Born to be Bad: The dark personas of MMA

By Gareth A. Davies

 

Fighting personalities differ enormously, but why do some fighters prefer to be ‘badass’ in their public personas, and are there benefits that help them succeed in the cage? Why do the likes of Nick and Nate Diaz, Ronda Rousey, Rose Namajunas, Donald ‘Cowboy Cerrone, Conor McGregor and Jon Jones seem to thrive as the bad guys in the sport? How exactly does that me-against-the-world mentality work? Do fighters develop that character, or is it there inside them ready to emerge?

 

MIND CONTROL

One of the most intimidating fighters of all time was Mike Tyson, the former undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, who was self-styled as ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’. And yet why, in later life, has he revealed that it was just an act?

A group of sports psychologists explain the reasoning behind why these renowned fighters have harnessed an extra weapon in their armoury to Fighters Only – being bad, and intimidating opponents.

Jim Afremow, a sports psychology consultant, says the mind is the athlete. “The body is what the mind uses to accomplish its goals,” explains the PhD mind academic from the University of Arizona. The creation of personas is normal, yet unique to each individual.

“Why do people develop badass personas? Behind every persona is always a story,” says Afremow. “For example, Kobe Bryant explained that he created his ‘Black Mamba’ alter-ego in 2003 as a way to maintain his competitive edge on the court while dealing with a very public sexual assault charge, along with being lambasted in the media and heckled by fans.

“Again, the bad-guy persona can serve as a form of intimidation – reputation and swagger – and a psychological defence against vulnerability to criticism.” Nowhere is this more fitting than in fight sports – and within the ultra-critical world of MMA.

Brian McCready, a mind coach who has worked with boxers and mixed martial artists, goes one step further. “Fighters play the bad guy outside of the cage because there are huge benefits. You have to sell the narrative of being the bad guy to the subconscious mind.

“To just turn up on the night and play the part is not enough. We have to live it, our talk has to echo it, just as when a fighter speaks to a rival or at fight press conference.

“The most important person listening is not the opponent, but our own powerful subconscious mind, especially when this is done with heightened emotion. Conor McGregor is a master at it. ‘I am the bad man, I will do this I will do that’. It becomes a given to the ‘super mind’. I think it, I feel it, therefore I am.”

 

KEEP IT REAL

David Mullins, a sports psychologist who has worked closely with SBG fighters, says: “Actually I don’t believe the fighters we are referring to prefer to be bad. Conor, Jones, Cerrone, the Diaz Brothers… They are being themselves – their authentic selves. A genuine competitiveness coming out in them. So when Conor or others are expressing their authentic selves it can have the double benefit of putting them in the mindset they want to be in and also taking the opponent out of their ideal mindset. It just so happens that this is perceived as bad. But the benefits are also huge from a marketing point of view and selling a fight.”

Crucially, though, it has to be genuine. Mullins adds: “The fighter themselves must be able to separate the hype from the performance. For the trash talk to work, it must be natural. I want my fighters to be themselves and to do things because it’s what they want to do. The benefit is that it puts you in the frame of mind you want to be in.

“Nate being Nate, for example, or Conor being Conor. But a side effect might be that the opponent gets put off by it all. That has to be seen as a bonus. But it can’t be the reason to do it. Because what happens if the opponent is not impacted and doesn’t react negatively? Then it can backfire.”

A case in point may have been McGregor’s contest with Diaz at UFC 196 earlier this year. Arguably, the mind games may not have worked for the Irishman. “I don’t think Nate was intimidated, no,” concedes Mullins. “I actually think he enjoyed it all. He mentioned in that interview after he beat Michael Johnson that the others were beat in the press conferences. So it’s something he was conscious of and planned for.

“I don’t see it as an alter ego – more so their competitiveness coming out. Alter ego implies it to be an act. But for the likes of Conor, Ronda, the Diaz brothers and Jones it’s really who they are and no act. We have seen others try to impersonate this style and I think we can all see though it and the benefits are not there as opponent doesn’t believe it either. That’s why it has to be genuine, authentic.”

But Mullins warns against this over-use of the persona too. “The problem is what happens if you need to see weakness in the opponent for you to be able to do your best work and the opponent doesn’t budge,” he states. “That’s why I always like to see the mind games with an opponent as a bonus. The main mental battle is internal… Can the fighter perform to the level they desire?”

 

THE DARK SIDE

Brian Cain, a sports mind coach who has worked with the likes of Georges St Pierre and Michael Bisping, believes there is a simple duality in the badass persona. “Fighters do this probably as much to help sell fights as they do for a mental edge. After all, this is a business of sport for them. But it may also aid in the don’t-give-a-f**k mentality that you will often need to put it all on the line in the cage,” he says.

“This is about fighters creating a mindset for themselves that they are confident, perhaps playing on the intimidation card, though at the higher levels of competition, I don’t believe intimidation is a factor. It’s more about the person saying it to help their own insecurities and build their mindset.”

