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Forgiving Filho

MMA fight cards are fueled by wishful thinking. In the final weeks leading up to a big event, training injuries can easily sideline half the fighters. Sometimes it seems that the human body is just not meant to handle the extreme training drills cooked up by elite coaches. Trainers obsessively search for a way to give their fighters a physical edge—whether it’s weight-cutting to the lowest possible class, training in high-altitudes, or even drinking a little pee from time-to-time.

An element of training that often goes unmentioned is developing and maintaining a strong mental focus. On top of the unpleasantness of weight cutting and weeks of incessant training, fighters still have to deal with all the normal sources of stress–family, friends, money etc. Power, speed, cardio and even technical skills mean nothing without the heart to keep it together. Sometimes the pressure can be overwhelming. Karo Parysian has had a very public battle with anxiety attacks, which cost him his UFC contract last fall. Also, anxiety was aapparently a factor in Phillipe Nover’s fainting in the locker before his scheduled fight with Rob Emerson.

Fighters sometimes over-compensate for nerves with excessive smack talk, working themselves into a rage, or ritualistic chanting–see Diego Sanchez’s “yes-cartwheels”. But excessive confidence can backfire and keep in the wrong line of work for a long time. One has to wonder what goes through the mind of Tim Wills (0-18), Akira Omura (0-15) or Mike Suttles (3-31) before they step into the cage. Ideally, a fighter needs to find a middle ground between an emotional vacuum and being a glutton for punishment.

Confidence and motivation are serious issues for a lot of fighters, but the most notorious mental battle has to be inside 18-1 middleweight Paulo Filho. Filho’s first sign of trouble was his bizarre performance against Chael Sonnen at WEC 36 on November 5, 2008. Not only did he (the 185lb champ) come in four pounds overweight (making the bout a meaningless non-title catchweight) but he spent the whole fight drifting through a cycle of apathetic, confused and sleepy. He had an impressive performance the following summer against Melvin Manouef, but then didn’t show up to fight Yoon Dong-Sik in October 2009. So far in 2010, Filho withdrew, re-committed, and canceled again the day before a February 25th fight against Yuki Sasaki. And this past week he pulled out of a fight with Bellator Middleweight champ Hector Lombard, claiming visa troubles that were not confirmed by the promoter.

Filho’s actions would be more understandable if he had been coming off a savage loss, or starting to feel past his prime. But the man is young, incredibly talented and dominant in the middleweight division; his mind is simply elsewhere. More aggravating is that fans have never gotten a real explanation from Filho (apparently there’s some combination of substance abuse and depression). While Nover and Parysian were immediately open and honest with their incidents, fans only hear general explanations from Filho’s manager, Ed Soares, who shrugs and says that Filho has personal demons.

Fighting can bring out newfound confidence problems in anyone. And for those with pre-existing issues, there’s no reliable training tool to overcome the additional pressure. Whacking a tire with a sledgehammer and carrying a giant rock underwater won’t solve personal problems. Most people don’t even like to speak front of crowds, let alone performing in front of thousands while needing a win bonus for a decent paycheque. Furthermore, fighting can be a very isolating, lonely business. All the coaches, teammates and mountains of advice are irrelevant once the cage door shuts; everything rests on the individual fighter.

In most sports, a crisis of confidence can be quietly subdued. A goalie, pitcher or quarterback who’s playing unusually bad simply gets replaced with an alternate. Competent follow-up performances overshadow a single bad night, and the player’s career keeps chugging along. But in fighting, the only way to get out is to quit, which means a professional loss and probably walking papers. There is no team to fall back on, and a loss is much more visceral; being physically dominated is scarring to the ego of even the most hardened athletes.

Everyone has a breaking point. Forrest Griffin (a former police officer) burst into tears after losing via TKO at the hands of Keith Jardine. Mirko Filipovic? (a Croatian Special Forces officer) said he wanted to hang himself in his hotel room, after verbally submitting to Junior Dos Santos. And at UFC 113, Kimbo Slice, a man who happily walked into street fights for years, had a funny expression on his face after eating some leg kicks from Matt Mitrione–a bemused look that seemed to say “Why do I do this to myself?”

