The Path to Emotional Intelligence by Watching People Get Punched in the Face

Bellator_75_results_photoThis essay, by Paolo Sambrano of Oakland, Calif., won the Co-Main Event Podcast’s second “annual” White Elephant Essay Contest, in the personal narrative category.

Sometimes I think I got into mixed martial arts just to troll my circa mid-1990’s dad, who would gently encourage/chastise me for not watching sports like the other boys in school. But this isn’t a story about how MMA reconciled my relationship with my father (although one of my fondest memories with him was beholding Jose Canseco’s MMA debut against Hong Man Choi during Dream 9, as part of their 2009 Super Hulk Tournament). Nor is it a story about the boys I went to elementary school with, although this is a story about relating to people. This is a story about how MMA helped kill my ego and helped increase my emotional intelligence.

Growing up, sports to me were defined as bodies in matching jerseys chasing after a circular talisman for 30 seconds, buttressed by five hours of commercials for Dodge Ram pick-up trucks. The consistent start-stop generated a low-grade anxiety attack for me. If sports didn’t involve the phrase “I’ll take the physical challenge,” Nitro from the American Gladiators, or the multicolored parachute used in elementary school PE, I wanted nothing to do with it. It would just take away from time spent playing Mech Warrior 2 on the PC.

In 2005, I remember seeing a billboard for the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” My only prior exposure to the UFC, let alone MMA, was perusing the special interest racks at Suncoast Video in the mall. There was an illicit energy in scanning the backs of the boxes, trying to suss out if this really was a real life “Bloodsport.” Exposing myself on a weekly basis to the show unlocked a visceral, visual feedback, that was way better than keeping track of the movements of a color-coordinated team moving that circular talisman into a designated scoring position. The fact there were no commercial breaks during fights sealed the deal for me.

My real fandom (and self-imposed suffering) didn’t begin until I discovered Pride Fighting Championships. Pride FC made me believe that anything could happen, if you define “anything” as Taiko drumming, children’s choirs, and soccer kicks. It wasn’t until Pride that I started to assimilate MMA into my own sense of self. Steven C. Hayes describes this as the conceptualized self: “The conceptualized self is brimming with content; this content is the story about you and your life that you’ve been selling to yourself. It contains all the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and behavioral predispositions that you’ve bought and integrated into a stable verbal picture of yourself.” (Hayes 90)

I began to narrativize MMA as the central item in my entire self identity. Everything began to refract off of the fact that I was not only a fan of Japanese MMA (not that domestic UFC wrestle shit) but I was also more into Threadless shirts than Tapout, and more likely to listen to The Postal Service and New Order than “The Ultimate Fighter” theme song and Stemm’s “Face the Pain.” I was in love with the fact I wasn’t the standard MMA fan. At that point, the average MMA fan would have been considered kissing cousins with Juggalos. I was smashing expectations! I was a pioneer! And it worked wonders on my self-esteem. Until it didn’t.

Looking back, building an identity for myself based on things I liked over the things others didn’t like was like having a puncher’s chance in interpersonal relationships. If the other person had no idea what I was talking about, that was like scoring a one punch KO with a telegraphed right hand from Mars. But if the other person was familiar with the sport? Or if they knew more than I did? That was them slipping my punch and countering with a brutal left hook right to the ego, disintegrating who I thought I was. Despite my good-hearted love of the sport (I even started training in Muay Thai and boxing), I still largely didn’t know what was going on (blame a lack of sports growing up). I could recognize an armbar and a double leg takedown, but beyond rudimentary movements, I was far from being conversant in MMA with other people who knew the sport. I was projecting my developing sense of identity against other people, craving to be the “unique” one in the relationship, but fearful at being found out as a fraud. This insecurity was written about by Carl Jung, “Projections of all kinds obscure our view of our fellow man, spoiling his objectivity, and thus spoiling all possibility of genuine human relationships.” (Jung 181)

My love of the sport eventually plateaued along with the sport’s ascent into the mainstream. But with that, so did any semblance of perceived superiority for following the sport against people who didn’t. It is silly to try and feel niche when your sport’s flagship promotion is on the same network as “The Simpsons,” after all. Also my constant exposure to people (via the internet) who knew more than me (on top of liking the same things I did) helped kill whatever lingering ego was left in regards to my self identity. At this point, I know more about MMA than I ever have, and I still feel like I don’t know anything. And that’s okay. More than okay, in fact. That means I am giving myself the ability to learn from other people and not feel like my entire identity just crumbled before me. And maybe, that’s just coming out with a higher emotional intelligence than when I started following the sport.

Works Cited

Hayes, Steven. Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2005. Print

Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols. New York, NY: Dell Publishing. 1964. Print

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Print.

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