Las Vegas Review Journal – July 9, 2009 – Adam Hill – Fighters’ physical, mental toughness stoke fan interest. Brandon Beals looks like every other Ultimate Fighting Championship fan walking around Mandalay Bay three days before the mixed martial arts outfit’s historic Saturday night card.
Beals and six friends are assembled near the doors where they expect some of the competitors in UFC 100 to exit on their way out of Wednesday’s media workouts, hoping to get a glimpse of some of the sport’s biggest stars.
The 38-year-old Beals said he has been a fan since UFC 1, nearly 16 years ago.
“I think it’s nonstop action. There’s lots of upsets. I think it’s also very fan-friendly,” Beals said. “There’s more action than boxing, and that’s cool.”
Yes, Beals might be like any other UFC fan — except he is the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church in Lynnwood, Wash., outside of Seattle.
He does not think the sport conflicts with the values he preaches at his church.
“If it was still no-holds barred, if it was underground or illegal, then yes,” he said. “But this is legal and sanctioned. It’s got rules. You’re talking about stellar athletes, so I don’t believe it does at all.”
Dr. John F. Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla., said the adoption of rules went a long way to helping mixed martial arts gain acceptance among mainstream fans and that the sport will continue to grow.
“As far as the blood-and-guts aspect, some people will be turned off by that, and that’s understandable,” Murray said. “But if you look at it as a pure sport, and the rules are important to that, it’s not that way. If they continue to make it something that won’t turn off a large part of the population, it will just continue to get bigger and bigger.”
Murray has worked with MMA fighters in the past. He said he was not interested in the sport until he started learning about some of the athletes.
“It wasn’t something I would have naturally gotten into,” said Murray, who was a tennis player. “I’ve grown to appreciate how amazingly complex it is and how much the mental skills need to be a part of any training.”
Frank Mir, the interim heavyweight champion who will try to unify the belt against current heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar on Saturday, thinks much of that mental aspect is ingrained in the sport’s competitors.
“I think that we’re kind of genetically wired at birth to be a certain type of individual,” Mir said. “The same kind of guy that will jump out of an airplane or go bungee jumping. The same kind of guy that signs up to go into the military and doesn’t just sign up to go fix cars, but he wants to sign up to be a ranger and be the first guy into battle.”
Mir said a fighter’s mentality differs from that of other athletes.
“I mean, in a football game, you go and hit somebody. Everybody’s wearing helmets and pads. It’s not that personal level of seeing the guy in front of you and causing him discomfort,” he said. “Whereas in the competitive arts, such as boxing, wrestling and MMA, there is that closeness of combat. And so first and foremost, you have to have that mindset that you’re willing to overcome those fears and just, you know, a less PC term, you’re just kind of crazy, I guess, to begin with.”
Stephan Bonnar, who will fight Saturday against Mark Coleman, says the mental aspect is still a struggle, particularly during grueling training camps.
“It definitely takes a different kind of person. It’s not for everyone,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s still hard. Every day, you get pushed to your breaking point. It’s a constant struggle just trying to stay in the best shape possible. It’s not like baseball, where you can get your swing down and you’re just hitting dingers. It takes tons of work every day.”
As for what keeps drawing fans to the sport, Murray says the formula is pretty simple.
“It’s one person against another person, and they can bring whatever skills they have to the table, within reason,” he said. “It’s raw.”
That has helped the sport grow quickly with fans across all demographics.
In fact, while Beals attends his fourth live event Saturday, the pay-per-view broadcast of the card will be shown back home at his church.
Dr. Murray is in Las Vegas this weekend for UFC 100 and sports psychology.