Arresting the Ego: MMA’s Quest to Become a Legitimate Sport

Jon Joes
Jon Jones via Twitter
There is such a fine line between confidence and arrogance. That line is flirted with in almost all forms of competition. This writer could tell stories of near fistfights at chess tournaments. As ridiculous and comedic as that sounds (and it is both), it’s true.

Whenever there are scores or wins and losses, there is room for the old ego to be ignited into action — to act toward growth in confidence and ability, or to act in defense of the fragile ego. It is no wonder many martial arts schools have a sign that reads, “Leave your ego at the door.”

Since its inception, mixed marital arts has had a less-than-illustrious reputation in the public eye. While there is an attempt at forgetting that sordid past, it has not even been a decade since MMA has been legal in the lower 48 states. Yes, there was a boon with Fox/ESPN deals, Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, etc., but it was only a short time ago when it was being argued at both the state and national level whether MMA was akin to “human cockfighting” and a gladiatorial bloodsport. Believe it or not, that is still not a settled issue.

In those early days, one refrain was that these were violent people prone to social delinquency. The campaign trail at the time had wholesome math teachers like Rich Franklin going on talk shows to prove that even good boys with education and family can do this thing that is seen as outside the spectrum of decency. It actually worked.

Modern MMA fans may not know how much it helped our beloved sport get accepted as something tenable and even respectable that honorable men and women and true martial artists took up the cause to make sure people knew that boxing is not the only combat sport that is sweet. This writer remembers Clay Guida shouting out his carpenters union! The operative idea here is that it was true martial artists who championed the sport as just that — a sport.

But under the skin of this movement, the fact remained that mixed in with these proposed athletes were indeed good old-fashioned tough-guy fighters, and sanctity meant two different things depending on whom you listened to.

On the one hand, there were those presenting a sport — with regulation, safety protocols and professionalism in the organizations, the commissions (once regulated) and the athletes. On the other hand, you had those who wanted purity, hostility, less restraint/restriction and even in some cases no rules. Time doesn’t permit the history lesson showing the Gracie family’s intent to test arts against each other or backyard brawls with men like Kimbo Slice, but suffice it to say that MMA has a very checkered past when it comes moving toward anything like legitimacy.

Sandwiched in this strange and sometimes dysfunctional story are those who seemed to “live the gimmick,” as pro-wrestling aficionados would say. This was and is true on both sides of the athlete-vs.-fighter paradigm. There are the fighter types who genuinely had and have trouble being anything other than a fighter. They have trouble fitting in and settling down. They often have psychological baggage and even lasting effects that linger from their time in the fight sport. Recent news of veterans like Jason “Mayhem” Miller and Stephan Bonnar and their troubles cause discomfort to all who follow.

On the other side are those trying to live the professional athlete storyline and have their own run-ins with the law such as Jon Jones and Conor McGregor, who seem to be living right in line with the public displays of athletic celebrity.

At the core of all this is that opening discussion of the fine line between confidence and arrogance. Or the place of ego in MMA. It is a heck of a thing to have your value as a person or professional be so directly measured by an actual hand-to-hand combat situation. There are few things so blunt an object to one’s confidence as a loss in a fight with another person you are supposed to be evenly matched with.

Some have dealt with it masterfully and have done what great martial artists of all ages have done and remained a white belt in the ego while demonstrating their black-belt skills in competition. Others have had costly consequences for, whatever the nuanced reasons may be, not being able to arrest that dreaded ego. It seems it will either be arrested in training and competition by those who embrace the rules and the direction of the sport, or it will be arrested by life when those who enforce the rules have to put it in check.

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