Katlyn Chookagian will board the shuttle at her Houston hotel on Saturday en route to the Toyota Center for UFC 247. At some point during the ride she will likely turn to her coaches and crack a joke.
“I’m always like, maybe the bus will get in a car accident on the way over,” says Chookagian, the No. 3 flyweight who will challenge champion Valentina Shevchenko. “Not that you get really hurt, but just enough where the fight gets cancelled or something. And then we won’t have to do it, and it won’t be like me pulling out. I always kind of joke about it, but there’s a little bit of seriousness there. I’ve competed like my whole life in martial arts, so I’m kind of used to it.”
Prefight anxiety is real. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson has envisioned an asteroid striking the arena to cancel his fights. Darren Till has considered faking an injury to get out of a bout. Some of the greatest fighters in UFC history have dealt with intense prefight nerves, including Georges St-Pierre and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who said he throws up before fights.
“Every fighter thinks of those things,” Till says. “Every fighter asks themselves before they’re going out for a fight, why are they doing this to themselves?”
What’s the remedy? Thompson tries to fall asleep in the locker room. UFC welterweight champ Kamaru Usman dances during his walk to the Octagon. Bellator women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane also has a performative aspect to her walkout.
But anxiety is never far away, belied by the expressions of confidence the fighters present on their walk to the cage.
“You’re smiling,” Cerrone says. “But inside you’re scared.”
The nerves subside when an alternative to fighting is no longer present, when it’s too late for an asteroid hit to cancel the event.
“Once you get in the Octagon, everything goes away,” Thompson says. “You know you can’t run away now. There’s nothing I can do to prevent myself from fighting this guy. Once you’re out there, it’s on.”
Many of MMA’s top stars opened up about their fears, anxiety and ways they cope with the intense battle they face before they even reach the Octagon.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman
The anxiety is kind of indescribable for someone who hasn’t felt it. You can train as hard as you can, as much as you can, but once you know this fight is real, there’s no escaping it. You actually have to do this on this day, everything is set, you’re walking towards this. It’s different.
You’re super fast on the mitts in practice — you’re the fastest in the world. Then you get to the locker room and you feel super slow, your arms are heavy, your stomach is in a knot. You want to take a s— 10 times even though you haven’t really eaten in a couple days. Every fighter can tell you somehow you pee at least 10 times, even though you haven’t even been drinking water.
Initially, I got that anxiety as a wrestler, and I figured out how to hone it. Fighting is a whole different monster.
You’ve seen my walkout. I want to dance, I want to have fun. That’s what I do. When I’m just dancing, I’m having fun, I’m just grooving. I’m in a different place. That’s the biggest thing that kind of helps me cope with all of that.
ESPN’s No. 8-ranked welterweight Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson
You’re always nervous. You’re getting ready to do battle. Some part of you — knowing it’s not gonna happen — it’s almost like you’re going out to die. To war. It could happen. You get really, really nervous, to the point where you’re like almost scared before you walk out. A lot of fighters say they’re not — you are. They’re lying. You are definitely scared going out there.
One thing that I do, and I’ve actually been fighting since I was 15 years old, I’ve learned to sleep while I’m in the back. When you’re sleeping, you’re not thinking about the fight. You don’t have the anxiety. It relaxes me. I lay down, close my eyes and I end up falling asleep. Sometimes, I’ll fall asleep in the chair.
“To still feel that scared but going out there and doing it anyway — not a whole lot of people can do that.”
What does the anxiety feel like? You know that drop you get on a rollercoaster? A constant that. A constant drop. It gets your belly. It’s like 10 times that. It’s constant until you actually get out into the Octagon. Once you get in the Octagon, everything goes away. You know you can’t run away now. There’s nothing I can do to prevent myself from fighting this guy. Once you’re out there, it’s on.
I get it mostly right before I walk out to the arena. That’s when you start feeling it the most. I’m hoping an asteroid comes down to blow the place up so I don’t have to fight. Or I twist my ankle as I’m walking through. All kinds of stuff pops in your head. There’s not a whole lot of people who do this sport, and it’s because of that. To still feel that scared but going out there and doing it anyway — not a whole lot of people can do that.