MMA fighters are the toughest guys in the world, but unyielding mental fortitude may not only be ellusive, but simply unattainable.

11 COMMENTS
  • Brendhan Conlan says:

    Nice perspective, excellent piece.

  • fanoftna33 says:

    Great article except Forrest loss to Jardine by tko. Very interesting topic to be discussing as lots of people are mad about Paulo cancelling all of these bouts, but really a lot of the blame should fall on promoters trying to pressure him into fights when very clearly he is nowhere near ready to fight.

  • CrispyTaylor says:

    Great article except Forrest loss to Jardine by tko. Very interesting topic to be discussing as lots of people are mad about Paulo cancelling all of these bouts, but really a lot of the blame should fall on promoters trying to pressure him into fights when very clearly he is nowhere near ready to fight.  

    CRAP! You’re right, it was a TKO. Not sure where I got split decision from, thanks for pointing that out.

    Chris

  • whipper says:

    Man ive been a fan of this site for a while, and this is hands down one of my favorite articles i have read. It really hits home, ive been training for years, and i know what its like when things just arent right in your mind things take a turn for the worse in competition, and in training. One person i think alot of people over look on this subject is Karo Parisyan he is good, but a head case now, and they throw him out of the ufc. It happens, and it happens to alot of people depression, anxiety, not a clear mind…I think you pretty much just have to try to clear that as best as possible, and continue doing what you love best. Its awesome you mention paulo filho because anytime i mention a great up and coming fighter like Jose Aldo, or Jon Jones, i always say yeah they are going to be great for a long time unless they become a headcase like Paulo Filho. It stinks because Filho is so talented, my friend, and old boss refereed his fight against against Sonnen here in Florida, and he told me in that Filho wasnt even there he would look passed Sonnen, and like talk like if he was seeing something. Alot of people dont know but he ended up going to the hospital after the fight because he just wasnt right. He had just got out of rehab not long before that so i mean life takes it toll on people, and stuff happens. You know fighters go out there, and train, and try there hardest maybe they are not the best maybe they are jerks but it takes alot to train, and step into a ring against another man. Great post!

  • rage says:

    Holy crap i did not know phillipe nover fainted before the emerson fight aswell,i know he fainted before the stout fight and it got called off poor dude

  • Great job on the article. It really isn’t a joke when they say fighting is more mental than physical. It is not easy to freely fight up to your full potential when your mind isn’t right. There are always things holding you back and weighing you down, it just depends how strong you are mentally so those mental issues are just seen as little distractions than big problems.

  • MCM says:

    You make an excellent point, but it doesn’t change anything. If Filho is not ready to fight he should not be signing contracts. You mention Forrest breaking down in tears to Jardine, but he won the LHW belt three fights later. This is a job that demands everything from you, either you thrive on that pressure or you don’t. If not, that’s OK, there are other lines of work. I’m not going to give Paulo a pass on his “demons” cause (as you pointed out) every fighter has them and deals with them. And some may go 0-18 but at least they still show.

  • Rece Rock says:

    Good article and I like the originality of the topic… My only issue is at the end of the day it’s there livlihood to fight, If the pressure and other emotions are too much for them
    then maybe they need to select a different means of income cause they only hurt them, and fans if they no show or cause other issues…good article none the less .

  • hindsightufuk says:

    makes a change to see a fairly well written piece on here these days.

    good points from MCM

  • Genesis says:

    Having had severe depression and anxiety issues I can understand the issue. It got so bad that I couldn’t answer the door or leave the house during the day.
    However, a friend took me to a jiu jitsu class and that changed everything. I still remember driving home, sore, mat burned and sweaty thinking “I can’t wait to go back.” MMA got me out of my shell.

  • LiverPunch says:

    It is hard to understand what someone is going through if you are not in the same boat. Even if you are in the same situation, you must realize, you are not the same person.

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