What goes through your mind when you’re about to start your workday? Do you feel a sense of impending doom? Or maybe your face stays impassive as another day of drudgery begins. Or perhaps you walk in with fear coursing through your veins, knowing that you’re one misstep away from an HR memo or a verbal hiding from your boss.
No matter what you feel, though, it can’t possibly compare to what a UFC fighter experiences heading into their workplace. The adrenaline rush of stepping into a cage to fight in front of millions is something that few of us mere mortals will ever feel. Once that Octagon door shuts, those guys aren’t worrying about their monthly KPIs or sales quotas. Impending doom? That’s putting it mildly. In there, it’s all about survival.
In the lead-up to UFC 221, we got the chance to see up close just what that kind of anticipation looks like. The fighters you see here, Damien Brown and Ben Nguyen, will step into the Octagon this weekend in Perth, Australia.
We follow them early on in fight week to the Academy of Mixed Martial Arts to watch them work out and fine-tune their skills. With them are some of their staunchest training partners: Elliot Compton, a champion kickboxer, and Aaron Blackie, a young undefeated prospect. MMA might be a one-man sport on fight night, but no fighter gets to that cage on his own.
Though Brown and Nguyen are days removed from doing battle, we don’t sense the kind of fear or anxiety that would normally come with such a daunting task. Instead, we’re met with consummate pros entering the office. Gloves and shorts instead of a suit and tie. These are seasoned combatants with a job to do.
“I don’t really feel any kind of excitement or nervousness leading up to fight week,” Brown shares. “Then I begin to get excited—butterflies in your stomach, and you get the excitement of finally coming to fight week.”
Nguyen, a transplanted American and the star of that viral knockout video from a few years ago, doesn’t shy away from how he feels. “I get nervous, obviously. I think everyone should get nervous.”
What becomes apparent very quickly is that these guys aren’t just training partners, but close friends who have forged deep bonds by punching each other in the face on a regular basis. Though they’re deadly serious about their training, there’s still enough time to trade jokes like they do in their home gym. Some are light-hearted, while others border on personal. Still, all the #savage taking place is in good fun.
Brown, a deadpan former soldier, finds solace in humor. “I don’t take anything too seriously,” he says. “I think there are a lot of fighters that need to be angry to fight. During the fight, I can switch on. When it comes time to fight and that cage door shuts, I know what the intention of my opponent is. I don’t need to be angry to switch on, I just switch on and do my thing.”
“We just got to remember and realize that we put in hours of training,” Nguyen says on keeping things light. “I’ve done this for 10 years now, this is my sixth UFC appearance. For me, it’s just realizing it’s just another fight. It’s not the end of the world if things don’t go your way,”
Yes, these guys actually have feelings. They’re not the invincible supermen they appear to be on TV, impervious to any harm. They’re human beings, each with their own worries and responsibilities. Nguyen finds that the pressure of fight week eases up after weigh-ins, when he sees his opponent and realizes that the monster he’s built up in his head is pure fiction.
Brown, meanwhile, can spend one minute sharing his nutritionist’s diet advice while later sharing a harrowing tale from his time on the battlefield. The worldly veteran has seen and experienced realities that can make a cage fight seem timid in comparison.
And it’s this perspective on the bigger picture that puts him at ease when he thinks about fighting. With a full-time job and a family at home, Brown feels no pressure with his fight career. His life is his safety net, he says, and he’s in the cage simply because he loves it.
“I don’t feel any pressure today, or this week at all,” Brown reveals. “I just go in there and fight, knowing that no matter what happens I have something to fall back on.
“I’ve always had a job. I’ve got a house, cars, wife, baby—I created this life that I can just go to at any stage. Any fight could be my last fight, and I’ll continue to work.”
No, they’re not supermen. They’re full-time athletes. And that means worrying about what lands on their plate as well as their faces. This is especially true for fighters, who spend fight week cutting back on the scales to make their required fighting weight. The juxtaposition of getting into peak shape while eating as little as possible, we imagine, can be a real challenge.
Dinner time for them, especially in a foreign city, is a meticulous affair, and it takes several passes before a restaurant can be chosen. Even the wrong kind of sauce can be enough for a meal to be deemed unworthy. When a fight is at stake, no stone can be left unturned.
“I’m going to have a top-shelf whiskey on the rocks. And I don’t know yet, but the buffet in the hotel looks pretty awesome,” Brown says when asked about his post-fight plan.
Before we part, we ask the two fighters for any advice they can give for surviving fight week. Life, just like an MMA fight, is a constant struggle. Their words of wisdom, then, can apply to any field of pursuit. Impending doom optional.
“Don’t focus on the outcome so much,” Nguyen advises. “Things might not go your way. A lot of times it just takes that lucky punch to get cleaned up. You’ve just got to focus on doing your best.”
“Make sure you are surrounded by people who can keep it light-hearted,” Brown preaches. “Don’t take it too seriously, as funny as that sounds. Don’t take the week too seriously. Just enjoy it, embrace every moment so you don’t look back and go ‘What happened?’”