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Fighting Fear

By Sam Sheridan
Courage. Its the one virtue that men and women prize over any other, the one virtue that will
make up for any plethora of viceseven your most hated enemy is still respected, as long as he
is brave.
Courage is the ability to confront physical or mental pain, fear, or danger. There are basic genetic
reasons that humans are admirers of courage; there is an obvious survival value in being brave,
and in being close to those who are brave. In a bad spot, you want to be around brave men.
It can be hard to know what courage is, in the beginning of the 21st century, in the United States,
with most of us detached from survival concerns. Were out of the caves and no longer need to
fend off wolves in the night. What is courage now? Is it going off to fight in a just war? Or is it
protesting an unjust war? Politicians use the language of courage to further their own agendas
(be it liberal or conservative) but weve all seen behind the curtain and we cant trust the
politicos or their heroic language.
In every other society throughout history, there is a point where a boy becomes a man. In ancient
Sparta, the boy would have to kill a slave; but more often the initiation into manhood came from
hunting. Looking at our models for ancient societieslike the Native Americans, or the
Australian Aboriginals, there were rituals, religious performances, fasting and even
circumcisions (in Africa); but afterwards, society recognized the boy as a man. He was initiated
into the mysteries of adulthood; it was done, it was over, there was no question about it. He knew
he was a man, and everyone else knew ithe didnt have to prove himself anymore.
Modern American society has no single coming-of-age rite that marks a boys transition to
manhood (is it driving? Voting? Drinking?) and perhaps as a result, men in America are uneasy,
and manhood in America is an endless, relentless test. Instead of the manhood rituals of fighting
and killing, all weve got left is sports.
Sports in school is where young men first test themselves, where they begin to define and
understand courage. Their all-powerful father or mother cant protect them anymore; and the
professional sporting world is where we go for our heroes.
Being a man is less about dominating others than a fear of being dominated, a point Michael
Kimmel makes in his book Manhood in America. The reason most of us get into martial arts at
a young age is not to beat people up, but to protect ourselves, to prevent others from beating us
up.

Once you start training, and you progress, I think the urge to fight and test what you are doing is
almost inevitable. Amateurs fight to test themselves, to test their skills, and to prove theyve
conquered fear. Professionals fight more because of the money and the lifestyle they find
themselves in, that this is what they do. There is still the test, the urge to compete driving
them, but there is also a sense of inevitability.
Regardless of how you get there, climbing into the cage or ring is a direct show of courage, and
these arenas are the few places left in the world where things can be simple: black or white, right
or wrong, him or me. Bystanders make the mistake and think getting into the ring is about
physical courage, about conquering fears of getting hurtbut that is barely any of it, fighters
dont care about getting hurt (in the normal waythey are afraid of getting hurt as it affects their
livelihood, like any professional athlete). The real fear is of getting dominated, being made to
look weak or stupid or unskilled, of getting owned, of being forced to quit. Every single fighter
I know would gladly take broken bones and bloody faces to get the win. Pain is nothing. Fighting
is about conquering a fear of being humiliated, of being dominated. When top professional
fighters seem to make excuses for a loss , it has to do with explaining why it appeared they were
dominated. The armchair warriors boo and hiss and criticize, but professional fighters have to
have an excuse as to why they got beat, or they wont be able to go on. Without a reason for their
loss, theyre screwed.
I saw the movie 300 and I was wondering at its mass appeal, especially amongst the
fighter/MMA fan set. Sure, it was violent, but the fighting wasnt anything too new to movies,
the buffed-out bodies wed seen before. Visually, it was cool. Steve Pressfields book, The
Gates of Fire, was vastly superior. So what was the secret of its popularity?
It lay in the demonstration of pure courage. The Spartans choose death with joy in their hearts;
and they chose it in a black and white situation where others failed. Its something that resonates
with fight fansto go joyfully, with gameness. The Spartans choose death, because they value
the freedom to do so more than their lives. The simplicity of the choice resonates very strongly
with us today, because we have so few choices like that in front of us.
This plays to the real world instinctual nihilism of all men, a version of just saying Fuck it. Its
not something easily understood but definitely felt, and here I think the sexes divergenot many
women can be satisfied with the answer, fuck it, while most men will understand it.
Dostoevsky writes in Notes from the Underground,
What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully
understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong
on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing,
but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out
another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness.And what if it happens that a

