Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Competition fighting motivation

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Competition fighting motivation:
What motivates people to engage in competition fighting?


Crook (1994, p. 133), defines the link between people and fighting:
"Man is once for all a fighting animal ... a millennium of peace would not breed the fighting disposition out of our bone and marrow."

Fighting has been around for many thousands and probably millions of years. Fighting is typically used for survival, for example, to fight off predators, win over a mate or for food. Fighting was also used in wars to conquer territory or to protect the people and territory from invaders. During Roman times it was seen as entertainment where Gladiators would fight to the death to win over the crowds of Rome, for glory and freedom[factual?]. The question this chapter seeks to ask is why do people on purpose compete in competition fighting? Fighters go into competitions knowing there is a high possibility they are going to get hit or hurt, so why is it fighters deliberately put themselves in these situations when they can choose not to do so? There are many styles of fighting in the human species i.e. karate, kung-fu, mixed Martial arts, kickboxing, boxing, wrestling etc. Most of these styles have competitions where people can test their skills, and compete to see who is the better fighter. There is little research done on what motivates people to engage in competition fighting, therefore this chapter will explore the history of fighting and relevant motivation concepts including hormonal responses, difference between fighters who win or lose, and considers what motivates people to engage in competition fighting.

Why do people fight?

Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, quotes:
"I don't care what colour you are, I don't care what country you're from. We're all human beings, fighting's in our DNA. We get it, and we like it."(Kellaway, 2014)

People fight for multiple reasons; survival, mating and status symbol. In a study by Archer (2007), it was found that prisoners would rather fight an even matched or stronger opponent to earn status, as their reputation is at stake, and there is a risk of losing their resources to the challenger if they do not fight or defend themselves. The underlying reason why humans fight is because it is a primal instinct (Crook, 1994). Fighting has its presence throughout thousands of years of history amongst all human cultures and animals dating as far back as the stone age, being used as a response to defend, escape, capture and to acquire a mating partner (Crook, 1994). The fight response stems from an ancestral source and as situational, being used as a response to fear or anger (Crook, 1994). Theorists linked this [what?] with lower brain function and [what?] has been attributed to the evolution of primal experience in human and pre-human history (Crook, 1994). McDougall describes some of the seven instincts as "combat in rivalry, fighting during courtship and counterattack" (Crook, 1994, p133).

History of competition fighting

In the scope of martial arts, people often fight competitively to test their skill, status, glory of winning, respect or for career reasons. These reasons have dated back hundreds of years amongst different cultures and fighting styles.

Figure 1 Gladiator at battle in the arena

In Roman history, there were fighters called gladiators who would fight for their freedom, or for the glory of Rome (Coleman, 2007). The majority of the time these fights were to the death, and would be carried out in an Amphitheater in front of an audience, and was a defining part of their culture and civilisation (Coleman, 2007). Gladiators were typically slaves, or free citizens who chose to do so (Coleman, 2007). Gladiators were seen as one of the important threads that kept together the economic and social fabric of the Roman world,[grammar?] they had opportunity to go from being worthless to becoming a hero depending on their victories (Coleman, 2007). Like modern day martial arts competitors, gladiators would do vigorous training, were placed on a high energy diet and received expert medical attention (Coleman, 2007).

In African tribes, fighting is deeply embedded in the culture, and is alive through their history, rituals and arts through hundreds of generations (Jennings, 2016). Fighting also served as a hierarchical function, in which boys would become men, In Egypt, the Pharaoh would compete to show off his skills (Jennings, 2016). The women from Nuba would wrestle once a year close to harvesting season, where a skilled woman would be rewarded by acclaiming a husband from her village (Jennings, 2016). Often there would be a festival where the different villages within Africa would gather to compete in grappling, and represent their village at these contests (Jennings, 2016). Women were not restricted in competing at wrestling competitions, youth to 70 years old would compete even against each other, they would often compete to show their power rather than impress their male counterparts (Jennings, 2016). They would also train in striking combat to protect the tribe against other tribes who tried to raid them (Jennings, 2016).

Figure 2 Muay Thai[explain?]

