Religion & MMA

Eli Lacey ’25 in Sports | April 21, 2023

As an avid Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fan and practitioner, I have been interested in and inspired by an aspect of the sport ever since my introduction: The relationship between MMA and spirituality. Every time I sit down to watch a UFC pay-per-view, Bellator bout, Eddie Bravo’s Invitational, or any other combat sports event, people praise God all the time; So much so that I can guarantee you the next time you sit down to watch a UFC event, there will be someone thanking the Lord for their victory. During Jon Jones’s inspiring post-fight interview after his impressive victory at UFC 285, My brother and I watched Jones praise the Lord for his victory, thanking those who prayed for him before the fight, saying he “felt their prayers strongly.” This made me wonder to myself what about MMA attracted so many spiritual athletes. In this article, I will be talking about the relationship between MMA and spirituality.
Although sports and religion are undoubtedly intertwined, combat athletes take this relationship to another level. Some of the sport's most known athletes: Yoel Romero, Islam Makhachev, Jon Jones, and Khabib Nurmagomedov, are very outspoken about their faith. This devotion isn't just limited to the athletes but also trickles to the coaches and trainers of MMA practitioners with legendary coaches like Firas Zahabi and Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov serving as examples. It is clear that something about the nature of combat sports tends to draw in spiritual people. 
There are many reasons why I think fighters rely heavily on their faith to do their job. The first is the extraordinarily difficult nature of combat sports. In MMA, both mind and body are pushed and tested all the time. Practicing MMA is similar to playing a game of chess, only with way higher risks and rewards. Fighters enter the ring with a game plan that uses the skills they have worked on during their training camp to win efficiently, but, in the words of MMA legend Micheal Bisping, “The game plan falls apart when you get punched in the face.” During a fight, it is necessary to display mental toughness by adapting to varying stressful situations. Factor in the physical pain that comes from getting punched, kicked, and elbowed while also acknowledging how exhausted each fighter is, and you can see pretty quickly how MMA is one of the hardest sports on the planet. When faced with something so challenging, we often need inspiration to keep on going. In this case, fighters call on God because they feel that He gives meaning to what they are doing. They train to bring God glory so that during those long hours bathing in pools of sweat on the mat, they know that their hard work is worth something more than just themselves. I believe that when a fighter has this as their inspiration their work ethic is doubled and often leads them to greatness. 
To further understand why so many fighters are religious we also have to look at the history of MMA. Some of the most effective and commonly practiced martial arts originated in Asia. Ancient Asia was a spiritual hotspot, with 11 major religions originating in the region. Asia’s diversity in belief was no doubt woven in with their martial arts, with many believing the acts themselves were a spiritual practice. By far the most popular voice for the connection between martial arts and spirituality was Bruce Lee, who showed the West that martial arts were more than just punching and kicking and that it was a legitimate outlet for self-expression. I personally believe wholeheartedly in this connection. From watching and practicing MMA, I have learned so many things about life. MMA has made me more competitive and has helped me with problem-solving in intense situations. Not to mention the people you come across in the gym are some of the most interesting people in the world, and it's hard not to befriend someone when you’re both breathing heavily drenched in each other's sweat after a nice long roll. MMA also gives you an outlet to express yourself, and it is this feature that makes many practitioners view MMA as a spiritual experience. Because your fighting style heavily depends on who you are as a person, fighters channel their different styles to express themselves in the cage. For fighters like Alexander Volkanoski, fans can tell he is warrior-like; whilst others like Sean O’Malley are more flamboyant. You can shape your fighting style to embody how you want to be perceived and this freedom makes many fighters view the act of Mixed Martial Arts as a religious experience. So whether it is the difficulty of MMA, the long spiritual history, or the sport itself, there is an undeniable link between spirituality and Mixed Martial Arts.