I’ve been a big fan of mixed martial arts for a very long time. I even had a brief career as an amateur fighter. I credit so much of what I’ve learned about life to what I’ve learned in the gym. Including the mindset of a champion.
Before I pat myself on the back too much, it’s important to concede that I was never a champion-caliber fighter. I did well on the local scene, won a few tournaments and probably could’ve gone pro, but I knew that wasn’t my path. When I refer to the mindset of a champion, I’m referring to a mindset that can be learned in or out of the cage, and applies to champions of any walk of life.
I was watching the fights last night and I was reminded of this dynamic again in the rematch between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Thug Rose. In the first fight, Joanna thought she was unstoppable. She thought that she was the boogy-woman, someone who was so far above her peers that she could not be beat, and that she was destined to retire undefeated. Then you had Rose, who had losses, been through a tremendous amount of adversity (personally and professionally), and had found her calm within that storm. In their first match, Joanna did what she could to get in the head of Rose, but Rose stared right through her – reciting the lord’s prayer no less. That fight ended up in a first round knock-out for Rose
(Thug Rose! Thug Rose! Thug Rose!)
When she gave her post-fight interview, I instantly became a big fan. It’s one thing to throw bombs in the cage, it’s another to do it with the presence of mind of being a good human being. In the age of inactive fighters throwing dollies through bus windows, Thug Rose shines bright.
Leading up to the rematch, I was very curious how things would play out. Joanna was one of the most accomplished and dangerous strikers in her class. She also had incredible takedown defense. If she was able to make adjustments for the second fight, and not get knocked out in the first round, things could play out differently. In the fight game, anyone can get clipped, anyone can get caught. If you run the same fight back 10 times, you’ll get 10 different results. Predicting how fights play out is something that I’ve done for a long time and I’m not half bad at it. While there’s a lot to consider in making those predictions, few are more important than state of mind.
After Joanna lost the belt, her reality had fractured. Before that fight, she had an *absolute belief* that she was the best in the world and that she could not be beat. It was this supreme level of confidence that helped her get into the head of her opponents as well as helping her perform as well as she did in the cage. But after that fight, where she had been viciously knocked out, she had to find a way to reconcile these two opposing realities. One in which she was unstoppable and would never lose, and one in which she had been defeated, by knockout, and where she was no longer the champion. I find that how we face these hard truths largely determine what we’re able to learn from them and what we learn from them largely determines how we grow as individuals.
Coming into the rematch, Joanna kept saying that she was still number 1, that she was a dominant champion for a reason, that it was a bad weight cut which left her susceptible to the knockout, that she needed to replace her nutritionist, and that it was a fluke KO. She had a choice of embracing a new reality in which she was no longer champion and had been beat by a fighter who was better that night, or rationalizing why she could remain in her own reality where she was still the best. One reality provides the raw materials for an exceptional moment of growth while the other provides the comfort of not needing to change. One is the mindset of the champion and one is the mindset of someone who has peaked. Rhona Rousey might know a thing or two about this.
This is one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of Thug Rose. Coming off that win, coming off becoming a 25 year old champion in one of the world’s most unforgiving activities, she was just as humble, aware, and open-minded as ever. She entered into this fight with the mindset of a champion, who was competing for a belt she didn’t yet have. Some might say, ‘but she was the champion’. Well, what is a champion? Someone with a decorative belt? That’s just hardware. The best? Anyone can be beaten on any given night. The one who everyone perceives as being the best? Public opinion is fickle.
So what is a champion, and what exactly is the mindset of a champion?
A champion is someone who has been given the title of champion. No more, no less. It’s borderline arbitrary. What’s meaningful is the path it took for the person to get there and earn that distinction. Rhonda Rousey earned her first championship belt without a fight. Khabib Nurmagomedov earned his first championship belt after a career of being undefeated, multiple injuries, and 5 opponent changes in 7 days. It’s about the people.. it’s about the journey.
If a champion is someone who’s been given the title of champion, and it makes more sense to focus on the people and journey, then it’s really the mindset of a champion that deserves our attention. There’s a dynamic here which cannot be overlooked and it’s a dynamic of confidence. A fighter who isn’t confident in their abilities will be hesitant, and it’s those split second differences that separate the good from the best. It’s why so many fights are won and lost in the minds of fighters before they even enter the cage. If a confident fighter has a distinct advantage over a fighter who isn’t confidence, it starts to make sense why so many championship caliber fighters think they’re god’s gift to MMA. It’s almost like a trick you play on your own mind, saying that you’re the best before you ever knew you were. But then you win, and you win again, and for the 0.0001% who become a UFC champion, you’ve almost validated the lie you’ve been telling yourself for years. And then that lie becomes your reality. And then your reality becomes fragile.
My question is why does one have to draw confidence from a lie, when the truth is that much more powerful? Why would you tell yourself that you’re undeniably the best when you could look at your competition and let them inspire you to be even better? Why would you think that you’re incapable of losing, when a loss would give you more to learn from than any win? And so I would suggest that there is a difference between someone who is a champion, and someone who has the mindset of a champion.
A fighter like Rhonda Rousey had the skills and confidence to be a dominant champion for many years, but lacked the mindset of a champion to overcome her losses. Reconciling a lifetime of thinking she was unbeatable with being brutally knocked out in back to back fights was enough to break her. She lacked the skills necessary to use those losses to evolve, and instead retired into another fantasy, the WWE. At least she can be a champion there right? Then you have fighters like Demetrious Johnson, or George St. Pierre, or countless others who have let their losses inspire greatness from within.
Realizing your place within the universe, being able to understand your situation for what it is (and what it isn’t) has to be one of the most important important qualities any person can have. It requires a tremendous amount of courage at times, to see yourself or the world as it is, especially when you see something you’d rather not see. But when given the choice to ignore it, rationalize around it, or rise above it, the choice should be clear. If you can back that up with the skills to pay the bills… that’s a real champion.