Quite often lately, we MMA fans are seeing more professional MMA fighters going on record saying they would never take a fight against a teammate. We, the fans, understand and respect that choice. Most of us would likely never consider it ourselves.
Yet, the nature of the sport is there are few large promotions, only one title in each weight class, few weight classes and only so many top gyms to train fighters. At some point teammate paths are going to cross and fighters are going to face the prospect of fighting each other.
Now, not taking that fight against teammates makes absolute sense from the perspective of the average person. To the average person fighting seems to be about anger, violence and malice, therefore, when we think pro fighter, we associate what we know and apply that logic.
To a fighter, though, fighting is generally about sport, competition and physicality rather than anger, violence or malice. Those three motivations may have led a fighter to choose fighting, but rarely do they translate into a career. Fighting, to a fighter, becomes a form of expression like the art of any artist.
The training alone is enough to dissuade those who don't truly love the sport and just want to beat people up. The majority of fighters I know have that rare ability to compartmentalize what they do from their daily lives. Most fighters are down to earth. They aren't found bullying people outside a gym and are generally some of the nicest folks people will meet.
Let's face it: not everyone is a fighter. Not everyone can be. Not all fighters are professionals. However, when a fighter turns pro and begins the long road to title fights in the biggest promotions, that fighter is going to be faced with many decisions, including the possibility of facing a teammate.
Why won't fighters take fights against teammates?
On one hand, fighters live, breath and suffer the life of a martial artist. They generally state they don't choose their bouts and will fight whomever the promotion decides. Yet, on the other hand, that very same fighter swears up and down they will never fight a teammate.
What is the message then? Is a fighter saying what they do is too violent, as critics would claim, thus it should only be inflicted on strangers?
Or perhaps not fighting teammates is an act of honor? Does that make fighting, in and of itself, dishonorable? Is fighting not the very core of what a fighter does?
Let's take Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch as an example. Both men are American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) team members, UFC welterweights and friends who swear to the high heavens they will never take a fight against the other.
To date, both men have perhaps narrowly avoided being placed in a position to face one another courtesy of their respective careers peaking at separate times.
Eventually, though, these teammates may end up facing the prospect of having to fight one another to settle who belongs where in the food chain. Then what? Who takes the high ground and turns the fight down, in turn falling on the sword and losing both face and opportunity? Why, as a fighter, would either?
Should fans even consider a professional fighter not taking a title shot fight over friendship, for example, as high ground at all? At what point in modern sports did friendship excuse professional athletes from competition?
Is there another professional sport that makes accommodations against friends competing against friends?
Granted, not all professional sports require you to pummel your opponent into submission, essentially allowing you to take one of their limbs home with you in order to win, but chances are, these men are aware of this going in.
Now, we can all think of the specific reasons against taking a fight versus a teammate. No one wants to be responsible for injuring a teammate, causing financial & statistical loss or potentially ending a friend's tenure in a promotion altogether.
Having to think about how to pull the trigger to finish a teammate isn't something that most people can fathom. Then again, most people aren't professional fighters. The trouble is, the reality of a professional fighter's chosen occupation is pulling the trigger.
When one chooses to live by a sword one stands a reasonable chance to face killing or being killed by that same sword in a world where opponents are selected by a promotion. Facing a teammate is most certainly going to be awkward considering the implications.
The real responsibility for the awkwardness of a situation where teammates may end up squaring off is on the gyms themselves. Gyms are a business, after all, and fighters are both promotion and revenue streams. Gyms need to keep the lights on and the doors open, too, so they bring in more fighters.
Gyms who groom multiple fighters of the same weight class, in the same promotions, need to be very clear and up front with fighters about how the gym would approach teammates fighting each other.
If the gym avoided the topic or made promises to the fighters the gym was in no position to keep, such as protecting teammates from fighting each other while continually taking on multiple fighters in the same weight class, in the same organizations, then that gym would be at fault.
Is it not reasonable to conclude that a top camp, producing top fighters, all of whom eventually make it to the big show, will sooner or later find themselves facing each other as opponents?
Promotions are going to put together the fights that make sense. Promotions do not, and should not, care about personal relationships. I will also admit, as a fan, I am interested in seeing the best fights after all regardless if two guys are training together or not.
Politics and the business side of the sport aside, is there no respect or honor left in fighting? Or is there just no respect in losing? Martial arts have always had very strong traditions and deep roots in respect and honor. Has MMA become so commercialized that respect and honor no longer have a place?
Do not even the most hated opponents not earn, at the very least, respect for each other after a fight, regardless of the outcome? What is to say friendships would suffer the opposite effect?
Where is the honor in denying one's self and one's friend the opportunity they've spent a good portion of they're lives preparing for?
After much thought on the subject, I can only reasonably conclude that when teammates face crossing this bridge, the divide is not long enough, nor dangerous enough, to back away from. This is who they are and they must act as such.
The mentality that fighters shouldn't face teammates in MMA has to be reconsidered. MMA is not Mortal Kombat. A fight does not typically end in some gory finishing move (Mirko "Cro Cop" vs. Gabriel Gonzaga notwithstanding) as announcers scream "FINISH HIM!" in maniacal bloodthirsty delight.
When a person makes the choice to be a professional fighter they've chosen a life that involves fighting to make a living. Fighters choose they're teammates. Promotions choose they're opponents. With luck those paths will not cross but when they do, it should not represent the end of the world.
All arguments opposed so far are seemingly mitigated by the choice to be a professional fighter in the first place. It's certainly not an ideal situation to face fighting a teammate, but if one cannot accept the possibility and responsibility, then perhaps it's time to find a new line of work.