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LAS VEGAS — The ring walk has long been a staple of the fight game. A stone-faced fighter walks slowly toward the ring or the cage, surrounded by people but alone with their thoughts.
In a few moments, the peace will be shattered with the sound of a bell and another person coming forward meaning to do harm
As a group, they’re the toughest people on the planet, but they are not immune to the emotions, particularly the nerves and the doubts, that afflict all of us as we head into a difficult situation.
When superstar gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Games, it once again brought to the public consciousness the issue of mental health for athletes as well as the nerves they share prior to competition.
Middleweight Uriah Hall certainly understands those feelings well. Hall, who fights Sean Strickland on Saturday at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 33, said it’s a constant battle with one’s emotions before a fight, particularly during the walk to the cage.
— Kevin Iole (@KevinI) July 29, 2021
“I think for most athletes, you’re always going to battle those, even the greats,” Hall said of his emotions. “When doubts seep in, you’re always going to have those two roads. You can go to the left or the right. Usually, the left is that self-doubt, that negative affirmation. The right is planting the right seed: ‘If I do this, do this and do that, then it’s the road to victory.’
“But a lot of times, a lot of athletes feel it’s not normal that way. ‘Oh, I have to be tough all the time.’ No, you’re a human being. That’s one of the things that I have to recognize that, ‘Hey man, this is normal.’ I’ve had a few people remind me that it’s normal to feel that way. It’s totally normal. But it’s how you give it powers, how you handle it. It’s how you allow it to manifest itself. It’s what you tell yourself. It’s how you counter it when those negative voices are coming in your head as you’re walking out, saying, ‘Oh s*** I’m actually going to fight this guy.’ It’s how you counter those [that matters] and it’s a consistent fight. It’s something you can never defeat, but you can fight it.”
MMA fighters are among the most well-conditioned athletes in the world and if anyone is ready for battle, it’s them. But that walk to the cage is a long one when you’re the one about to fight.
Fighters think of the opponent, of how good he or she is, of knockouts or finishes they’ve scored. They begin to question themselves and their skills and their abilities and their preparation.
What Hall has learned over the years is that it is impossible to prevent the negative thoughts from seeping into his head, no matter how well he’s prepared and how confident he is of victory.
The difference, though, is fighting back against it.
“You learn from your mistakes and you learn from your successes, but it’s how you dwell on those negative places,” Hall said. “You don’t stay there long. You acknowledge it and you move forward. Most people acknowledge it and then they stay there and hang out.
“You think of the heartbreak of a break-up. You stay there: ‘Oh man, I feel this way. I miss the person. It sucks. This hurts.’ Then you dwell on that negative affirmation and it just pulls you lower. You don’t recognize that this happened, it happened to you. What can you gain from it? Yes, it’s going to suck, but acknowledge it’s going to suck and still push forward. [If you do], you’ll get out of it.”
When Hall is on the way to the Octagon, he can in his own mind make his opponent seem larger than life.
It’s not hard to do when you have faced the kind of elite opposition that Hall has done, men like Anderson Silva, Thiago Santos, Chris Weidman, Gegard Mousasi and Derek Brunson.
Hall said when he’s on his way to the cage, his head is filled with thoughts about the opponent.
“[It’s like], ‘Holy s***, I’m going to fight Anderson Silva,’” Hall said. “That’s exactly what’s going on in my mind. It’s either, ‘Holy s***’ or ‘What the f***,’ or ‘Oh my God. Holy s***, why am I doing this? Why am I not at home? What the f***? Shouldn’t I be doing something else?”
Those thoughts will undoubtedly be in his head against Strickland, who at BetMGM is a -215 favorite to defeat Hall.
It figures to be a high-action, fast-paced fight and the possibility of a finish is high.
For Hall, though, it’s been a process of learning to deal with those kinds of thoughts and to not allow them to negatively impact his performance.
“I heard Cowboy Cerrone speak about it and I had thought it was just me [feeling that way],” Hall said. “He said, ‘I’m backstage and people are cheering me up and ‘You got this,’ and I’m like, ‘Shut the f*** up.’ I’m getting weak and all this anxiety is pulling energy. You’re like, ‘I trained so hard. I’m in shape. Why am I getting tired so fast?’ It’s the craziest adrenaline rush ever.”
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