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Forgiving Filho

MMA fight cards are fueled by wishful thinking. In the final weeks leading up to a big event, training injuries can easily sideline half the fighters. Sometimes it seems that the human body is just not meant to handle the extreme training drills cooked up by elite coaches. Trainers obsessively search for a way to give their fighters a physical edge—whether it’s weight-cutting to the lowest possible class, training in high-altitudes, or even drinking a little pee from time-to-time.

An element of training that often goes unmentioned is developing and maintaining a strong mental focus. On top of the unpleasantness of weight cutting and weeks of incessant training, fighters still have to deal with all the normal sources of stress–family, friends, money etc. Power, speed, cardio and even technical skills mean nothing without the heart to keep it together. Sometimes the pressure can be overwhelming. Karo Parysian has had a very public battle with anxiety attacks, which cost him his UFC contract last fall. Also, anxiety was aapparently a factor in Phillipe Nover’s fainting in the locker before his scheduled fight with Rob Emerson.

Fighters sometimes over-compensate for nerves with excessive smack talk, working themselves into a rage, or ritualistic chanting–see Diego Sanchez’s “yes-cartwheels”. But excessive confidence can backfire and keep in the wrong line of work for a long time. One has to wonder what goes through the mind of Tim Wills (0-18), Akira Omura (0-15) or Mike Suttles (3-31) before they step into the cage. Ideally, a fighter needs to find a middle ground between an emotional vacuum and being a glutton for punishment.

Confidence and motivation are serious issues for a lot of fighters, but the most notorious mental battle has to be inside 18-1 middleweight Paulo Filho. Filho’s first sign of trouble was his bizarre performance against Chael Sonnen at WEC 36 on November 5, 2008. Not only did he (the 185lb champ) come in four pounds overweight (making the bout a meaningless non-title catchweight) but he spent the whole fight drifting through a cycle of apathetic, confused and sleepy. He had an impressive performance the following summer against Melvin Manouef, but then didn’t show up to fight Yoon Dong-Sik in October 2009. So far in 2010, Filho withdrew, re-committed, and canceled again the day before a February 25th fight against Yuki Sasaki. And this past week he pulled out of a fight with Bellator Middleweight champ Hector Lombard, claiming visa troubles that were not confirmed by the promoter.

Filho’s actions would be more understandable if he had been coming off a savage loss, or starting to feel past his prime. But the man is young, incredibly talented and dominant in the middleweight division; his mind is simply elsewhere. More aggravating is that fans have never gotten a real explanation from Filho (apparently there’s some combination of substance abuse and depression). While Nover and Parysian were immediately open and honest with their incidents, fans only hear general explanations from Filho’s manager, Ed Soares, who shrugs and says that Filho has personal demons.

Fighting can bring out newfound confidence problems in anyone. And for those with pre-existing issues, there’s no reliable training tool to overcome the additional pressure. Whacking a tire with a sledgehammer and carrying a giant rock underwater won’t solve personal problems. Most people don’t even like to speak front of crowds, let alone performing in front of thousands while needing a win bonus for a decent paycheque. Furthermore, fighting can be a very isolating, lonely business. All the coaches, teammates and mountains of advice are irrelevant once the cage door shuts; everything rests on the individual fighter.

In most sports, a crisis of confidence can be quietly subdued. A goalie, pitcher or quarterback who’s playing unusually bad simply gets replaced with an alternate. Competent follow-up performances overshadow a single bad night, and the player’s career keeps chugging along. But in fighting, the only way to get out is to quit, which means a professional loss and probably walking papers. There is no team to fall back on, and a loss is much more visceral; being physically dominated is scarring to the ego of even the most hardened athletes.

Everyone has a breaking point. Forrest Griffin (a former police officer) burst into tears after losing via TKO at the hands of Keith Jardine. Mirko Filipovic? (a Croatian Special Forces officer) said he wanted to hang himself in his hotel room, after verbally submitting to Junior Dos Santos. And at UFC 113, Kimbo Slice, a man who happily walked into street fights for years, had a funny expression on his face after eating some leg kicks from Matt Mitrione–a bemused look that seemed to say “Why do I do this to myself?”

MMA fighters are the toughest guys in the world, but unyielding mental fortitude may not only be ellusive, but simply unattainable.

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