Most people who know me know about my obsession with martial arts.  So it makes sense that professional fighting also intrigues me.  However, lately I have been more intrigued by the psychological variables to professional fighting than the martial styles they employ.  Muhammad Ali was the master of talking trash.  That practice of using words and attitudes to get inside your opponents head endures to this day.  I thought it might be fun to share my analysis of the mental game between the Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm fight last weekend.

            Ronda Rousey is one of the most exciting athletes to follow these days.  Some say women’s UFC would not have endured had it not been for her.  She has studied Judo her entire life and she took the bronze medal in the Olympics.  In her first 12 fights, she was most known for the speed with which she gets either a knockout or a submission.  In fact, she holds the record for the second fastest win in a professional combat sport.  Besides being the highest paid athlete in the UFC, she has been killing it in big Hollywood action movies.  Ultimately though, she says that in a mixed martial arts setting, there isn’t a person on this planet she can’t beat.

            However, Holly Holm insisted that Rousey could be beaten.  Before Holm even came to the UFC, she was already a world champion boxer.  Some would make a good case for her being one of the most accomplished female boxers in history.  Then she transfers to a kickboxing career, and then moves into the UFC and starts getting KO’s with kicks to the head.  She also has a reputation for being as kind, cool, and levelheaded as she is powerful.

            Since Rousey has been such a dominant force in the UFC, she has earned a lot of hype.  However, with that hype comes a lot of pressure.  No one had been able to get past the first round with Rousey, so there has always been an overwhelming curiosity about what will happen when the day comes that she doesn’t take control from start to finish.  It seems like the accuracy with which Rousey was able to predict her defeat is evidence of that pressure.  Check out what she said on the Jimmy Fallon show.

If you have already seen the fight, you understand that that’s exactly how it goes.  The most powerful hypnotic suggestions are the ones we give ourselves.  Just as we say “don’t think about that,” that is immediately thrown to the forefront of our minds.  I can’t help but find it interesting that in that minute, her unconscious slipped the most likely worst-case scenario.  However, that wasn’t the only variable that may have taken the best of Rousey.

            Ronda Rousey also had a reputation of allowing herself to be an emotional fighter.  Quite frankly, it had worked for her up until now.  For example, in just her last fight, her opponent, Beth Correia, had made snide comments about Rousey committing suicide.  It’s assumed that Correia knew that Rousey’s father committed suicide, so Rousey openly didn’t like Correia.  Rousey was also quite happy to fight with passion and emotion, and it won her a 34 second knockout.  While people usually expect her to want to go to the ground, she came out swinging hard and went for the KO.  You can see for yourself (at 3:22).

So in her previous fight, bringing her emotion into the octagon served her.  However, Rousey didn’t have a reason to have any ill will towards Holm until weigh-ins.  Weigh-ins is always one of the best opportunities to psych your opponent out.  Usually the fighters square off for a picture after they both have weighed-in.  It provides an opportunity to show your opponent that you mean business and even get inside her head.  Holly Holm managed to do just that.

Everything about Rousey’s manor said that she wanted to project dominance.  As she inched her way as close as possible to Holm’s face, Holm took it the next step further by touching Rousey’s cheek with her fist (an it looks like she did so with a slight push).  This, of course, instigates a little fight that’s quickly broken up, but Rousey uses it as an excuse to revert to the same level of anger that she felt before the Correia fight.  She consciously or unconsciously assumed the anger worked for her last time, so it would again.  However, Holm brilliantly doesn’t even acknowledged the fight or Rousey’s anger.

            Now you can watch fight highlights on YouTube, but the actual fight hasn’t been posted by the UFC yet.  I’ll do my best to recall what happens.  For starters, Rousey refused to even respectfully touch gloves before the fight.  Then she runs out like a bat out of hell determined to show Holm that she can win with strikes too.  Holm gets overwhelmed in the beginning, but she’s able to create distance that helps her find a more comfortable pace.  From then on out, Holm controls the standing game with her reach, her kicks, and her dancing around the ring.  Had Rousey been able to keep the fight on the ground, it may have been a different story.  Had Rousey been able to get Holm to chase her, it may have been a different story.  In reality, no one really knows because a good fighter can have a bad night and a bad fighter can have a good night on any given night. 

            The most important thing I wanted to point out was while Rousey fought with rage, Holm fought in somewhat of a trance.  She seemed determined to stay calm, pick the pace of the fight by dancing around the octagon, and quite simply wait for Rousey to wear down enough to make a mistake.  Holm’s strategy is more calculated.  In the second round, she’s able to get Rousey off-balance twice in a row.  The second time, Holm throws a kick to Rousey’s jaw to get the knockout. 

            Obviously, both of these ladies are tremendous athletes.  Rousey knew going into this fight that Holm was going to give her more of a struggle than ones before.  However, Holm seemed to really have an edge.

            I’ve heard hypnotists say before that you can always tell who is going to win a fight by who is able to go into the deeper trance.  For the most part, Holm was able to keep a calm and relaxed demeanor in contrast to Rousey’s untamed ferociousness.  The look on Holm’s face said it all.

            There is a Japanese martial concept called “mushin.”  Mushin is a Zen expression that means “mind without mind.”  It alludes to a warrior’s ability to be connected to the present well enough to know your opponent’s movements as they happen.  In my humble opinion, Holms won because she was better at embodying that concept that night.

            That state of mind can be employed in all contexts.  The more we can be present with our surroundings, the more we can connect to them, if not be in harmony with them.  That applies to all challenges we may face, not just combat.