There are few more difficult ways to make a living than being a professional fighter. The working conditions are tough – imagine going to work every day knowing you’ll be kicked, punched and kneed repeatedly by some of the greatest, most highly trained athletes in the world – and there is plenty of uncertainty.
It takes talent, but oh so much more than that to make it to the sport’s highest levels.
It’s not talked about much, but for fighters gifted enough physically to make it to the UFC, mental strength is often what separates the greats from the also-rans.
Matt Brown is closing in on his 37th birthday and has been in the UFC for more than nine years. He’s been one of the fighters Dana White was referring to following the UFC 217 news conference when he said the company’s fights often produce “Holy [expletive]!” moments.
Throughout his career, Brown produced more than his share of those, and there may be a few more still to come in what could be his final fight on Saturday, when he takes on Diego Sanchez in Norfolk, Virginia.
Brown was never the quickest guy in the UFC, nor the strongest or the most gifted athletically. But for most of that nine-year run, Brown was a feared competitor who delivered extraordinary levels of punishment to his opponents and provided numerous indelible memories for the sport’s fans.
With an underrated fight IQ as well as an intense focus, Brown has been able to squeeze out every drop of potential and do what’s needed to win.
He’s done more losing than winning recently, having dropped five of his last six, including three in a row. That will wear on a guy, and it’s probably part of the reason he’s contemplating retiring.
It’s not all of it, though. Nor, as might be expected, is it the physical toll a lengthy career can take. Brown has been in the UFC since 2008 and has been fighting professionally since 2005.
“I don’t feel as good as I did when I was 21 or 25, but honestly, I don’t think the [physical] toll is as bad as people make it out to be,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “To me, it’s not the physical toll. My body can handle everything I’ve thrown at it. I’ve become smarter and smarter about training and honestly, I was always pretty smart about how I trained. If anything, I might have trained too much. But this is nothing at all, really, with how I feel or what the sport has done to my body after all these years.”
Rather, it’s the pressure he’s faced in a variety of ways that gnaws at him. The thing that makes a fighter who reaches the UFC different than the one who is talented enough but can’t make it is their mental ability to handle whatever is thrown at them.
And there is plenty, as the wide-eyed amateurs heading to the pros soon find out.
“This isn’t an easy life to live,” Brown said.
There are so many aspects to it beyond the physical part of the equation. There’s worrying about paying training camp expenses to get ready for a bout and then to have an opponent be injured and the fight canceled, with no payday forthcoming, as pro fighters only get paid when they compete.
It’s concern about winning, when half of the paycheck is dependent upon victory. It’s that and more, and for Brown, having children has opened his eyes to many other issues.
“At this point, it’s the mental toll that has me thinking the way I am,” he said. “I have three kids now and a lot of financial stress and stressors in general. It’s a tough business to be in. The physical side is [tough], yeah, but it’s a lot more on the mental stressor side.
“There are so many layers to doing this and it wears on you after a while. One of them is, for sure, the financial instability. Being a fighter, you really have to be a good accountant, at least at the level I’m at. I’m not making Conor [McGregor] money. At that point, you’d have to be stupid to blow it. Where I’m at, look, I live a good life and I’m not whining and complaining about the money we’re making. That’s not it. But I have to be intelligent with it and it’s something I’m constantly thinking about.”
Brown is dabbling in coaching, and said that while money that might come from it is nice, it’s not why he’s gotten into it.
Again, being a father has taught him a lesson.
“Having kids has really taught me the beauty of giving back,” Brown said. “It feels really good and it’s what martial arts is about. When you start in martial arts, you learn respect and you learn about giving back and sharing, and for me, the coaching part has solely been a way to give back to this sport that has done so much for me.”
He’ll have one final run, at least, before he decides to walk off the stage for the final time. When he first spoke of retiring, he said it was because he felt he’d lost the hunger to compete for a championship.
Now, he’s not so sure. As he’s gone through camp and the fight has gotten close, that desire is there again.
He won’t make any decisions until after the bout, which he’s eager to take. Sanchez is, like Brown, one of the most exciting fighters of this era and his fights produce fireworks regularly.
He has no expectations, he insists, but is ready for whatever comes.
“I’ve had a few of those ‘Holy [expletive]!’ moments in my career, and the [Robbie] Lawler fight I think is one that comes to mind,” he said. “Will this fight be one of those? We’ll see. I know on paper, it looks like a barnburner. But so many things can happen in this sport that I don’t have expectations. I just go out there and do my job.
“I hope it lives up to expectations. I hope people love it. But I can’t get caught up in thinking that way. I’m ready and I’ve done what I can do to be ready. It’s a matter of going out and performing and doing the job, the same way I’ve always tried to do.”
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