Fighting is used as a form of protection,[grammar?] in the Thai culture, Muay Thai was taught to the military so they could protect the citizens of Thailand in the wars between Burma and Cambodia, and to ensure the survival of the Thai culture (Tiger Muay Thai, 2015). Soldiers were trained to use their whole bodies as a weapon, the shins and forearms were conditioned to become hardened for use as shields, and the hands, legs, knees and elbows as weapons,[grammar?] it is also known as "The art of eight limbs" (Tiger Muay Thai, 2015). A lot of history on Muay Thai was lost when the Burmese raided Ayudhaya, Siam's capital city in Thailand in the 14th century (Tiger Muay Thai, 2015). Muay Thai developed from being used during war to becoming a national sport, and was loved by the Kings of Thailand throughout the eras (Tiger Muay Thai, 2015). Muay Thai has developed over the last few hundred years to become the martial art it is today (Tiger Muay Thai, 2015).

Professional career fighting

Figure 3 Championship fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston Miami Beach, Florida.

Fighting as a professional career has its early origins in the days of professional boxing, while boxing originated during the Greek and Roman times, boxing didn't come into the Golden age until the 1780s in Britain (McKay & McKay, 2009). It was from 1780 where boxing truly developed as a national sport,[grammar?] it went from England and made its Golden Age in America around the 19th century, when the British started to travel there for other opportunities (McKay & McKay, 2009). Boxing started to become popular on television around the 1940s to 1950s and was also performed in boxing arenas, where people could pay to go watch the fights live (McKay & McKay, 2009). Some well noted boxers who made professional careers out of boxing were Mohammed Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson (McKay & McKay, 2009). Boxing does not have the popularity like it used to, with MMA and the UFC becoming the most popular of the fighting sports to date (McKay & McKay, 2009).

Figure 4 José Aldo vs. Conor McGregor, UFC 189 World Tour London.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is one of the most popular MMA promotions in the world at present. UFC produces more than 40 live events annually and is the largest Pay-Per-View event provider in the world, broadcast in over 129 countries and territories, to nearly 800 million TV households worldwide, in 28 different languages" (UFC, 2015). The UFC has many fighters consisting of women and men on its roster that are career professionals, the more fights they win the more money they make,[grammar?] opportunity to move up the ladder within their weight class to try and get to the top where they will eventually get a chance to fight for the title belt (UFC, 2015). Some of the top earning MMA fighters for 2016 are Connor McGreggor (US$4,180,000), Nate Diaz (US$2,690,000) and Robbie Lawler (US$1,130,000) (Fox, 2016).

Motivational processes

Competition fighting uses both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, which alongside amotivation are needed to make sense of a full range of motivational processes (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). Motivation stems into all aspects of a martial artist's reason to continue training and competing, from the moment a person decides to train in a martial arts gym, continue to train, learn and to compete. Anthony Perosh, Ex-UFC fighter states the reason why fighters may be motivated to have a career in full time fighting, "What keeps you motivated is results, so you’re always striving for more."(Souphahn, 2009). The below case study of Bob the boxer, is an example of how intrinsic, extrinsic motivation and amotivation is involved in a martial artist's journey and how it can affect their drive to keep competing in competition fighting.

Intrinsic motivation

Figure 5. Women's wrestling training for Rio Olympics.

Intrinsic motivation is doing something for one's self-pleasure and satisfaction from participating (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). There are three parts to intrinsic motivation: pleasure and satisfaction from learning, exploring, and trying something new (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). Committed fighters spend a lot of time doing vigorous training and preparing for competition, but may only fight once or twice a year (Jensen et al., 2013). Intrinsic motivation to accomplish things for the pleasure and satisfaction of engaging in an activity to work towards achieving something (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). A martial artist who is going to compete would do some specific training to prepare for a fight and achieve being able to test their skills in that competition to the best of their ability (Jensen et al., 2013), or to achieve the desirable outcome of winning. Jensen et al. (2013) interviewed several MMA fighters about their experiences during a competition [grammar?] they found for most fighters it was the pinnacle of testing their martial arts skills against an equally matched opponent. One opponent described his journey as "everything I do in life is for this (MMA competition)" (Jensen et al., 2013, p6). There is intrinsic motivation for the positive sensation of performing the task, a martial artist may like the feeling of being mentally stimulated and the feeling of being relaxed after a hard session of training. In the move{{spelling]] Rocky, the main character Rocky Balboa liked to fight boxing to gain a feeling of self-worth. For some competitive fighters it is the feeling of doing something not many people have done, which is facing off with an opponent in a ring, cage or on competition mats (Jensen et al., 2013).

