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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Beyond the Octagon: Learning Unity from UFC Fighters

Inspiration for how to get along better can come from unusual sources.

I have a confession to make: I like mixed martial arts (MMA) and the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Yes, I understand that, as a psychologist advocating for peace, compassion, kindness, and well-being, this might seem contradictory. One might understandably call me a hypocrite, especially if you have read some of my other blogs! I can accept that.

Maybe it's just a rationalization to say that we are all hypocrites in ways. None of us lives up to our own ideals. Also, we are tempted to judge others, and sometimes ourselves, in dualistic, all-or-nothing ways. Thus, when I say I like the UFC, that seeming contradiction or hypocrisy might be enough for many readers to judge me harshly and discount anything I say. I hope you don't though!

To be quite honest, I do feel a certain level of cognitive dissonance about my enjoyment of UFC (and American football). I'm still trying to understand these contradictions within myself. Let me provide a little backstory that might help you understand how I first became enamored with martial arts.

From Bruce Lee to UFC

I became a fan of martial arts as a kid after catching my first glimpses of Bruce Lee in his movies such as "Enter the Dragon." He had me at "Aiiyaaa!!!" His passion, energy, physicality, and amazing speed, power, and skill were like a meteor blazing across the night sky. But the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and, sadly, Bruce died at the age of 32 from cerebral edema. His legacy and influence live on to this day. Bruce might be considered the first mixed martial artist. He said, "The best style is no style," as he borrowed from different martial arts styles and practitioners based on what worked. In a way, the UFC is a natural evolution of something that he helped inspire.

As an impressionable young teen, "The Karate Kid" showed me another side of martial arts that I found deeply appealing—the discipline, honor, principles, and, perhaps most of all, the sacred relationship between teacher and student (and least with Mr. Miyagi, not those Slytherin Cobra Kai!). Unfortunately, as a kid, I was unable to take martial arts classes, but I started training in karate as a young adult and have trained in various martial arts ever since.

When the first UFC aired on November 12, 1993, most of the teachers and students from my first dojo watched it together. We were mesmerized. It was extremely controversial at the time, but the UFC has evolved into a well-regulated sport that has millions of fans around the world. It's not without controversy these days as well, but if you watch the UFC, there are some valuable lessons from which we might all benefit.

In Opposition Without Hatred

As we look at the ugly politics of America, most of us can agree that it has become toxic. Many, or even most, people on both sides are sick of the hate and would like to see Washington, and the rest of the United States, have less vitriol. After all, most of us want the same things—freedom, equality, security, respect, connection, and, perhaps most of all, happiness.

We have different ideas about what American greatness looks like and, importantly, how to get there. Of course we do! Life is complicated! Yet, we end up getting caught in dualistic mentalities of right/wrong, good/evil, win/lose, us/them that are tearing us apart. Is it possible to disagree without hating one another? Can we be in conflict about our ideas and yet still respect one another at the end of the day? As odd as it seems, that's where we could learn a few things from (most) UFC fighters.

Sure, sometimes there is really bad blood between UFC fighters... some of which might be to promote the event or for fighters to hype themselves up. But if you watch a few contests, the level of sportsmanship and respect shown by the end of fights can be quite inspiring.

Many of these fighters, after trying to defeat one another in a grueling, violent, physical chess match, will often hug, bow, and effusively praise one another. Such demonstrations of mutual respect are displayed between rounds or even during the rounds. The fighters put everything they have into the octagon, but when the contest is over, they usually bear no animosity toward one another. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many of them go out for a beer together after the match.

What most of these fighters are able to do is separate "fighting" and "hating." This goes back to the concept of nondualism. It is possible for fighters to "violently disagree" with one another in a physical contest, yet still have mutual respect.

Each fighter desperately wants to win. They literally shed blood, sweat, and tears in preparation for a bout. They sometimes shed all of those in the octagon as well! After the contest, they typically show a warrior's respect for one another. Each knows that the other gave it everything they had, adhered to predetermined rules for each other's safety, and are able to treat the other with dignity and honor. Any bad blood entering before entering the octagon is gone when the contest is over... or even during the fight itself.

The Takeaway?

If UFC fighters are able to separate a physical fight from hatred of their opponents, why can't we separate our political differences from hatred of those who hold different political views? We don't have to drink the poison of negative partisanship. Political opponents can fight hard to win, but each side agrees to play within predetermined boundaries. There are rules of engagement. Sure, those might be stretched at times, but when the dust settles and one side emerges victorious, there is no need for ill-will. There is a mutual respect for a hard-fought contest. We don't have to hate those whom we oppose.

Negative partisanship has come to define American politics. Each side views the other with not only distrust, but as a national threat. Oddly, this makes us more alike than different since both sides are contributors to this divided state of America. In my view, both the Left and Right need to be united in their efforts to cool the fires of extremism and hatred that are engulfing this country. We need to take a cue from UFC fighters who can literally fight without hating. They know the truth that one's rival need not be one's enemy. If we can learn to disagree without hating, then America can more closely live up to the lofty ideals upon which we were founded.


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