I haven't competed in a cage or otherwise in years. Still familiar, though, are the thoughts and viewpoints that would go through my mind before having to compete.
Feelings of readiness, angst, anger, fear, and confidence would all flash through my brain as quickly as a boxer can throw a jab. Would I win? Would I lose? The mind is powerful, more powerful even than anything the body can do. Some fighters can harness the power of their minds, others struggle and in turn let it slowly bleed a career. If I was able control my thoughts and feelings, I was always met with success. When I couldn't harness them, and let what was happening in my personal life seep into the ring, I almost always lost.
Everyone handles emotions differently. Some wear them on their sleeve for all to see while others keep them bottled up. For a fighter, neither approach is wrong as long as control is taken. People almost always project what they are truly feeling one way or another, even if their words or body language are telling a different story.
I've seen fighters exclaim that they are unstoppable, but something about the way they handle themselves tells me the truth. They are scared, unconfident, speaking in hopes to inspire themselves and not just the audience they are trying to reach.
I've also seen the opposite happen. A fighter can stand there robotic-like, taking insults and criticisms from an opponent while still looking calm and collected. On the inside the inner monologue is screaming, "don't let this get to you, you're prepared, you've trained for this, all this guy has is words to spar with." While all these thoughts may indeed be true, the reality is that if you're having to tell yourself this then the battle has already been won in your opponent's favor.
All disciplines of combat sports are difficult. It takes a special person to stand up to another and be willing to take punches, kicks and the pain that comes with those. Some would say those people are crazy while others would label them as brave. I think it's a mix of both. You do have to be a little crazy to get in a ring with someone else, but it takes more heart than most people can muster to bravely fight someone and not back down from the challenge.
What goes through their heads during all of this? The best answer to that question is this: probably close to nothing.
Hours are spent in the gym preparing for fights. Plenty of conditioning, drills, and sparring fill the schedule of most fighters. One single punch or submission is drilled over and over again hoping to be applied in the perfect moment of a bout. The body is being turned into a fine tuned machine and muscle memory is being developed.
In my day job I run a CNC machine for a manufacturing company. My machine makes precise moves at perfect speeds in order to cut through material the most efficient way. It moves smoothly in a precise rhythm, making each move the exact same way it did the last time. Fighters do the exact same thing in their training. Each move has been practiced for hours and executed with precision. By the time a fighter moves into the ring he doesn't even have to think about what he is going to do. In training, sparring has prepared him to face his opponent. Good sparring partners have already simulated the opponent and when the bell rings muscle memory takes over. Punches are thrown, counterstrikes are absorbed and then countered themselves with combinations or takedowns.
The machine I operate isn't always perfect. Sometimes, and for no apparent reason, a mistake can be made. When this happens I have to reset the machine in hopes of getting the desired results I once had. A fighter is the same way. Every fighter has a loose game plan they want to execute and the hours spent training help develop it.
Mike Tyson, a former boxing world champion, was famously quoted saying: "Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth." In any combat sport the goal is to not get rattled by what your opponent throws at you, but sometimes all it takes is some firm resistance to make you forget what you had spent hours, weeks and months cultivating. It takes a strong will to keep going when the unexpected is thrown at you. It takes an even stronger mind to come up with a new game plan on the spot, regain the advantage, and then win the fight. A strong mind can quickly develop a new fight tactic but a weak mind will crumble.
Fighters believe different things in regards to the mental game. Some say it's 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, while others give it and 80/20 split. How they come up with those ratios I'm not sure, but like most things in life balance is key. I think it's safe to say that at least 50 percent of the game is mental. You wouldn't go to fight the heavyweight champ with no training just because you think you have a stronger mind, would you? Your mind must remain clear, your belief in yourself and your training must be firmly rooted. Some say you must believe deep down you are going to succeed, but dig too deeply and you can miss what's on the surface.
Train hard both physically and mentally. Know yourself, both your strong and weak points, and fine tune your strengths while working to make your weaknesses less inhibiting. Balance is key.