Most mixed martial artists are already familiar with the concept of pragmatism, even though they might not be aware of it. When they start training, they assume that they’ll apply the formula that promises to yield the best results.
Mixed martial arts techniques are perfect examples, not simply of pragmatism, but specifi cally of “American pragmatism.” American pragmatism was a movement established in 1850 by philosopher and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce*, who said that something is only true if it is somehow useful in solving a problem. MMA takes Peirce’s idea quite literally, using competition as the proving ground for new techniques. Gone are the days when you could claim to blow your opponent through a wall without offering any empirical evidence to support the contention.
At one time, the danger to martial arts (and to science) was mysticism. The mystic aspect of martial arts fl ourished for many years because the boundaries of competition were limited—closed to additions, critiques, and improvements. People thus assumed that traditional martial arts techniques were forever relevant, forever the best way to do things, despite the changes in combative circumstances. For example, the “one punch, one kill” technique in karate was useful against someone with a samurai sword, but it’s hardly effective against a modern-day boxer. When a martial art lacked a complete method of combat, mysticism rose to fi ll the gap. This mysticism was the blind faith, with very little evidence, that traditional techniques worked. For instance, there was the conventional wisdom that twenty strikes delivered to the arm of an outstretched punch would be effective, but this didn’t account for the fact that the opponent would recoil his hand. Even worse, mysticism provided the reassuring belief that a magical energy force could somehow manipulate one’s opponent.
Then a revolution by innovative thinkers cut through this morass of half-truths and misrepresentations in the martial arts. People like Bruce Lee and the Gracie family utilized the concept of pragmatism, saying that a technique was only true if it worked in practice, if it were proven in an actual fi ght. This powerful concept now clearly underpins MMA, governing most technical training regimens: If a technique doesn’t give you the best chance to win, you replace it with another.
But there is one element to training that pragmatism doesn’t touch, an element that seems to contradict the very essence of pragmatism: idealism. One of the most neglected features of a martial artist’s repertoire, idealism is the belief that you can overcome any obstacle in your path. Although some fi ghters are lucky enough to come by this attitude naturally, most need to cultivate it. Training yourself in practical techniques is necessary, but training yourself to hope is a key to success. No matter how bad a situation looks, you have to believe that you will win. It’s the powerful combination of pragmatic training and belief in yourself that will release your maximum potential.
There have been many examples in MMA of fi ghters winning victories “against insurmountable odds.” One of them is the recent bout between Keith Jardine and Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell. A legend in the sport and a phenomenal fi ghter, Liddell has beaten marquee fi ghters like Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort, and Jeremy Horn. His status as a UFC Legend was solidifi ed by his consistent victories, and he was considered by many to be one of the greatest light heavyweights of all time. Jardine had previously fought some very tough opponents, but no one on Liddell’s level. Almost everyone— professionals, peers, odds-makers, and fans—thought for sure that this was another stepping stone in Liddell’s return to the top. An obvious underdog in this bout, Jardine silenced the chorus of doubts and boos when he exited the cage with a decisive victory. Jardine’s disciplined training spoke the loudest, but he also used the principle of idealism to augment his pragmatic game plan.
The same doubts followed Jardine’s teammate, Rashad Evans, when the latter faced the “Iceman” in September. Armed with the technical knowledge that Jardine and his coaching team had accrued from the previous fi ght, and with a relentless belief in himself, Rashad knocked out Liddell in the second round, silencing the critics yet again.
It was the general consensus of the critics and fans that, on paper, both Jardine and Evans should have lost to a fi ghter of Liddell’s magnitude and reputation. In these cases, however, idealism was the tool by which each man erased that “paper,” using self-belief to complement his already strong discipline and technical aptitude.
But idealism has its time and place. It would have been fatal for either fi ghter to enter Octagon without the physical ability to win, no matter how much he may have believed in himself. Pragmatically, each fi ghter had to train his body to react to cues in the ways it should. Idealistically, each fi ghter had to garner enough mental strength to push himself to the limit, and then to take the extra step to the conviction that he will win.
It is the balance between idealism and pragmatism that provides the optimal formula for an MMA fi ghter. If a fi ghter relies solely on pragmatism, however good his technique, he’ll sacrifi ce a key weapon in his arsenal. After all, there will always be fi ghters who are bigger and better on paper, yet they don’t always win. But if a fi ghter sacrifi ces pragmatic training because of an overweening belief in his abilities, he will go beyond a healthy idealism and fall into the trap of mysticism. And then he will never realize his dream.