No. 6-ranked middleweight Darren Till
Every fighter thinks of them things. Every fighter asks themselves before they’re going out for a fight, why are they doing this to themselves. Why me? I’m scared. The emotions that go through you before a fight, I can’t put into words for you or the viewer or the fan. I can only be real about it and say it with no vulnerability. Because I’m not vulnerable by saying it.
People know I ain’t scared of fighting. It’s another thing, the bright lights, and stuff like that, they sometimes can get the better of you. I sat in the changing room (before facing Kelvin Gastelum in UFC 245), and 50 times I had to watch myself being knocked out by [Jorge] Masvidal, and 50 other times I had to watch Kelvin Gastelum just knocking monsters out. And it just got to me a little bit. I got a little bit frightened.
“Every fighter asks themselves before they’re going out for a fight, why are they doing this to themselves. Why me? I’m scared.”
The way I put it is I was just scared. This is the only time I [told my coaches I was scared before a fight]. It was funny. I remember I just kept seeing myself getting knocked out, kept seeing Kelvin knock [Michael] Bisping out, knock Jacare [Souza] out, all these guys, and I remember just telling my coach Colin [Heron], “Oh f—, what am I doing here?” He was laughing. I just said, “Oh Colin, I’m going to tell you the truth. I’m f—ing s—ting myself here.”
Every fighter goes through that, but they don’t want to say it, because they think they’re being weak and vulnerable. They’re not. I don’t see that as vulnerability. I just see it as talking openly about your emotions. Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to fight. In my head, I was going to punch a hole through Kelvin’s head, but at the same time, I was also scared. That’s fighting.
Kelvin Gastelum, No. 7-ranked middleweight
I call it a tornado of emotions, because you can get sad, you can get happy, nervous, scared, all at the same time. Excited, happy, thrilled. Sad. Nervous. It’s like that gut feeling, and I feel like if I let that gut feeling overtake my whole body, then I feel weak and I won’t be able to perform. So I kind of just keep it there.
Jorge Masvidal, No. 3-ranked welterweight
You get to the locker room and you’re in there for how many hours? And then you finally get to the f—ing cage and it feels like Bruce Buffer is taking f—ing forever. I just want to f—ing fight. I just need to fight — let’s go. At that moment — I don’t know how long his introductions are — it feels like it’s two hours, I want to f—ing go. Let me loose already. That’s when the anxiety is at its peak. That’s when I have to be the biggest professional I’ve ever been and just like, “All right it’s gonna happen, I’ve just gotta be patient now.” Once that bell rings … the anxiety leaves. All that leaves and you go from being a stiffmeister to “woo!” Let’s go.
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone
Every single time, I’m just as scared and just as nervous. You’re like, “Man, my legs are heavy and my arms are heavy.”
They bring you [to the arena] so early, so you’re sitting there backstage watching the fights, watching the clock because you have to figure out how many fights you have [before] I have to start getting ready. But your body’s not ready, for some reason. It’s the worst night of your life. I’m sick, my nerves are crazy, I go and throw up. I throw up every time, still to this day.
And they’re like, “All right Cowboy, let’s wrap your hands.” And they start wrapping your hands, and you’re like, “Oh my God, man.” And the camera’s right there, and you have to kind of smile and make everyone think that’s watching, “I’m good. I’m happy.” I’m not. I’m sick and scared.
You start warming up, but you can’t warm up, because my arms are heavy. I don’t know why I feel like this. Why can’t I get ready like I do at home? I can’t get my sweat going. My nerves are going crazy. And they’re like, “All right, next fight, you’re up.” And you’re like, “Oh man, now I really gotta start warming up. I gotta get ready.”
“You’re smiling, but inside you’re scared.”
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone
They line you up on your little X [to walk to the Octagon]. There’s a bright light in your face. You’re like: Here. We. Go. And you’re still sick and you’re scared to death. You make the walk. You walk out and see the fans coming over (the railing) and hanging and screaming. Everyone wants to touch your hand. You’re still faking it till you make it. You’re smiling, but inside you’re scared. I’m scared, I don’t know about anybody else.
You make the walk to the cage. Bruce announces him. Bruce announces you. And you’re still like faking it. I see him staring at me. I keep staring at him, because if I break eye contact, is he going to think I’m weak? Everyone’s screaming. I turn to get a drink of water because my mouth is dry as f—. And then they bring you in the middle, tell you the last-minute rules you’ve heard 100 times. You know the hardest part is that walk back, because you’re kind of walking backwards, but you don’t know where the cage is so you don’t want to hit it funny. You’re on live TV and you don’t want to look like an ass out of the gate.
