I was talking with Strikeforce fighter and Invicta FC commentator Julie Kedzie
recently about the problem of fighter cliches. You know the ones. You hear at least one or two in almost every pre-fight interview.
Everybody's in the best shape of his or her life. Nobody wants to leave it in the hands of the judges. Something something swing for the fences and impose my will. The words have no meaning anymore.
That's how it is with cliches. Certain phrases get worked past the point of death, and then we prop up the lifeless husks when we're too lazy to think of anything else. But for fighters, Kedzie pointed out, dead language is often safe language.
"If you're not sure what to say, you can always fall back on those," she told MMAjunkie.com
That's especially true before a fight, when there are so many opportunities to talk about what you have done and what you plan to do, and therefore so many ways to screw up and give something away. That's why fighters lie to us before fights. They're almost forced to. If they told us everything they'd been through in the weeks leading up to this moment, we'd accuse them of making excuses, and their opponents would question their resolve. It would be like walking around with a T-shirt that says, Here's Where I'm Vulnerable. That's why one of the most common lies fighters tell us usually goes a little something like this: "I've had the best training camp of my life."
Sound familiar? If you believe what fighters tell you before their bouts, no one has ever had anything less than an absolutely stellar training camp. Even the other wonderful training camps they've had, the ones that were, at the time, the best of their lives? Those were crap compared to this one. This was the best. Sure it was.
And don't think fighters aren't just as skeptical as the rest of us when they hear this line.
"I guess it has to be true one of those times," UFC flyweight Joseph Benavidez said. "But the thing is, it's thrown out every single training camp. One of those has to be the best, but I don't believe that every new one is better than the last one because it just doesn't happen like that. Every training camp can't be the best training camp of your life."
In fact, odds are that at least one or two of those training camps were downright bad. Some might have even been horrible. It's just that fighters don't get the chance to tell the truth about that side of the equation very often.
Take UFC of FUEL TV 6 headliner Rich Franklin
, for instance. Most people know about the broken arm he suffered shortly before knocking out Chuck Liddell in the first round at UFC 115. What they might not know is that the fight itself came at the end of what Franklin still considers the worst training camp of his career.
"There were just constant setbacks, one after another," Franklin said.
From a torn ligament in his hand to an illness to a severely pulled calf muscle that prevented him from running for most of the camp, it seemed like nothing went right. Still, he went through the motions in his pre-fight interviews and talked about what a great camp he'd had and what excellent shape he was in. It wasn't exactly the truth, but it was what people expected. No one wants to hear about your injuries. If you dare discuss them, you invite criticism and all manner of unsolicited advice about how you should alter your training, as if it's that simple. Often enough, Franklin pointed out, it's the little stuff that gets you hurt, even when you're training smart.
"When I tore the ligament in my hand, I was grappling with a guy, just kind of drilling, not even going live," Franklin said. "I was in his guard, and he kind of knocked me off balance. I went to plant with my hand, and it rolled underneath me, and that was all it took. That's how I tore a ligament in my hand. Just something that simple. Those things happen."
So what do you do in that situation? One thing you don't do is broadcast your infirmities to the world. Partly that's because you don't need your opponent to know exactly what's wrong with you before the fight even starts – but also because fight fans are notoriously unforgiving about anything that could be perceived as an excuse. As Franklin put it: "There are just so many things that happen in training that you don't hear about it. I don't talk about the things that happened to me in training camps when I lose fights. I don't want people to be like, 'Well, that's an excuse.'"
Another good example is former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.
Before his title defense against Junior Dos Santos on the UFC's first FOX event a year ago, there were rumblings about an injured knee, maybe some less-than-perfect days in the gym. Velasquez and his camp did their best to stifle that talk the week of the fight, but the truth was even worse than the rumors, Velasquez admitted.
The training camp he'd just gone through in order to get ready for his big network TV debut? "That was the worst," Velasquez said.
Forget the knee, which Velasquez and his trainer, Javier Mendez, both refused to talk about in the aftermath of the knockout loss to Dos Santos. What really made things tough was the fact that Velasquez had gone through surgery to fix a torn rotator cuff that January, and the recovery was a difficult one.
"The doctor ordered me not to do anything, not even run," Velasquez said. "He said the vibrations would mess up the shoulder as it was healing. I pretty much couldn't do anything. Once I got cleared and we got a fight date, I had to rush to get back to where I was. It was rough."
