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The battle outside of the cage: UFC fighters detail the anxiety they face away from the Octagon

UFC 228 Mixed Martial Arts

There’s no question that MMA fighters are tough. Physically, being okay with taking a punch to the face or a kick to the leg or being able to fight back against any form of submission is enough of a battle in its self. Mentally, it takes a lot to know someone is looking to do any of those things to you, and still be able to prepare for months with the mindset that you’ll be able to win in a legitimate fight.

But, everyone is human, and we all go through the same pitfalls as we go through different stressful times in our lives. While some things may seem more minuscule in comparison to others, everyone faces their own types of fights in life, and MMA fighters are forced to deal with the harsh realities that come with their professions: a fight inside of the Octagon, and a battle in your head when you’re outside of it.

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Recently, the topic of mental health and anxiety came to the forefront of the MMA world, specifically after UFC fighter Darren Till opened up about the mental hurdles that popped up in his mind before his recent fight against highly-ranked middleweight contender Kelvin Gastelum.

Till is viewed as one of the UFC’s top prospects at this point in his career, with numerous big wins under his belt at just 26 years old. He’s dealt with a rapid rise during the first part of his time in the UFC, followed by a lackluster performance in his first title shot as he fell to Tyron Woodley at UFC 228 in September 2018.

After the loss, Till’s record nearly started to spiral out of control. He took his first defeat in the UFC to Woodley, and was brutally knocked out by Jorge Masvidal just six months later in his home country. Next up: a jump in weight class to fight a superstar in the form of Gastelum.

In the week (and minutes) leading up to the fight, Till faced even more challenges than usual, dealing with visa issues that almost put the bout in jeopardy on its own. Then, on the night of the fight, President Trump’s presence almost took Till out of the UFC 244 equation again, with a heightened amount of security nearly preventing him from getting a physical done before the fight.

“I didn’t have my medical yet, but they were shutting down the USADA office for the president and then they tried to kick me out of the room,” Till told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani as he described the events of the night. “They were saying that I couldn’t fight. I refused to leave the room. Kevin Lee had just left, and so did Derrick Lewis, and then I was just sat there.”

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The doctor ended up going to Till’s locker room to get the physical completed, and the fight went on as scheduled. Till won on a split decision, which could have easily been scored a unanimous decision, and solidified himself as a name to look out for in the middleweight division.

But, despite the chaos he faced inside of the cage, and the troubles he ran into outside of the Octagon, Till’s greatest battle during fight week may have been against himself.

In a post-fight interview with BT Sport, Till discussed how frightened he was heading into the fight, and how he almost used an excuse to get out of the event as a whole.

“I wasn’t even bothered about the win, I’m just happy to overcome it,” Till told Adam Catterall in New York. “I was thinking of ways to fake an injury. I was scared to go out there.”

Till doubled down on the discussion of his anxiety heading into the fight, highlighting the issue on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show a few days after his win over Gastelum.

“You’re gonna hear this from me, you’re not gonna hear this from anyone else: every fighter thinks of those things,” Till said during the interview. “Every fighter asks themselves before they’re going out for a fight why they’re doing this to themselves. Why me? I’m scared, I’m this, I’m that, I’m so ready. The emotions that go through you before a fight, I can’t put into words for you.”

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Till described how he wasn’t scared of the physical fight itself, but mentioned how watching clips of himself getting knocked out by Masvidal, along with clips of his opponents doing the same thing to larger opponents, struck a nerve before the bout.

“I’m not scared of taking a punch or taking a takedown or an elbow,” Till said. “It’s another thing, the bright lights and stuff like that, that can sometimes get the better of you. It just got to me a little bit, I got a little bit frightened.”

Till’s not alone, either. Despite saying that other fighters won’t talk about the mental health piece of the puzzle, Till’s colleagues have spoken out about the issue in the past. UFC featherweight Megan Anderson described what she went through before her most recent fight at UFC 243, and UFC lightweight Lando Vannata has gone into detail about his struggles in the past.

In addition, even former UFC middleweight title contender Nick Diaz has highlighted the anxiety he has when it comes to anything related to the Octagon.

In a recent interview with Helwani, Diaz talked about the stress he felt just walking his brother Nate down to the cage for his “BMF” title fight with Masvidal at UFC 244.

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“I keep telling these guys in the back like, ‘I’m happy to be here,’ cool, I got to go and say hi to everybody and deal with everybody looking at me, right?” Diaz said during the interview. “You got President Trump there and you have all this security, like serious security. It gives me a little anxiety, extra.”

