Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Why fight? Part 1: The Investment

People I know from the poker world, or from regular society -- or from any place other than the inside of an MMA gym, really -- often think I'm crazy for being willing to get in a cage and endanger myself by fighting another man until one man quits or is rendered helpless against the assault of the other.

The truth is, however, that fighting itself is not the crazy thing.

The crazy thing is what fighters do in order to fight.

For the last five weeks (and the next two), I have faithfully shown up the at the gym to take my daily beating. I have done this voluntarily and in full control of my own faculties. I do this without being bound to any contract, and without any financial incentive.

For these weeks I have felt exhausted throughout most of the day. I have woken up many mornings feeling like I have been hit by a car. I'm a morning person and yet I am often forced to train past 10pm, eat dinner around 11 and fall asleep well after midnight. But since I seem to have developed the lark chronotype, I have trouble sleeping past 5am.

Though I haven't tested them, I am sure my cortisol is elevated and my testosterone is lowered. In health terms, those are bad things -- they lead to increase in fat, decrease in muscle, decrease in sex drive, insulin resistance, cravings, bone loss, and illness.

Indeed, being a competitive athlete is not nearly as healthy as most people think that it is. Of course, it is better than being sedentary. But too far in the other extreme can be unhealthy as well. Being a serious competitive athlete means doing a lot of things that trade health in favour of performance. The athlete trains hard and risks injury and overtraining. All athletes train while injured; the only difference between athletes is how injured is too injured, necessitating a missed practice or competition. Virtually every serious athlete practices and competes through minor injuries, and many (most?) compete through more serious injuries. A typical training camp always involves a handful of small injuries. No one ever enters a fight at 100%.

Combat sports are worse than most in terms of training through injury, stress, and fatigue. Part of it is the inherently macho aspect of the sport itself. But some of it is simply the incentive/disincentive mechanism. The boxer, wrestler, or MMA fighter considers a day off of training to be a day that his opponent is gaining an advantage on him. And there are real consequences to being less trained than your opponent. The athlete who loses at a big swim meet or baseball game surely feels bad about his performance, and wishes he trained harder or better. The unprepared fighter, on the other hand, can find himself dominated, brutalized, and concussed. The soccer player misses out on a trophy. The fighter can end up in the hospital. This is not to put fighting on a pedestal or claim it is a more noble or tougher sport; it is just reality.

Thus overtraining and injury are too often ignored. It is a rare day that the fighter is seen outside the gym during fight camp. Fighting is not a sport for to dabble in. It's all-in, or fold.

And yet, injury is the most fearful part of a training camp. I know that every day I show up, I have a small percentage chance of suffering an injury which will prevent me from fighting on May 30. That percentage on any given day might be just 2-3%, but still with 8-10 sessions left, these odds might be as high as 1-0.97^10 = 26%, still nearly a 1-in-4 chance I won't get to fight.

That's scarily high! It is hard to express how much it means to get through each day without suffering a major injury. Although I know it's not true, I feel like the world would end if I didn't fight on May 30. This is why fighters fight hurt. A fight camp demands so much of the fighter emotionally, psychically, and financially. Fighters spend so much time getting psyched up about the fight. They endure the beatings in the gym knowing that when they leave, they are one day closer to the fight. They sell tickets to their family and friends. They have told everyone around about their fight. To not fight feels like a crushing defeat, far worse than stepping in the ring and coming up short.

When one has a fight lined up, one obsesses about the fight. The fight not only occupies one's thoughts all the time, it also dominates one's activities. I wake up in the morning and do mobility exercises, yoga-like movements that will lower my chances of getting injured, and make me more powerful. Many people are happy to get an hour a day to exercise. I spend at least an hour a day getting ready to exercise.

I run. I lift weights. I'm getting extra private lessons. I bought a Compex stimulator unit and use it daily. I plan all of my meals meticulously and carefully -- protein and fat in the morning, carbs at night. I schedule naps, because as mentioned I only get 5 hours of sleep a night. I watch fight footage and technique videos in my spare time. I stalk my opponent on Facebook and Twitter.

In truth, I become a very boring person while fight camp is going on. I am about fighting, and nothing else. There is very little that I do in any given day that is not related to my goal of winning my upcoming fight. (I do watch a lot of TV, and read a lot. That is because those are things I can do with minimal effort, either physical or mental. Most of my day, I am conserving energy.)

The time that I am not spending on the fight, I try to use to take care of personal relationships. I began writing this post on Mother's Day, and I did my best to make my mom feel special that day. My girlfriend has been tremendously supportive of me through this fight camp, putting up with both my moodiness and low energy levels, and so I do my best to take care of her in turn. But personal relationships are surely compromised through a fight camp. I see friends and family much less often than I would otherwise. In truth, I see a lot less of anyone other than my training partners and my physiotherapist.

Fighting is pretty much a financial net negative for anyone but the top 1% of pros. Fighters not in that 1% would make far more money working in a trade. I have spent money on this camp on physiotherapy, acupuncture, medical tests, private training, equipment, high-quality food, and supplements. I am very fortunate that I am not under financial pressure and that I get to pursue my passion fully. For me, the opportunity cost is more significant than the actual expenses. I have passed up on money-making opportunities (consulting jobs, poker, DFS) because of a lack of time and energy to spend on them.

This is what choosing to fight really is, beyond what you see in the cage on the night of the fight. It is angst and difficulty.

If that's the case, why does anyone do it? I'll talk more about that in my next post.


  1. All the best on your upcoming bout. I'm interested in the sort of mobility work you do-any references online you can point me too. Thx

    1. http://www.functionalmovement.com/exercises

      I had an FMS screen a while back and was given a certain set of these movements to correct imbalances/asymmetries.

  2. You're so right about getting ready to exercise. I gotta do that more. Thanks for the reply.