Killer instinct. You either got it or you don’t, right? Wrong! I believe that killer instinct is learned and honed over time. To ward off the uneducated MMA fan, I do NOT mean “killer instinct” in the literal sense. Nobody involved in MMA is trying to kill another human being. The killer instinct I’m referring to is the kind we see in many sports. The moment a basketball player decides to dunk the ball over his opponent, the moment a football player makes the game-ending tackle, or the moment a NASCAR driver decides to pass the car in front of him: These are all examples of killer instinct.
In the cage, killer instinct is essential for fi nishing off your opponent with a decisive technique. There are many ingredients to the killer-instinct recipe for a MMA fi ghter. First of all, you must have the proper fi ghting skills to fi nish the fi ght. Second, you must have the tactical skills to choose the right attack. Third, you need the eye to recognize the moment to attack. Fourth, precision and timing are essential to landing your techniques. Fifth, and last, there’s the lack of sympathy for your opponent that comes at the critical moment, when you realize “it’s either you or me.” I am unsure if that comes from a dark place in your mind, in your heart, or both. But wherever it is, it is the realization that you must destroy your opponent without mercy. All these ingredients generate the thoughts and movements that combine to create the lovely crescendo of fi ghting will, skill, and brutality that we call “killer instinct.”
You must be thinking to yourself, “Hey Kenny, settle down there, cowboy!” While it may sound extreme, I assure you the same applies to other sports. I am sure the hockey player crushing an opposing player into the boards is not thinking about that player’s well-being. A jockey is not thinking about the other horses or jockeys in the race. Similarly, MMA fi ghters do not want anyone to be seriously injured. We just want to win, like any other elite athlete.
I didn’t always think this way, nor did I truly have all of those killer instinct ingredients early in my career. All I had was a willingness to end the fi ght. I remember seeing the hero in kung fu movies beat his opponents until they gave up. I remember the glory and praise given to the boxer who won with a KO. In my early memories of MMA, there were no time limits. The only way to win was with a defi nitive technique or set of techniques. The Gracies, with their early dominance and effi ciency, were my inspiration for fi nding that perfect fi nish. When Royce Gracie forced an opponent to tap out, it sent a very powerful message to me. Pain, technique, science, and an overwhelming will, all showed that Royce was the better man.
Rushing wildly into a fi ght and throwing caution to the wind is not killer instinct, nor is it the mark of a true professional. Killer instinct is the ability to know when your opponent is hurt and ready to be fi nished in an instant, and the ability to execute the moves leading to checkmate. The expert assassin waits for all the perfect elements to fall into place before he fi res that bullet. I equate this to young lions learning how to hunt. Through watching the example of the older lions, they start to see how it is done. From the outside, it looks like waiting, running, and chewing. In reality, it’s essentially a simple process involving a simple theory, but with nuances and details that result in a beautiful effi ciency. The lion can watch for many weeks and months, but it is only by trial and error that he learns to hunt and kill. The harsh reality is that many lions don’t make it. While they are certainly born with great characteristics, they aren’t born killers, as many believe. They must learn how to catch their prey.
Lions don’t rush in foolishly when trying to kill their prey. They wait and watch, looking for patterns amongst the chaos of the herd. They look for weaknesses, injuries, and distances. When the timing is right, they attack. If they choose wisely, they satisfy their hunger and survive. If one tiny mistake is made, they go hungry and must start over. Sometimes failure can even lead to death, a harsh reality for lions trying to survive in the wild.
There are some great lions out there in MMA today. The difference in MMA is that, at the highest levels of the sport, lions must hunt other lions all the time. Of course, that is never an easy meal. The qualities a lion needs to kill a weaker animal are the same as those required by the modern MMA fi ghter. But when fi ghters of comparable skill and athleticism meet, it will always be the mind and heart that get the victory. While in the cage, there is no time for second thoughts, doubt, or hesitation. These things will often lead to defeat. Like the lion that does not think about injury or loss of life when he is running at full speed in the tall grass, the MMA fi ghter must look fear in the eye and overcome it.
Sometimes in an MMA fi ght, that moment of awareness is obvious to both fi ghter and fans alike. It is often the look in your opponent’s eyes or the weariness exhibited by his movements. More rare is that gut feeling you get when you know you must work fast to take him out. That, too, comes from thousands of hours of training and vital ring experience. It took me countless hours of studying other fi ghters, books, fi ghts, and ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, studying myself. Meditation, learning from past fi ghts, and constant training helped me to get a good grasp of the killer instinct. I am sure that I still require more skills to master it fully.
Killer instinct can be landing a hard jab. It can be seizing the moment when your opponent turns his back while you are mounted. It can happen before, during, and even after a technique. If your opponent is very weak, it can be there all the time. Or it may never come if your opponent is highly skilled, if his will is strong, or both.
Watching an elite MMA hunter is an amazing experience. We have seen them in many variations. Anderson Silva, Georges St- Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko, and Miguel Torres are a few of the champion fi ghters with great killer instinct. Each fi ghter has his own style and his own method of knowing when to fi nish. Some of those champions are more patient, some have quicker eyes or fi nish with grappling, strikes, or some combination of the two. Regardless of the style, however, the less experienced lions should take copious mental notes. For the MMA fans out there, enjoy the view and get out of the way of the hungry lion.