TUF Guys Cry
Pro fighters are mostly tough guys. Tough guys do indeed cry. And who can blame them? Imagine walking in their shoes.
Let’s say you are a mixed martial artists trying to make it. The UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is not a tournament anymore, but effectively a league. It is far and away the major-league promotional organization for the men.* Like the Major Leagues in baseball, the UFC is quite literally “the show.” Fighters try for years to make an impression and get into the UFC. One of the ways to make it into the show, is to make it onto the show– The Ultimate Fighter, or TUF. It’s a reality show where fighters live and train in isolation in a house in Las Vegas, and participate in an elimination tournament.
So let’s imagine you’re one of these guys. Maybe you’re one of the horde of competitive wrestlers who come up through US high school programs and college programs. Mixed martial arts has created a place for these wrestlers to essentially turn pro, and compete against fighters whose backgrounds include submission grappling (like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), kickboxing and other styles.
You got here by impressing someone at a regional qualifier, or by paying your dues fighting no-names for no money. You’ve got a day job, maybe as a surgical tech or a coach or a personal trainer, while you try to make enough fighting to support yourself, and maybe your family. You’ve got a narrow window. Every month, you learn more and sharpen your skills, but you also get a month older, and age and injuries hamper the body’s ability to recover. If you don’t make it in a few years, you never will.
So you show up at some gym in Mobile or Detroit or wherever for a tryout with two hundred other fighters, and they want to watch you spar with the strikers and roll with the grapplers and see what you have, and you’re good, better than most of the guys there, and you have an interesting story, and out of thousands, you’re picked as one of maybe sixteen or so on the show (the format changes; some seasons they’ve picked 32 who have to win their first fight to stay).
And now you’re in the Fighter House. You’re away from home for months. Maybe you’ve quit your job. Maybe you have a wife or kids at home, and you can’t see them. You’re cooped up with no outside media, living with a bunch of strangers, each of whom you may have to beat to win. The tournament finals are on national TV and the winner gets a six-figure contract, and a few other fighters from the show make an impression and get to appear in the UFC. This is your shot. Maybe you think you can win. Even if you don’t, if you’re good and exciting, at least your undercard fights will have some money, an audience and the potential to move you closer to the title picture. Maybe you don’t know what else to do if this doesn’t work out.
When the fighters walk in with their split-finger gloves on for the fights on the show, there are years of work walking with them. Wrestling or boxing or martial arts training often since adolescence. Sweating to make weight, pulling the skin off chicken, measuring and weighing portions. Injuries and MRIs and bruises and training through pain.
Frustration. The breadth of mixed martial arts means constantly filling holes in your game. Fights start on the feet. The fighters approach and throw strikes from long range- leg kicks, jabs. The better strikers have the advantage. A wrestler who can’t defend against a good striker may get knocked out before ever attempting a takedown. Fighters who would rather wrestle have to do a lot of boxing and kickboxing. Whoever is less good at striking usually tries to take the action to the mat. The greatest striker’s best weapons are neutralized if he can’t avoid a takedown, so the fighter who would rather punch and kick spends a lot of time wrestling, learning to sprawl to thwart the takedown or to get back to his feet. The successful strikers are not just good on their feet, but good at staying on their feet. Whatever you do well, you spend so much of your time doing the things you are crap at, so they don’t hold you back. Get punched. Stop. Listen to the striking coach tell you why you keep getting hit. Do it again.
They say everyone’s got a plan until they get hit. Fantastic strikers walk in thinking, “my jab will freeze this guy. I can stuff his takedown, keep him on his feet, pick him apart and knock him out. My whole family will watch it on TV.” And they get run over, dumped on their backs, stuffed up against the cage. Jiu jitsu wizards think, “I’ll submit this guy. He’ll leave an arm loose and I’ll lock onto it and he’ll tap,” only to find themselves pinned against the chain-link octagon in a standing clinch, trying to dodge elbows and knees.
But maybe your plan is working. Maybe the first five-minute round went your way and you probably are ahead on the scorecards. You’re tired, but he looks more tired than you. All you have to do is follow the plan again: avoid the big punch, scoop up his dangerous, gangly kickboxer’s legs and keep him on the mat where you can control the fight. You just did it, and you know you can do it again. Keep your guard up. You know exactly what you need to do.
It takes a long time to make that conversion. Wrestlers bend over, hands low, looking to grab legs, but they can’t do that in mixed martial arts. But you’ve had thousands of hours to learn this. Chin down, hands up. And you get the takedown, but the action stalls on the ground in the middle of the round. Two long minutes left. The ref stands you up, and everything is going to plan, and all you have to do is get the takedown again, score some points, not fall into an easy submission and you’ll take this round and the fight, and show you can beat a good striker.
And when the ref stands you up, that lanky spider of a man sees that your hands are low before you realize it, and while you’re thinking about how to shoot for a takedown, his shin is whistling over your left hand, past your shoulder …
It’s all very fuzzy, and then the world is bright sunlight and the camera crew is standing in front of you and you’re in your warmup clothes being interviewed about the loss, your second round knockout at the hands of the guy you were sure you had beat. Just a lapse, just a blink – there are so many ways to lose. The world’s best heavyweight lost his body position against a submission specialist and tapped out. One of the best middleweights had the belt all but won and then made a mistake. One strike, one takedown, one submission – the mistakes they train not to make, sometimes they make. The mistakes they train to recover from are sometimes unrecoverable.
As the camera crew rolls tape, you realize that when the show airs in a few months, your family is going to watch you lose, and you’re not going to fight in the UFC, and you’re now farther from your goal than you’ve been in a long time, and your chance to get to the UFC through the show has come and gone and will never come again.
And that’s when they cry. Wouldn’t you?
*Some organizations have women, but not yet the UFC. One of the issues is that all the major pipelines for the men — academic wrestling, full-contact striking forms and submission grappling — are open to but not popular with women. If there were more women wrestlers, more women grapplers and more women in Muay Thai, there would be a fuller talent pool for women in mixed martial arts.