict. There is something that ticks for me. I find myself going to pretty great lengths to get my time in. I train wherever I go. No matter what city I’m in, if there is a gym that calls itself Jiu Jitsu, I will be there.”

Bourdain is describing a drug experience. He’s saying that BJJ provokes the same behavior in him today that heroin did to him in the 70s. Well maybe that’s a stretch, but at the very least he’s saying that combat-sports training filled the void. If you are the one-in-six Americans (or anyone frankly) that struggles with substance addiction, you know the void well and you know how hard it is to fill. I certainly do. That BJJ did this for someone like Bourdain speaks to it’s curative powers. That’s a pretty attractive feature for any sport.

Read the rest of this article on Bloody Elbow’s Substack

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About the author
Christopher A Baker
Christopher A Baker

Christopher A Baker, PhD is a cognitive scientist at UIC studying memory and indicators of in-group/out-group status. He is an avid fight fan and failed high school wrestler.

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