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kappakugabalan
3rd November 2023

Fighters and mental health

It takes a certain calibre of brain chemistry to be a fighter. One filled with demons striving to become angels. What happens when the demons lay idle for too long?
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Fighters and mental health
Credit: “UFC” by romeroleo via Openverse

Trigger Warning: references to suicide

21 October, Abu Dhabi. The stage is set for the featherweight champion, Alexander Volkanovski, to move up a weight class and fight Islam Makhachev for a second time to take the lightweight belt. A belt that is in the crosshairs of the most ferocious beasts the UFC has managed to herd together under one division. Volkanovski steps into the Octagon that night having taken the fight on just eleven days’ notice.

Before the fight, Volkanovski had been widely praised for taking the fight on such short notice, painting this moment as one that would herald him living up to his name, Alexander the Great. Fate, however, had other plans. In the first round, Makhachev threw a devastating kick to Volkanosvki’s head, stunning him and sending his consciousness to lands far away from the hot desert sands of the UAE. No king reigns forever.

Those familiar with Volkanovski’s repertoire will be used to seeing him relaxed under the floodlights of the cage as though every fight is just another stroll along the beach. However, during the post-fight press conference, we saw a man struggling to hold in tears as he admitted how much he needed to fight to maintain a modicum of sanity.

It is the restlessness he felt not being in fight camp that drove him to make such a brash decision as fighting one of the greatest athletes on the roster, Islam Makhachev (who had a full fight camp leading up to the 21st), on short notice.

This uneasiness is common amongst fighters, who are not only obsessed with the fight game but also possessed by it. A breath for them is only meaningful if it is taken with their fists held up.

Only then, does the sweet mechanism of adrenaline kick in, firing on all cylinders, fuelling the body with a primitive and ancestral power that commands the mind to kill or be killed. The ordinary, modern human will (fortunately) never have to experience such a thing. But to a certain few subjected to such a feeling, it is a high that demands chasing at every waking hour.

A fighter who has been vocal about his struggles with mental health is Tyson Fury, the current WBC heavyweight champion. After beating Wladimir Klitschko to claim the unified heavyweight belt in 2015, Fury slipped into a dark pit of depression, holding hands with suicidal thoughts. His heroic tale of emerging from such despair is what added the glowing stardust onto his later bouts against Deontay Wilder, who he beat against the odds.

Outside the ring, nothing can come close to the feeling of winning the unified belts or knocking out Deontay Wilder. That is why even though stepping into the ring brings with it detrimental punishment that will have lingering effects for the remainder of his life, Fury cannot submit to the regularity of ordinary family life, as evident in his recent Netflix documentary.

Fury’s bipolar condition certainly doesn’t aid the situation, but instead makes him more vulnerable to it. The real fight then becomes that which takes place outside the ring – a battle between family and business. You can only hope that those surrounding Fury will be brave enough to intervene when the time comes for him to stop fighting. The enemy in such a scenario will be the money-hungry vultures desperate to juice more fights out of Fury, by tempting him with every spare ounce of charisma they can find in their overflowing pockets.

There are fighters out there who aren’t as public about their struggles and instead only showcase the reckless actions induced by their vulnerability. As a result, in the envious, hate-filled climate of social media, they are ridiculed in memes. They’re seen as successful millionaires, no longer as human beings, and therefore they’re ripe to be made fun of.

A fighter who has tasted glory and tangoed with controversy is Conor McGregor. A lot can be learned from the trajectory of his career.

Take a moment to picture this scenario.

From surviving on the dole in Dublin, and scrounging for every penny by fighting your way through Cage Warriors, you eventually make it to the UFC as a dangerous prospect in the featherweight division. A division ruled by Jose Aldo, a warrior who hadn’t been defeated in over a decade.

With every fight you make a statement, knocking out opponents and earning the fight bonuses as well as the adoration of Dana White, the president of the UFC. Your name is plastered all over the company, you’re promoted left, right, and centre every minute of every hour. Your verbal onslaught of fighters unnerves them and is infectious across the internet, growing a fanbase unparalleled by other athletes in the fight game. During press conferences, you’re sat amongst some of the greatest fighters to ever step into the Octagon, like Jon Jones, yet the spotlight is always on you. Every moment is yours and yours only.

For months, you torment Jose Aldo, burning a fire in him that you are orchestrating with perfect precision so that it only ever chars himself. And by the time you step into the Octagon with him, you know he’ll already be burnt to a crisp, ready to be decimated.

And then you step into the Octagon. Years of training, years of agony, and years of sacrifice. All reach a boiling point, ready to be channelled into this one moment. This is the only place you belong. In the stands is a whole nation rooting for you, chanting for you to mesmerise them once again. The roaring of the crowd is louder than ever but to you, it all hums to a serene silence, giving way to a tantalizing melody that eludes most mortals. In front of you is no longer Jose Aldo, but a lamb to be slaughtered. And within thirteen seconds, you put him away, cementing yourself into the history books.

That touch of death you planted on Jose Aldo is just the beginning. You’ll go on to become the first two-division belt holder in the UFC and you’ll also have the fight world on edge as you strap on the boxing gloves to face Floyd Mayweather in a bout that grosses $550 million.

All this happened within a few years for McGregor, paving the way for him to become one of the most recognised athletes in the world. The phenom put on a display of talent that was rare at the time in the MMA scene, and that only charged his obsession for the sport. However, it also infected him with a drug far more potent and dangerous: fame. The tragedy of the athlete is that their fame is heavily tied to their performance. When an athlete’s ability depletes and they linger in the sport for too long, their legacy can very easily be tarnished.

After his boxing fight against Mayweather, McGregor returned to MMA with the assumption that his throne would be awaiting him, but reality threw an obstacle in the way going by the name of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who played with McGregor as though he were a ragdoll.

The defeat didn’t stop him though, as McGregor returned to face Donald Cerrone, who he put away easily within 40 seconds of the fight. And such a statement filled McGregor fans with anticipation for another historical run at the title. But then Covid-19 got in the way, preventing McGregor from being so active. The downfall would then begin when he finally fought again after a long absence, only to be knocked out by Dustin Poirier in a rematch. Then when fighting Poirier for the third time, the fight would come to a horrific end with McGregor snapping his leg at the end of the first round.

With a leg down, and a spirit desperate to taste a special breed of thrill that comes with being Conor McGregor on fight night, the man was left to face the mundanity of recovery and a life without combat. From the pinnacle of exhilaration to plummeting to an emptiness where no one is cheering for you, it is no wonder rumours are circulating of him resorting to substance abuse. Being the famous, financial behemoth that he is now, we can only hope that McGregor has enough genuine people around to aid him in his battles.

The fight game is ruthless and lonely. It chews you up, draining you of every gallon of blood, before spitting you out broken and brittle. The endgame is unpredictable and only a chosen few will ever sacrifice enough to prevent becoming just another name buried by time.


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