Lessons from the cage: Part 1

Written by Graham Kuerschner

We’re often at pains to point out the vast gulf that exists between reality-based self-defence training and MMA, but it’s also worth looking at their many similarities.  

 Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Now even though the UFC is a sport combat entertainment business, every system has something to teach. Let’s start with the most important lessons; those to do with the mind. Each point is not mutually exclusive; they do overlap.

Lesson #1

Talk is cheap. It’s a feature of promoting fights that participants talk themselves up and talk down their opponents with ‘smack talk’. Many believe their own hype — that is, until they enter the cage, the contest starts and reality bites.

This lesson carries over. In that time before a confrontation goes physical, pay little attention to someone mouthing off at you. It’s all talk as they rant about what they are going to do to you or how good their system and their training is and, conversely, how rubbish your system or your training is. Just think: barking dog.

These people are the victims of their egos and dare I say insecurities riding on the back of their imagination. Problem is, imagination is not subject to the laws of reality. And in any clash between imagination and reality, reality wins every time.

Lesson #2

The fight is usually won or lost in the mind. You can see it in the losing fighter’s eyes even though you’re watching it on TV. The fight might still be going but it’s really over. They’re beaten, mentally. The eyes say it first and the body language quickly follows to reinforce the message.

It can be the skill of the opponent in dominating them, but it is also often that bite of reality when imagination and reality clash. It’s when they imagined it was going to play out in a certain way and reality crushed that illusion. I’ve had it. For me it was a cross between confusion — ‘how could this be?’ — and a sickness with the realisation that reality was asserting itself and I was in a bad place I hadn’t expected to be in. The bonus of a televised spectacle like the UFC is that you get to see this play out for real with fighter after fighter.

You must train the mind as well as the body to function under the duress of combat. It’s one thing to train in the gym, it’s another to step into harm’s way and put yourself in front of someone who has bad intentions.

Lesson #3

Attack the opponent’s mind — a logical follow-on from the last two lessons and something that is at the core of what I teach. In the UFC it varies in its form from smack talk tuned to the specific opponent, to being unpredictable, to applying constant pressure, to masking you’re hurt when your opponent gets in a good shot. And in the UFC, as often can be the case in the street, the fight starts well before physical contact is made, meaning you start attacking the opponent’s mind at the earliest opportunity.

Lesson #4

Develop grit and controlled aggression. Training must lift the bar on a person’s ability to embrace the grind. Training must develop the confidence and ability to ‘pull the trigger’ and strike when the opportunity presents itself. I find this to be the most challenging part of being an instructor: taking people who lack these qualities and are therefore potential victims, and somehow instilling these attributes in them to give them a fighting chance.

Lesson #5

Keep the emotions in check. Too much emotion when a fighter is desperate to win or desperate to score with a knockout, or just desperate to make the other pay for some verbal put-down, usually backfires.

Read more expert advice here.