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is performing a task as a means to an end rather than doing the task for, a person may choose to do martial arts even though it may not be for pleasurable reasons (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). There are four types of extrinsic motivation: external regulation where a behaviour is motivated by reward or constraint. Introjected regulation is where individuals process the reasons for their actions internally, guilt and anxiety if something is not done within a time is self-imposed (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). Identified regulation is a behaviour of choosing to do an activity even though it may be not pleasurable (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). Integrated regulation is where a choice is made to do a task within other aspects of one's self (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007).


Is the lack of motivation and intention to do a task, therefore they have little or no interest in performing it (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). After a fight where a competitor loses, they may feel little or no motivation to fight again for fear of losing.

Case Study: Bob the Boxer
Bob has been training out of All Punches and Knockouts Gym for 3 years,[grammar?] Bob has a boxing match in 3 months against Joe, who is a fairly experienced boxer with 10 wins and 2 losses. Bob loves boxing, he like the thrill it gives him, learning new skills and improving with every fight he has,[grammar?] has an ultimate goal of being able to make a career out of boxing. Bob is motivated to win this fight because this win will give him a chance to fight for the title belt in his weight class.

To prepare for a boxing match Bob starts to do more intensive training 3 months before he usually has a boxing match. His intensive training schedule consists of going for a 3 km jog, and doing 30 minutes of weight training in the morning, then going to boxing class in the evening where he does bagwork, skipping, shadow sparring and full contact sparring against his team mates. Bob does not like early mornings and does not find jogging a pleasurable activity, but gets up every morning and goes for a jog because it will increase his cardiovascular fitness for the fight against his opponent. Bob also stays back 30 minutes after class to do some extra bagwork because he believes he[spelling?] extra work he puts into training for the fight will give him a better edge over his opponent therefore the higher his chances of winning will be. Bob does not like to miss a day of class or extra training and feels guilty if he does. Bob also has a very healthy diet,[grammar?] he usually likes to go out drinking and eating pizza with his friends on the weekend, but because of this fight he does not go out with his friends but rather stays home, has a healthy meal consisting of grilled chicked[spelling?], salad and boiled potato and watches a move[spelling?] instead. The reason for this is because he has to weigh 77 kilos the day before the fight, and if he weighs more than 77 kg he will not be allowed to fight.

It is now 3 months down the track and it is fight day, Bob enters the ring and feels confident and motivated to get the win. The bell rings, Joe and Bob start to throw punches, bob and weave each other's combinations and both get in some good combos. Bob's hand drops away from his face and Joe lands a hard hitting hook punch and knocks Bob to the canvas,[grammar?] the fight is declared a knockout and Bob loses the fight. Bob feels depressed, disappointed and angry that he let his hand drop and got knocked out, he does not feel like going to training a week after he has recovered because there is no point as he feels he is no good.

Dynamics-of-Action Model

"Atkinson's theory of achievement has the goal of predicting what a person will do in a particular moment (episode) of time" (Reeve, 2015, p195). "The Dynamics-of-Action model extends on this view to explain and predict changes in achievement strivings and behaviours over time" (Reeve, 2015, p195). It states that if the probability of being successful with a task the incentive value to succeed becomes larger, it is meant to be applied in succeeding in tasks that are based on skill and effort rather than chance (Raynar & Smith, 1966). Reeve, 2015, idetifies[spelling?] behaviour used that is achieved on a continuing stream measured by three factors:

  • Instigation (Ts)- which is the amount of motivation to do a task and is measured by past successes. Inhibition and consummation.
  • Inhibition (Taf)- amount of motivation to not engage in a task, and is measured by punishment and a fear of failure.
  • Consummation- where stopping an activity comes around on its own (i.e eating). Decreased motivation to continue a task, but would rather stop and take a rest from continuing to do so.

The Dynamics-of-Action model can be applied to competition fighting,[grammar?] the need for someone to test their skills, demonstrate their ability and be able to show how successful they are (Reeve, 2015). For high achievers competition can bring out the best in their skills, improve on these and encourage positive emotions (Reeve, 2015). For a low achiever competition does the complete opposite, they do not perform at their best, have negative emotions such as anxiety, and would try to avoid future competition (Reeve, 2015). A high achiever in fighting focuses on their skills, how they can constantly improve on these, execute them to gain an advantage over their opponent, and to perform successfully in either the ring, cage or competing mats (Jensen et al., 2013).

