MMA Fighters Have Feelings Too

Professional fighters are supposed to be infinitely stoic and fearless. But according to a new study, they actually experience fear like anyone else, and employ complex techniques to manage it. It's almost like men have feelings or something.

In a paper published this month in Social Psychology Quarterly, Christian Vaccaro and his co-authors point out that men are often stereotyped as emotionless, or at least as out of touch with their emotions and inept at managing them. They add,

Gendered feeling rules that implore men not to express shame, pain, love, or fear [...] further create the impression that men's emotional lives are muted. It would seem, however, that keeping so many emotions under control would require much work.

Indeed, when they talked to mixed martial arts fighters (whom, they argue, most people view as "credibly masculine"), they found lots of fear. MMA fighters face the risk of injury (during the study, "local fighters suffered dislocated ribs and concussions, Louis tore his ACL, Rocky broke his foot and seriously injured his back, Lou broke his wrist and finger, and Dominic's retina became detached from his eye twice") or even death every time they enter the cage. They also face humiliation if they lose — the study authors heard spectators chant, "Bitches get stitches, pussies get fucked!'' and other misogynistic and emasculating taunts at the losers of various fights.

Fighters readily admitted to fearing both injury and losing (though they typically described such fears as "nerves"), and they employed various strategies for managing these fears. The study authors identified a variety of management techniques, including "scripting," where fighters develop a detailed game plan to focus on instead of their own fear, and "othering," in which fighters convince themselves they are stronger, better, and/or smarter than their opponents. Perhaps the most interesting technique is "framing" — the fighters reframe fights not as scary opportunities to get their retinas detached, but as "(a) just another day in the gym, (b) business, and (c) a valuable experience." The authors quote a fighter named Isaac recalling a time he used this technique:

When I showed up . . . all those doubts crept into my mind. Doubts like, "Why in the hell am I doing this?'' There is obviously a risk of having your face punched in. . . . "Why am I doing this to myself? Why do I put myself in this position?" So for me what works is just to sit back . . . and say, "I'm doing something that is so important to me. And it is something that I want to do so badly. And that this is something that I am going to remember for a long time. That is why this is making me this nervous."

What's remarkable about this anecdote is how much it sounds like it could come from a women's magazine. It's fascinating to hear something constructed as stereotypically masculine — getting once's face punched in — rendered in the language of self-actualization, achieving one's dreams, and creating meaningful memories. What Vaccaro and his co-authors show so compellingly is that even when engaged in pursuits that many might think of as hypermasculine, men have feelings that they consciously process and manage. Of course, this should be a surprise to no one. But when men are frequently portrayed as emotionless lumps who only know how to fight and fuck, it's worthwhile to remind everyone that their emotional lives are actually quite complex — even when they're beating each other up.

Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting And Fostering Fear In Mixed Martial Arts [Social Psychology Quarterly]