Ever since Kimo Leopoldo entered the octagon at UFC 3 carrying a large cross on his back – the idea of religion and mixed martial arts co-existing has been an omnipresent.
It’s now almost a shock when a fighter actually doesn’t thank God or dedicate his victory to the big man upstairs after destroying his opponent.
Some go even further. American lightweight, ‘Handsome’ Matt Wiman – after starching Brazilian, Thiago Tavares with a right hook at UFC 85 – proceeded to read from a bible during his post fight interview.
The victor spoke to Fighters Only later that night: “I don’t think it’s an issue that a punch people in the face and give glory to God because fighting is a sport.
“We aren’t hitting out of anger, jealousy or rage, but out of competitiveness.”
The notion of beating someone up and then giving thanks to God is hard for many to get their head around. Online MMA forums are packed full of such debate.
Is a fighter genuine in his/her religious beliefs? Is religion being used to gain a psychological edge? If a God exists then would he help a believer beat a non-believer? These are just some of the thread topics circulating seemingly daily.
English light heavyweight, James Zikic – well publicised as a devout Christian – was asked by Sorted magazine how he could reconcile faith in a loving God with pounding other people as a day job.
He said: “For me being a fighter and a Christian go hand in hand. It takes strength to follow God. I am more than a conqueror, but of course I don’t fit the sandal-wearing stereotype.
“The closer I am in my relationship with God, the better I perform in the cage – I believe that.”
Of course the subject of religion has never been too far from the mouths of boxers down the years. Arguably the most famous sportsman of them all changed his name to Mohammed Ali to honour his religion.
George Foreman – the Randy Couture equivalent in boxing – practiced being an ordained minister at a church while mounting his improbable quest for the heavyweight title well into his 40s.
So does being religious or having a faith give you an advantage? Well, one could certainly use the example and (near perfect) fighting record of “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko to say that it does. The Russian has always been very open about giving all his glory to God.
One the other hand one could point to the sole octagon showing of Joe Son, manager of Kimo Leopoldo. At UFC 4 the 5ft 4ins Son huffed and puffed on his way to the cage carrying a large cross before his infamous encounter with Keith Hackney.
Some two minutes into the fight and he was forced to tap after eating a dozen or so shots to the crown jewels which left the crowd agasp. Where was God then?
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson – one of the most popular fighters in MMA – apparently became a born again Christian during his Pride career, in 2004.
His conversion came prior to the second battle against his old nemesis and light heavyweight champion Wanderlei Silva, who had previously kneed “Rampage” into oblivion twelve months earlier.
According to many reports his preparation was greatly affected by his conversion. A report by Sports Illustrated’s Josh Gross said that in the second month of training Jackson abstained from food for three days, ingesting only water, after reading on the internet that fasting would keep the devil away.
An apparent net result of this decision was Jackson’s fatiguing in the second round after a strong showing in the opening stanza. Silva soon gained the upper hand and memorably left Jackson lying unconscious between the ropes.
The matter of a fighter’s religion can also make its way into a pre-fight war of words. Before his grudge match with Matt Hughes at UFC 98, Matt Serra said that his opponent “has to hide behind religion”.
In a video by Bloody Elbow Serra said: “I don’t like the guy. I don’t think he’s a good guy. He’s such a d**k of a person that he has to hide behind religion, you know, to make himself feel better.”
On The Ultimate Fighter show Serra also criticised Hughes for giving his fighters a homework assignment of reading a passage from the Bible.
Whatever views people have on religion within a combat setting, the topic will no doubt continue to fuel many an argument for many a long day. And when looking at the likes of Fedor Emelianenko and Matt Hughes (in his pomp) – their beliefs certainly work for them.