Study of martial arts fighters attempts to shed light on how men manage their fears
Chris Murawski, 24, of Murrysville, left, warms up with Mike Hampton, 27, of Jeannette at Penn Hills Mixed Martial Arts. A study suggests most fighters never fully overcome their fear of losing or getting injured.
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More than a week before Rick "the Pit Bull" Borowski's fifth amateur cage fight, anxiety had set in.
A self-admitted "very nervous person," the 29-year-old Plum native says he sometimes gets so worked up before a match he vomits.
The pre-fight fear that will "turn the toughest guy into a sissy" continues to escalate even after the cage door slams and the lights go on.
"You have no energy. Your legs feel like they don't feel under you," he said. "It's exciting, exhilarating and it's terrifying all at the same time."
How did the Pit Bull overcome his fears to prevail in two of his five fights?
"Once you get punched in the face that all goes out the door," he said.
A two-year ethnographic study of mixed martial arts fighters by a sociologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania attempted to shed light on the complex male psyche to understand how men manage their fears.
The study, led by assistant visiting professor Christian Vaccaro, suggests most fighters never fully overcome their fear of losing or getting injured.
But they do learn to manage it enough to enter the cage through a number of mental strategies to exude dominance and maintain their masculine identity, according to Mr. Vaccaro.
Some attempted to intimidate their opponents, and others blindly convinced themselves they were more intelligent or more prepared because of their training or game plan. To overcome what they often referred to as "nerves" or "jitters" they looked at the match as just another day in the gym or a learning opportunity, win or lose.
And when they did lose, they convinced themselves it wasn't because the other man was a better fighter and they were unfit to enter the ring or even compete in the sport.
"While losing matches could make fighters fear that they were no longer cut out for the cage, framing their losses as valuable learning experiences often eased their fears and gave them enough confidence to continue," Mr. Vaccaro explains in the study.
The men also went back to the same strategies they used to garner the courage to fight. They blamed a loss on the fact that they didn't stick to the game plan or "nerves" and "pre-fight jitters" got the best of them, according to Mr. Vaccaro.
As Jeremy Bennett, 35, a well-known former professional mixed martial arts fighter from Pittsburgh, explains, "The butterflies always set in and you have to learn that it's energy; you have to realize that and turn it into aggression."
Mr. Bennett, who has nine wins and seven losses in his career, said success or failure often hinged on his ability to manage the ever-present fear of losing and letting his family down.
"The fear is like your worst nightmare," he said. "Especially later on in my career when my family would come watch me, I think I let it get the best of me, I let the pressure get to me."
But when he was knocked out, or held in a submission he couldn't shake, and his worst fear became reality when his competitor's hand was lifted at the end of the match, he said he learned he had instigated most of his trepidation by himself.
"I put more pressure on myself, because your family is going to love you no matter what," he said.
The realization of fear after a loss or the emotions, particularly shame, a fighter feels in the wake of a losing match is one aspect of the study that R. Tyson Smith, sociologist fellow at Brown University, thinks is missing.
"That was one of the primary limitations of the study," said Mr. Smith. "You have this high-stakes context and then the article revolves around managing and controlling emotions of fear in particular, yet we really don't know what happens in the face of a loss."
When Mr. Borowski was knocked out by what he describes as an "underdog" opponent in a fight in Ohio, he was disappointed in himself and felt like he failed his friends and family who drove hours to watch him.
"You question whether you ever want to do it again," he said.
His feelings bring up an important question: Why do these men routinely elect to participate in cage fights when they fear it?
"These are not 12-year-old kids in the roughest section of Chicago who more or less have their back against the wall and must participate," Mr. Smith said.
The study didn't focus on the question, but some of our local fighters training at Penn Hills MMA, 101 Purity Road, did.
"Part of what this is about is walking through the fear," said fighter Mark Spaeder over the rhythmic pounding and slapping of punches and kicks in the gym.
Thus far, the 44-year-old family man and creative director at an advertisement agency has competed in two grappling matches.
Although the fights create short-lived anxiety, training helps release the tensions and worries of everyday life.
"Generally, I come home and my endorphins are flowing and I'm happy," he said.
Win or lose, he enjoys testing himself in a situation that he's afraid of.
"One of the first things I say to them is that you've done something that 99 percent of the population wouldn't do," said trainer Dan Moore, 57.
Mr. Moore is the head instructor and founder of Penn Hill MMA. More than 30 years of experience in martial arts has taught him that the sport is as mental as it is physical.
"At several points before they get into the ring you have to make them feel like they will in a fight," he said.
He takes his fighter into a bathroom as a mock locker room, turns the gym lights off and starts playing their song. Then he announces him, slams the cage door shut and turns on a spotlight. The other fighters naturally corral around the ring, cheering each other on and then he starts the fight.
"But there's that anxiety of doing what you're doing in front of 500 people," Mr. Moore said.
Even the real deal won't quell some fighters' fears, like those of Mr. Borowski.
Mr. Borowski said his wrestling days, like that of most young athletes in the sport, ended in high school. Yearning for competition, he sometimes found it in a bar fight.
"This is what makes me happy and keeps me out of trouble," he said. "I don't go to the bars. I go to the gym."
He's no stranger to the inconsistencies in his mental approach to the sport, even if he chooses to ignore them.
When he pumps himself up by thinking he's a better fighter who trained harder than his competitor, he knows his competitor thinks the same thing.
He's learned through trial and error that he receives "so much respect" for just going into the ring and his family won't think badly of him for losing, yet he still fears letting them down.
And when he says he beat himself in a loss, he's well aware of the fact that the other guy thinks he won because he's the stronger and better fighter.
The solution? Don't think about it.
"You have to stick to your guns and know that you're the best," he said.
First Published January 30, 2012 12:00 am