“Are you ready? Are you ready?” Beep. And then it’s f—ing real. You go out there and touch gloves, and then it’s on.
Israel Adesanya, UFC middleweight champion
You have to learn how to control it. I still get nervous, but I don’t let it over-flame me, or like burn me out. I just control it. I just pick and choose when I let that loose. So I feel nervous (inhales deeply), I breathe and kind of let it soak in. Use it for your own good, it’s like a flame. You channel it in the right time at the right direction. This last fight [against Robert Whittaker] it was easy for me to let that emotion go. It was easier for me because I was just so ready. I did it the night before. I did it multiple times in my head, thousands of times, so it just felt like déjà vu when I was in there.
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, Bellator women’s flyweight champion
I always experience some form of anxiety. I couldn’t stop crying [before her first Bellator fight in 2018]. I was like, “Oh my gosh, am I gonna be able to turn it off when I get to the cage?” It was pretty gnarly. But I also think it’s a good thing to experience that feeling. Once there’s no anxiety, it’d be a strange sensation. To me, it would almost seem like, do I really want to be doing this or do I even care?
Behind the curtain is when it gets the worst, and then as soon as the curtain opens or as soon as you walk onto the stage or onto the ramp, that’s when it disappears. For me it does, at least. I think it’s because my walkouts kind of have a performative aspect to them. So, that’s the beginning of the show. I grew up a hula performer, so I know what’s it like to be, “OK, put the smile on!” That’s go-time for me.
Justin Gaethje, No. 4-ranked lightweight
I don’t feel a thing. Not a thing. It’s really weird. I don’t feel anything different when I make the walk, when I’m sitting there ready to walk. It’s just blink, blink, peace. Peace is what it is. I’m at peace with the worst possible outcome. Look in my eyes when I walk out there. I don’t give a f— what happens. You know it, you can see it, you can see it with my actions. There’s no thoughts — there’s not one thought. There’s no “what if.” The only “what if” there would be is if my preparation was lackluster. And then I would not forgive myself. I just make sure that doesn’t happen.
Andrei Arlovski, former UFC heavyweight champion
Only foolish people aren’t nervous before the fight. Of course I have some — not scariness — but some weird feelings. Like butterflies. It keeps me alert. It means something important is happening in a couple hours. For me, it’s good. When I had a couple of fights, I didn’t have any emotions … I lost both fights. It’s better to be nervous a little bit and at least have some feelings.
Matt Brown, UFC welterweight
I love it. That’s what we do that s— for. This is a f—ing brutal sport, man. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If the consequences weren’t so high, it wouldn’t be no fun. I mean, people go skydiving, they do it to get scared. If there weren’t no nerves, they wouldn’t do it. What am I doing this for? That’s the game, man. And that’s what I love.
You don’t repress it. It’s not good to repress it — you need the nerves. I want to be nervous. I’m sure you see it in my fights. There’s good and bad to that. Sometimes maybe I start winning and I’m like, “Ah, I need him to fight me back more.” And then I put myself in a bad situation, because I love those nerves and I love being scared and I love the intensity. I’m not gonna let that happen again, though.
Ben Askren discusses the nerves and anxiety some fighters go through and how wrestlers like himself have had more opportunities to train themselves to compete at a high level.
Alexander Volkanovski, UFC featherweight champion
It doesn’t happen to me. I’m a bit different than most people. I play what’s in front of me. I’ve got someone like [Jose] Aldo or Max [Holloway] in front of me, it’s just another body, another job that needs to be done. I just believe I’m built a little bit different. That’s why you see me so composed in there. That’s why I can stick to a game plan like I do.
Megan Anderson, UFC bantamweight
For me, knowing that in 10 weeks I’m going to be locked in a cage with somebody who’s going to try to take my head off, it takes a special person to be able to become comfortable with that and be at peace with that. And I think where people don’t necessarily do their best is when they don’t become one with the nerves. They’re like “Oh no, I shouldn’t be nervous.” And that’s when they start letting everything affect them. But if you become at peace with those nerves, and you’re like “yeah, I’m nervous, it’s going to happen, I’m about to get into a fistfight, but I have a job to do.” If you become at one with that, I think that’s when people traditionally do the best.