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How Top MMA Fighters Mentally Prepare For Their Big Fight

I remember watching Jon Jones’ fight against Shogun Rua for the UFC light heavyweight title back in 2011. Jones, who was only 23 years old at the time, dominated and finished the seasoned veteran in the third round via TKO. It was a remarkable performance from someone so young and relatively inexperienced in comparison to his opponent.

But what impressed me even more than Jones’ physical abilities was his mental game. Being the ‘new kid’ on the block and stepping in against a legend like Rua could have easily overwhelmed him, but Jones remained calm and composed throughout the fight. This got me thinking about how top MMA fighters mentally prepare for their big fights…

How Do MMA Fighters Mentally Prepare?

Each fighter will have their own unique strategies for mental preparation prior to a fight. However, here at MMA Panda, we’ve discovered some commonalities and explanations for the most effective mental preparation exercises. Some of these will blow your mind, so let’s get into it..

1. Finding Your ‘Why’

Some fighters do it purely for the money and fame, while others do it for personal reasons such as providing for their families or proving doubters wrong. Whatever the reason may be, having a strong ‘why’ is crucial in mentally preparing for a big fight.

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For Jones, he describes his ‘Why’ as pure passion and identity. Without passion and a strong sense of self, it’s easy to get discouraged and lose motivation during the grueling training camp.

“I love mixed martial arts, I love the pain that comes with it, I love the ups and downs, it is who I am, it’s a big part of my identity.”

Jon Jones

In this sport, fighters must endure intense physical and mental demands, and it’s their ‘why’ that keeps them going when things get tough. When they have broken bones or have to cut weight, it’s their ‘why’ that gives them the strength and motivation to push through. Going back to Jones, his passion and love for the sport are evident in his performances and have carried him through many tough battles.

As he explains, it’s a part of his identity and anyone that has watched his fights should be able to see how pure his martial expression is. When you have a strong ‘why’, it becomes more than just a sport or a job; it becomes a way of life.

2. The Iceman’s Cold Confidence

Chuck Liddell, also known as ‘The Iceman’, is a former UFC light heavyweight champion and one of the most iconic fighters in MMA history. His trademark mohawk, knockout power, and ice-cold demeanor made him a fan favorite. His strikes flowed flawlessly and to his nickname, he remained stoic and unfazed, even in the face of adversity.

So what was Liddell’s secret to his success and confidence in the octagon?

It’s simple – preparation. Liddell was known for his intense training camps, where he would push himself to the limit both physically and mentally. He believed that if he could outwork his opponents in training, then he would have the edge come fight night. If he did everything he could to prepare himself, he could enter the octagon with confidence and trust in his abilities.

“Training was the work, fighting was the reward”

Chuck Liddell

This hour long interview with Ed Mylett goes into more detail about Liddell’s mindset and approach to training:

To summarize, these are the five main takeaways from Liddell’s interview:

  1. Overcome Overthinking
  2. Don’t Fear Change
  3. Living in The Past Is A Bad Idea
  4. Negative Self-Talk Reinforces Negativity
  5. Stressing To Please Everyone Will Ruin Your Life

Liddell’s words of wisdom go beyond the octagon and can be applied to anyone looking to improve themselves or their performance in any aspect of life.

Train hard, train smart, and get your mind right!

3. Affirmations and Visualization

For some fighter’s visualization may lead to overthinking and added pressure in the octagon, but for others, it can be a powerful tool. The reason why visualization works is because your brain cannot tell the difference between a vividly imagined experience and an actual one when in a deep state of relaxation. As you visualize winning a fight, your brain gets wired to produce similar results in real life. It’s important to have a positive mindset and use affirmations during this process.

Sean O’Malley and Rose Namajunas are two fighters who have credited visualization and affirmations for their success in the octagon. O’Malley, known for his precision, speed, and focus. HIs affirmations are, “Too Sharp, Too Fast, Too Focused”

Rose Namajunas has been known for her mindset. It can either make or break her. Having supportive self-talk and using affirmations is what helps her focus and stay in the present moment. Her affirmation is, “I am the best.” Her coach Pat Barry also helps her reinforce this mindset by constantly reminding her that she is the best.

4. Massages Are More Than Just Physical Relief

Being a UFC fighter is strenuous on the body. Massages are often seen as just physical relief for tired and sore muscles, but it can also have a positive impact on mental health. According to research from Mayo Clinic, massages can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It also promotes relaxation and improves overall mood.

In martial arts such as Muay Thai or Nak Muay, a full body massage is considered part of the training regimen. This practice not only helps with muscle recovery but also helps improve focus and concentration. If you’ve trained in this discipline, you’ve likely smelled Thai oil and felt soothing the heat that comes from it. This type of oil contains essential oils such as eucalyptus and menthol, which have been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety.

Prior to his bout with Conor Mcgregor, Floyd Mayweather was seen relaxing and getting a facial and head massage. Despite being known for his trash talking and flashy lifestyle, Mayweather understands the importance of self-care and relaxation in preparation for a fight. Some bloggers even suspect that this was his secret to a relaxed and confident demeanor during the fight, which he needed after being hit with a hard uppercut early in the bout.

Don’t neglect the mind-body connection when it comes to training in any discipline. Incorporating massages and other forms of self-care can not only improve physical performance but also contribute to mental well-being.

Remember, a happy and relaxed mind leads to better performance as tension and stress can decrease focus and energy. The snaps that are required for striking requires relaxed muscles and then the ability to tense and fire at the right moment. A tense muscle can decrease power and speed, making it harder to deliver that knockout punch. Fluidity is key in combat sports, and incorporating massage into your training can help you achieve it.

5. Performing Pre-Fight Rituals

Pre-fight rituals have been a part of combat culture for Millenia. From the Wai Kru dance in Muay Thai to the Haka in Maori culture, these rituals are believed to bring focus, mental clarity and spiritual strength.

In modern combat sports such as MMA, fighters have also adopted their own pre-fight rituals. These often include listening to specific songs or genres of music, visualizing their victory, or practicing certain movements to get mentally prepared. Locker room rituals and team huddles are also common, as fighters look to their teammates and coaches for support and encouragement.

The reason why these rituals are so important is because they help fighters get into a specific mental state. The Psychology of Pre-Fight Rituals have been explored further in this MMA Panda article. In short, it enables fighters to anchor themselves and get into a flow state. This is because rituals help to reduce anxiety and increase confidence, as a familiar routine can create a sense of control and certainty in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable environment.

If you are searching for some of the top 18 pre-fight rituals, look no further than UFC stars like Conor McGregor and Jon Jones as their movements entering the ring are often referred to as iconic. McGregor’s strut and Jones’ one handed cartwheel are just some of the many examples of pre-fight rituals that have become synonymous with their names.

Final Thoughts

The mental game in mixed martial arts is just as important, if not more, than the physical aspect. Some fighters shine under the bright lights while others are blinded and crumble.

Why is this? It all comes down to mental preparation and the use of pre-fight rituals.

Whether you are training to be the next UFC or ONE FC champion, or simply using MMA training as a tool for fitness and self-improvement, incorporating some of these mental strategies and greatly enhance your performance both on and off the mat.

Thanks for reading, and comment below what you do to prepare mentally before a fight! Do you have any strange MMA superstitions, rituals or beliefs?