Fight or flight response

The fight or flight response has been ingrained in our DNA and has been used since prehistoric times,[grammar?] a sabre tooth tiger may have been seen as a threat or an outside villager with a club attacked. In times such as these the human body would have to be ready to either attack or defend, or escape from the threatening situation (Lemmonick & Bjerklie, 2003, p44). When a threatening situation is observed by the human body, the body responds by the "brain signalling the adrenal glands to release hormones including adrenaline (epinephrine), and glucocorticoids, and the nerve cells to release norepinephrine"(Lemmonick & Bjerklie, 2003, p44). As a result of this response, the body's "senses become sharper, the muscles tighter, the heart pound faster and the bloodstream fill with sugars for ready energy" (Lemmonick & Bjerklie, 2003, p44). In the context of competition fighting, a fighter's body is getting itself ready to fight before the bell rings to begin to fight, which will be further explained in hormones activated during fighting. If a fighter chooses not to compete on competition day, this would be using the flight response.

Hormones activated during fighting

Figure 6. Women's mixed martial arts.

Before a fight occurs, many fighters experience fear as it is typically seen as a "fight to the death" because they enter the cage, ring or competition mat to win and there is going to be a clash (Jensen et al., 2013). Fear perception causes adrenaline to rise, which was described by one of the fighters interviewed as "When it comes time to go, you know, your heart fell into your stomach and you was a nervous wreck. And you’d step in the ring and ... your knees and legs felt like a rubber band stretched all the way, you was so tight, and it’s just like, why, why am I doin’ this?" (Jensen et al., 2013, p6). There is skill in being able to control the increase in adrelaine[spelling?] and being able to focus on the opponent and the challenge they present (Jensen et al., 2013). Adrelaine[spelling?] can either make a fighter better or it can worsen a fighter's performance, most fighters described adrenaline calming down once they got the intial[spelling?] hit from their opponent and bought them to the physical reality of the fight (Jensen et al, 2013).

During fighting there is an increase in cortisol, testosterone GH,[LA], glucose and RPE (Ouergi et al., 2016). It is shown in previous studies there is a strong relationship between cortisol and testosterone in the regulation of competitive aggression (Ouergi et al., 2016). "Testosterone is an index of dominance during competition for resources, as well as correlating with the activation of behaviour to achieve and maintain a high social status" (Archer, 2006 in Pesce et al., 2015, p262). Ouergi et al. (2016) found that competition significantly increased exercise stress, demonstrated by salivary cortisol increasing. "Cortisol plays a central role in the physiological and behavioural response to a physical challenge or to a psychological stressor, triggering the activation of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis and hormone released from the adrenal cortex" (Tsai et al., 2011 in Pesce et al. 2015, p261).

Difference between fighters who win or lose?

Figure 7. Example of mixed martial art fighting.

There has been previous research on fighters who win and lose, and the differences in hormone levels between fighters who win and lose. It has been shown in a previous study by Ouergi.[grammar?] (2016) that fighters who won displayed higher levels of cortisol than fighters who lost. It was found in a study by Ouergi et al. (2016) that winners threw more combos and strikes such as hook punches, leg defences, clinches and punch combinations than losers did, losers were found to use more block/parry combos.

The concept of Resource Holding Power (RHP) is associated with the evolution of fighting in animals,[grammar?] it can predict which [what?] will withdraw from a fight or conflict and which one will win through the assessment of fighting ability such as weapons, size, and number of allies (Archer, 2007). This has recently been applied to humans through aggression, physical size, and dominance and this has been seen in younger children, adolescent boys and adult men (Archer, 2007). The case study belows shows an example of RHP between fighters in competition bouts, where a fighter cannot simply avoid physical fighting and choose to engage in that situation. A fighter can withdraw from a fight mentally when they choose not to fight back, just defend to survive and hope the referee stops the fight so they no longer have to continue the fight.