mans advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases
what is harmful to himself
We choose things that are against on own best interests because the freedom to make that choice
is more important than our own interests. Its a simple choice, in the end.
The fight sports primal aspect of one man against one man has some of this simplicity, which
lends it power. The bravery and gameness displayed are the draw, as much as the technique. How
many times do you hear fighters say I dont care who they put in front of me, Ill fight anyone?
Therein lies the appeal, the fuck it attitude that fighters portray and men are drawn to. Fighters
will gladly say Im willing to die in the ring, and they are admired for it, for the commitment.
In fact, thats a stupid commentyoure willing to die to beat some guy you dont really know,
in a fight for money to entertain people? But its not about the reality of the situation, its about
the principle of the thing. The fighter is saying hes willing to die, rather then be dominated. Hes
valuing his free will over his life, something that we all admire. We come to the fights to see that
as much as great techniquewe want to see heart on display, we want a chance to see real
courage, and it can be a costly show.
Theres an apocryphal story that Martin Luther King, Jr., told (that has been shown to be an
urban mythbut it still is powerful): A young black man is on death row, and the warden has
installed a microphone in the gas chamber, and as the gas starts to flow, we hear the words Save
me Joe Louis, save me Joe Louis whispered in a desperate plea. It could be true.
Humanity needs heroes, from the time we are children through adulthood, we need icons to hold
up as charms against the darkness. Fear of the world is a natural instinct. Part of the magic appeal
of Mike Tyson was that aura of invincibilitythat maybe never existed, but people will still
believe in Oh the young Mike was the greatest of all time because secretly, in your heart, you
think If I was Mike Tyson I would never feel afraid again. Or Muhammad Ali, or Chuck Liddell,
or Randy Couture.
Randy Coutures title fight against Tim Sylvia was an example of the kind of iconic courage we
love in our fightersan older fighter, the crafty veteran, taking on a huge demolishing killer; on
paper Randys chances were slim. When he came out and landed that right hand early, the crowd
went into ecstasy, because here was David and Goliath, here was Captain America triumphing
against all odds.
But the truth is that none of those great fighters exist in a vacuumthey all deal with fearthey
all have feet of clay. Alis rants of Im the greatest were directed mostly at himself. Mike
Tysons terrifying ferocity came from fear; in hindsight, Mike was scared all the time. Randy
Coutures method of dealing with the fear is to turn the fight into a personal challenge. He takes
the fight away from his opponent and makes it about himself; no one thinks I can do this, but I

think I can. Randy looks at Tim Sylvia and sees a puzzle that he can unlock, with the right game
plan. Randy turns a cage-fight into a personal challenge, a physical and mental obstacleits not
really personal, or malicious, or a struggle-to-the-death with himhes just going to outcompete you.
When Floyd Mayweather fought Arturo Gatti and completely outclassed himI dont think
Gatti hit him more than twice in six roundsFloyd fell to his knees and cried when Gattis
corner threw in the towel. Floyd cried that God is great, and refused to be consoled by his own
somewhat uncomfortable corner. Watching it, I realized Floyd had been afraid; which throws his
antics in the build-up against Oscar De La Hoya into a different light. Yeah theyre trying to sell
the fight, but also Floyd is managing his fear. I dont think Floyds afraid of getting hurtbut I
do think hes afraid of somehow falling short of his own greatness that has been assured him
since he was a boy.
The old adage is that courage is not a lack of fear, but controlling it, and indeed, people
without fear are crazy people. And we admire that, superficially, but not as much as we admire
and are drawn to those that conquer fear, those that have the same fears as all of us but go
forward anyway. The fight sports reveal these qualities to us more plainly than any other,
because of the simplicity and purity of what goes on in a cage or a ring.
More than any fighter, the image of bravery that I take to heart is that famous picture by Jeff
Widener of Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government cracked down in 1989. An
unknown, ordinary man, on his way home with his arms full of groceries, stood down the tanks.
Standing down rumbling tanks, tons of steel and metal, with your groceriesstanding down
injustice. If we all could be as brave as him, instantly, without hesitation, the world would never
see injustice again. But most of us will never get a chance to make a choice like that, and so we
look to the ring, to the cage, for courage.

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