“It just makes me nervous because, like, my normal mentality, I had to take it back a notch, but I really had to be a part of what was going on, too,” Diaz continued. “So, that was a stressful day, and I knew I was never going to be able to deal with that day if I planned for it. So when I had the opportunity, I just kind of went with the flow.”

Diaz has long talked about the anxiety he’s dealt with, even discussing the topic in an interview with FOX Sports back in 2013.

“I have Georges St-Pierre out here telling me ‘you really think I’m afraid of you, man?’ and I’m like you should be, bro. You should be scared out of your mind.  I’ll tell you what, I’m scared of him,” Diaz said in the interview.  “I’m scared of any fighter I’ve ever fought because they are some dangerous people to be dealing with.  That’s also where the anxiety comes from.”

The issue isn’t specific to the UFC, either, and it has impacted people across any solo sports that put you in the spotlight in a major way.

Former WWE champion and UFC fighter CM Punk, real name Phil Brooks, has been open about the “severe anxiety” he’s felt in social situations, which served as the reasoning for him not holding an open workout before UFC 225 in June 2018.

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“I’m comfortable in the gym, obviously,” Punk said during his media availability ahead of UFC 225. “But I just don’t like people – if I was training, and somebody walked in and started watching, I wouldn’t know and I’d be fine with it. It’s whatever. But, as weird as it sounds, I’ll be fine fighting, but just the training, I’m like a weirdo.”

“I know, wrestling in front of hundreds of thousands of people in my underwear, it’s just different,” Punk continued after a reporter asked about the difference between MMA training and a WWE match. “I have anxiety. I barely go to punk shows anymore, because being in a crowd of people, I’m just like, ‘Ehh.’  This is starting to freak me out, now that I’m talking about it.”

While many believe Punk would be able to handle the spotlight due to his ample time spent in a WWE ring, even the toughest, most experienced figures in the business deal with the same issues as all of us. Need another example? How about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?

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After Till opened up during the recent episode of “Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show,” Helwani had Johnson on as a guest following his appearance at UFC 244 for the presentation of the “BMF” title. Naturally, the topic came up during their in-depth discussion.

“I think that when you’re in a position like mine and the optics of my life are always so forward-facing and it can be at times noisy and loud, just by virtue of my job and what I do,” Johnson said during the interview. “You know a lot of people, everyone for that matter, they see the upside to it. And again, the optics of fame and the optics of fortune, and I’m not complaining because I always say the alternative to that is to go back to the days where nobody knew who I was.”

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Johnson talked about what he does to deal with the stress that comes with his daily life, showcasing three things he continuously thinks about when any moment starts to get to him.

“I always say that, what helps me with the pressure, because there is the pressure that is anxiety, there are all these things that we go through; there’s mental health, there’s challenges. I always try and remind myself of a few things,” Johnson said. “A few things I always try to keep in the forefront of my mind. Number one is: Everything is going to be okay.”

“Number two: you’re not alone,” Johnson continued. “Number three: I try to keep the hard times in the forefront of my mind. I think, and this happens to all of us, where we can be fixated on something and feeling like, ‘Oh, man, this is the worst thing ever,’ or it’s not good, or I’m not quite too sure. When you keep the hard times in the front of your mind, especially the s— you’ve already gone through, it kind of eases that a little bit.”

These perspectives are all varied: people come from different backgrounds, they deal with numerous types of situations at any given moment, and the positives and negatives that come with victories and defeats weigh on some differently than others.

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But, one thing reigns supreme when describing everyone you see during a UFC event, a WWE show, or a game on the field, ice or court: they’re all human.

“You don’t hear things like this from athletes, right?” Helwani said during his interview with Till. “I think it makes you so much more relatable, so much more likable. We want to root for you.”

During his interview with Helwani, Johnson highlighted the importance of opening up about any mental health issues, and echoed some of the most important advice anyone can get when they encounter mental health issues or battles with anxiety: Everyone has things they are dealing with mentally, and the important thing is to find someone to talk to in order to figure out the next steps to make sure everything’s okay.

“When anxiety creeps up or any kind of insecurity creeps up, I always make sure that I’m talking to somebody, reaching out to my friends or family members,” Johnson said. “So I try to do things like that, but yeah, of course it happens to me. It happens to all of us, but I think it’s just a matter of how you deal with it, the kind of perspective that you have.”

For resources available in relation to mental health, you can head to mentalhealth.gov for information on disorders and ways to talk about what you’re experiencing. 

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