Mixed Martial Arts Fight using Resource Holding Power (RHP)
Two fighters enter the ring,[grammar?] Jane and Kim assess each other's RHP, as a result both Jane and Kim are nervous about this fight. Jane senses Kim is going to be stronger, faster and assesses that she looks more physically fit. The bell rings and both start the fight, Jane who is less confident takes a strong hit from Kim, gets stunned and focuses on defending rather than aggressively fighting back and gets thrown to the ground. Kim starts striking Jane with punches while they are on the ground. Instead of Jane attempting to get into a better position to strike back, she just curls up and hope the referee will end the fight soon. Eventually the referee ends the fight and Kim wins by technical knockout. This ties in with the research from Ouergi et al. (2016) that found a fighter who wins has a higher striking rate and the losing fighter defends more, in this case Kim (winner) has a stronger RHP than Jane (loser).

Quiz: Which Martial Art is right for you?


Figure 8 Wrestler Kazarian wins a title belt

Competition fighting has been around through the ages, from the early days of the Greek and Roman era and to the present day but the reason people engage in competition fighting has not changed. Humans have a natural primal instinct to fight, but compete to test their skill and for the end goal of winning. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivational responses can determine whether a fighter will be motivated to continue entering competitions,[grammar?] fighters who win are more likely to be motivated to continue fighting whereas losers may experience amotivation and not want to enter another competition. High achievers are more motivated to keep competing and will get positive emotions from this and like the test of their skill whereas low achievers will often avoid competition and have negative emotions arising from this. During a fight adrenaline is released and the body gets ready to fight,[grammar?] cortisol and testosterone levels also increase. Winners were found to be more aggressive by throwing more combos and having a higher RHP than fighters who lose, who tended to block and parry more and had a low RHP. The chapter seeked[grammar?] to answer the question, what motivates people to engage in competition fighting? It was found people have a desire to challenge themselves, to constantly learn, and like the positive feeling of achieving a win in a competition and working towards the next win. Some peope[spelling?] fight to have a successful career and to make a living from fighting. Competition fighting will continue to develop over the years, but the excitement and the motivation to fight will always remain the same.

See also


Archer, J. (2007). Physical Aggression as a Function of Perceived Fighting Ability Among Male and Female Prisoners. Aggressive Behaviour, 33, 563-573.

Coleman, K. (2011). Gladiators: Heroes of the Roman Ampitheatre. BBC history. Retrieved from

Crook, D.P. (1994). The First World War: man the fighting animal. Darwininsm, War and History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Press.

Fox, J. (2016). 2016 Top Ten MMA earners. MMA Manifesto. Retrieved from

Jennings, L.A. (2016). Illuminating the Fighting History of Ancient Africa. Fightland. Retrieved from

Jensen, P., Roman, J., Shaft, B. & Wrisberg, C.(2013). In the Cage: MMA Fighters’ Experience of Competition. The Sport Psychologist, 2013, 27, 1-12.

Kellaway, L. (2014). Lunch with the FT: Dana White. Financial Times. Retrieved from

Lemonick, D. & Bjerklie, D. (2003). A Frazzled Mind, a Weakened Body (cover story). Time Europe, 161, 7, 44.

McKay, B. & McKay, K. (2009). Boxing: A Manly History of the Sweet Science of Bruising. The art of Manliness Retrieved from

Ouerugi, I., Davis, P., Houcine, N., Marzouki, H., Zaouali, M., Franchini, E., Gmada, N. & Bouhlel, E. (2016). Hormonal, Physiological and Physical Performance During Simulated Kickboxing Combat: Differences Between Winners and Losers. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2016, 11, 425-431.

Pesce, M., La Fratta, I., Ialenti, V., Patruno, A., Ferrone, A., Franceschelli, S., Rizzuto, A., Tatangelo, R., Campagna, G., Speranza, L., Felaco, M. & Grilli, A. (2015). Emotions, Immunity and Sport: Winner and loser athlete's profile of fighting sport. Brain, Behaviour and Immunity 46 (2015) 261-269.

Raynor, J. & Smith, C. (1966). Achievement-related motives and risk-taking in games of skill and chance. Journal of Personality, 34 (Jun 1966) 176, 23p.

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. Danvers, MA, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Souphahn, B. (2009). What are the best ways to venture into a full time fighting career? Blitz: Australasian Martial Arts Magazine. Retrieved from

Tenenbaum, G. & Eklund, R (2007). Handbook of Sport Psychology 3rd edn. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from

Tiger Muay Thai (Thailand) Co., Ltd. (2015). History of Muay Thai & Muay Thai training. What is Muay Thai? Tiger Muay Thai. Retrieved from