That aspect is fascinating when the case of Tyson is raised with our experts. All four sports psychologists weigh in on the former heavyweight boxing champ. Afremow explains: “Tyson’s troubled childhood gave rise to his ‘Iron Mike’ front as he channelled all of his fear and rage into boxing. That’s incredible energy.

“In competition, he was able to unleash that energy and obliterate his opponents. Although he presented himself in public as powerful and fearless, he later acknowledged regularly feeling unstable and insecure. Perhaps this is what he meant about his professional persona being all an act.”

Mullins sees a different nuance. “What I believe Mike Tyson meant was that the intimidation tactics he would use were an act because he was genuinely scared. All fighters are (scared) on some level. It’s not about not being nervous or having doubts or fear… It’s about doing it anyway and performing to your best under the pressure. So when he was trying to intimidate opponents he was also overcoming his own fears.”

Cain believes Tyson’s raison d’être was to project confidence and toughness. “You will find that everybody has self-doubt and fighters or boxers never feel confident. They always feel scared. They are going to get punched in the face.

“Physiologically you are not going to feel normal or confident. You have to learn to act differently than how you feel so you will start to feel how you act. This is called James-Lange Theory. It’s the science behind fake it until you make it and Tyson did this as do many fighters I have worked with.”

McCready, meanwhile, sees it another way. He sees the persona as being deep inside the fighter.

“He was ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson – The Baddest Man on the Planet. He was saying, ‘I refuse to be beaten.’ At his peak he never was. What’s happening at a cellular level is even more fascinating – 50-70 trillion cells with tiny receptor sites also buying the story. Simply because we play the part, the physiology must respond, but we have to play it with absolute belief inside and outside of the cage. If this is done right, it is extremely powerful.”

Just as Mullins believes fighters’ badass personas must be authentic, Afremow and McCready theorise the desire to be ebullient and dominant may have been set in childhood. Afremow says this comes from a complex set of early indicators. “The me-against-the-world mentality reflects a belief system established in childhood for adaptive or survival purposes. That is, either bully or be bullied.”

McCready agrees: “Many of the traits of that persona with bad intentions is set between the ages of zero and seven, when the brain is forming. We are influenced by our early lives. It might have come through adversity, or the realisation even then that they are ultra-competitive, and they are striving to be at the top of the pecking order as they see things. It’s an animal instinct to survive and thrive. It goes very deep.”

 

BREAKING BAD

McGregor aside, Jones and Chael Sonnen have created dark personas in different ways. Jones was pilloried in some quarters for the way he walked away from choking Lyoto Machida, and for mocking Daniel Cormier after victory over his hated rival.

Mullins says it may well be his true competitive self coming out: “Jones walking away from Machida looks bad but I just think in the moment it’s what he felt. It wasn’t a planned thing, it just happened. What would be interesting is if he chokes someone else out with a standing guillotine. The Cormier taunting is competitiveness and now that turns out to have a benefit heading into the rematch. A mental edge for Jones.”

While Cain adds: “Jones is celebrating that he just won a fight. When you are in a fight you do things that you often regret later because of the emotion of the situation. Celebration like that is out of emotion. You can’t hold that against him. He trained hard, won and then celebrates.

“You see that all the time from fighters and then afterwards they shake hands hug and are cordial. It’s an emotional orgasm of celebration after a fight and win. I don’t read into how people celebrate victories very much into their mindset.”

Sonnen is even more intriguing. The ‘American Gangster’ taunted opponents with tongue-lashing, notably Anderson Silva. “Sonnen is an interesting case. Perhaps his was a bit more of a persona that he developed and an understanding of how the fight game worked,” muses Mullins.

Cain sees this, too: “This is the art of trash-talking and it sells fights. Sonnen did it very well. Muhammad Ali did it and McGregor is maybe the best of all time. Both he and Chael were able to create a fan base and sell fights by doing this.

“It fits for them and they both know how to flip the switch when the camera comes on. They’re entertainers and back it up in the cage. You don’t see this as much in other sports because often their salary is fixed, against a culture tied to the number of pay-per-view buys in MMA or boxing.”

So the benefits of having a dark, or badass persona, or being perceived in such a way, are broad, according to Afremow. “The bad-guy persona in sports can serve numerous purposes. Intimidation – the fighter verbally bullies an opponent in an effort to psych themselves up for battle and to simultaneously psych-out their opponent, that is, throw them off of their game.

“Then there’s recognition. People crave social recognition. When positive recognition is lacking, people often seek whatever type of recognition they can get, including the negative kind. Because humans are social animals, no recognition is typically experienced as much worse than negative recognition or being perceived as the bad guy.”

It also helps marketing. “Outrageousness or outlandishness can pay off big in professional sports,” Afremow states. “Notoriety can build a large following of fans, as well as ‘haters’ who love to root against them. This can result in big contracts and lucrative endorsements.”

Finally, there’s respect. “The bad-guy persona can serve as a psychological defence against vulnerability to criticism,” adds Afremow, “as well as motivational fuel (it’s me against the world). In other words, others may not like you but they’re going to have to respect you.”

Without the bad guys, fight sports would not be such an interesting place.

*** This feature originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***