It's not just a matter of getting back in fighting shape at that point, Velasquez added. It's also an issue of muscle-memory and psychology. For fighters forced off the mat, the mind atrophies along with the body, and when that happens, Velasquez said, "You get that stuff back very slowly.
But this whole "best training camp ever" thing? It isn't just for the benefit of media and fans. Even when it's a lie, it's not solely intended to trick an opponent, many fighters admit. A lot of times, it's a tool to trick yourself. What else are you supposed to do when you know you're not as healthy or ready as you'd like to be?
UFC middleweight Cung Le
went through something similar before his loss to Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139.
"Javier Mendez was my coach at the time – now I have a new coach – and he was just too busy," he said. "He had Cain [Velasquez] fighting at the time, and I got banged up really bad in training. No one supervised me and watched my whole camp like I was used to. Training with someone like 'King' Mo [Lawal] every day took its toll. I almost didn't make it to the fight, but I'm one of those guys who unless I'm in the hospital and I can't move, I'm going to fight."
And so when it came time to fight, Le had to ignore how physically damaged he already felt, though sometimes that's easier said than done.
"I tried not to think about it too much because the mental aspect is the biggest thing," Le said. "I tried to forget about all the fear or bad thoughts, but it did come up. I just tried to ignore it."
Even Benavidez, who is well aware that he's hearing pre-fight bluster when his peers get a microphone shoved in their faces before a big fight, knows what that's like. After losing a decision in a five-round title fight against Dominick Cruz, he accepted a bout with Wagnney Fabiano at WEC 52 on about five weeks' notice, he said. He suffered a broken nose in training and then a cut he had to glue shut. That meant he had to lay off the sparring in the weeks before the fight. When he walked in to fight Fabiano, he was far from being in perfect condition. Of course, he couldn't admit that, even to himself.
"The way I approached it was, hey, sometimes I don't spar for a few weeks or I'm out of the gym for a month, and then my first sparring session back I go with Urijah [Faber] or Chad [Mendes] or T.J. Dillashaw, and I do great," Benavidez said. "You can't think about how you're not as ready as you could be when that situation comes up. I try to think, if I was cut and wasn't training or something, if some dude came up in a parking lot and tried to steal my car, I'd still have to beat the s--- out of him whether I'm training or not."
For Benavidez, it worked. He submitted the jiu-jitsu ace Fabiano in the second round. The things that had gone wrong in the gym amounted to nothing in the end.
And, when you think about it, that's a curious part of the job for fighters. They know how important good, hard training is. That's why they do so much of it. They have to believe that work will equal success. But when something happens that prevents them from doing as much work as they wanted to – or doing it as well as they wanted to – they also have to be able to tell themselves it doesn't matter. Maybe they even have to be able to talk themselves into believing that the negatives are really positives, in one way or another.
For Franklin, who said he still looks back on his string of injuries and illnesses before the Liddell fight as speed bumps in an overall good camp, a lot of it has to do with faith, both in himself and in a higher power.
"You know what I tell myself?" Franklin said. "I tell myself that if I'm still there, still in the fight even if I'm injured, I must be meant to be there. God has a purpose for me being in that fight, and I believe that. I believe I'm on a path in my life directed by God."
Regardless of the reason, in 13 years as a professional, Franklin said he's never pulled out of a fight due to injury or illness – "not even once" – a feat that seems a lot more impressive in light of the injury scourge that's hit the UFC's roster in recent months.
At the same time, there has to come a point where fighting through injuries crosses over the boundary between courageous and reckless. In a sport in which your career changes so much with each win or loss, you want to give yourself the best possible chance for success, though without treating it like a space-shuttle launch that can't proceed in anything but optimal conditions. Sometimes things go your way in training. Sometimes you just say they did and hope the lie won't matter in the end.
Because, as Benavidez pointed out, one thing that's almost surely not going to happen is a widespread abandonment of pre-fight cliches in favor of uncomfortable truths, as fun as that might be for the rest of us.
"If saying that makes a fighter believe in himself more, then good," Benavidez said. "I'm just waiting for someone to be like, 'Ah, this is probably the third-best training camp of my life.'"
For that kind of honesty in this kind of business, it could be a long wait.