All too often, we tend to associate anger and aggression with masculinity. It’s an excusable mistake, the same hormone cocktail that made me a big, hairy lug also serves as chemical encouragement any time I feel the need to punch my way out of a situation… but if you ask me, a far more appropriate measure of a man is his ability to control his anger, to harness it with intent.

We’ve all fought angry, but not many of us can say that we’ve fought with a calm and open mind. While the physical acts employed in a fight might look the same regardless of your mindset, the way the fight plays out, and your chances for victory (or survival) has as much to do with your ability to manage yourself as it does your opponent.

It helps to think of your ability to fight as a high performance tire on your favorite sports car. No matter how good the tire (or skilled the fighter) it’s still only capable of doing so much; we’ll call that 100% of the tire’s maximum capability. When you stomp on the gas, the tires may squeal as they struggle to maintain grip, exceeding that 100% capability for a short time before heating up and grabbing blacktop. Likewise under straight line braking – but what if you wanted to do more than simply speed up or slow down in a straight line? Well, turning requires grip, and whatever requirement you place on the tire to change your directions can no longer go toward maintaining traction as you accelerate. Picture a powerful front wheel drive car with the wheels spinning and locked to the right as the car keeps pushing forward (textbook understeer). Here’s understeer in action, throwing a bunch of front wheel drive cars into a wall when poorly managed:

No matter how you approach the car or the track, your tires can still only do 100% of what they’re capable of, so asking it to manage multiple issues at once invariable means it can’t do anything as well as it could do them individually. This is why, more often than not, professional race car drivers try to do the majority of of their accelerating and decelerating heading into and out of a turn, rather than right in the thick of it.

You brain works a lot like that howling racing slick, struggling to maintain traction as you push it to its limits in an overtly abusive fashion. Instead of pushing into a corner, you’re looking for opportunities, defending against attacks, and likely, getting hit in the face. Your brain, like the tire, is only capable of doing so much, call it your own maximum capability, and the more you divvy up that 100%, the less effective it is at managing each individual task.

That’s why it’s so easy to get punched in the face by an opponent’s weak hand when they produce a knife in their strong one. Your focus, your attention, is devoted to the primary threat. Your brain struggles to track both hands when its so intent on keeping that knife out of your abdomen, allowing your opponent’s free hand a bit more leeway when it comes to closing the gap. Misdirection, a common tool utilized by most seasoned fighters: hitting with a right jab three times to lure you into defending against it high allows me to shoot for a double leg, and so forth.

In some ways, anger can be just as dangerous as that knife. It creeps through your mind, absorbing more and more of your cognitive capacity until your actions and emotions are one in the same. There are times when this works, when it’s even beneficial… but in the grand scheme of things, those times are few and far between. You may go your entire life without ever needing to rely on brutality for survival – and despite what you see in movies, brutality is still no guarantee that you’ll win a fight. In fact, brutal, emotional aggression almost always leads to a loss, instead of a win.

Unlike in Pankration, there usually isn’t a guy to hold your hand up when you’re finished in real fights, though.

When coaching grappling, I regularly refer to the concept of conservation of energy. If you’re in a safe position, take it easy. Stay loose. Ground fighters tend to think they need to be working any time they’re in contact with their opponent, but if that guy’s sloppy choke isn’t going to do you in, take a breather for a minute and look for your next opportunity. It takes time, and training, to get comfortable in a half-sunk rear naked choke, just like it takes some experience to know when a key-lock isn’t secure enough to break your wrist – but once you get there, once you know you’re not in danger, your mind is free to assess the situation objectively, free from fear occupying some percentage of its maximum capability.

Anger though… Anger is far worse than fear. Anger can make you believe that you can force something to work. Sometimes, of course, you can, but sloppy fighting leads to lost fights, and often, naked aggression leaves you open to counter attack from a level headed opponent. Whether you’re in a gun fight or a boxing match, the guy the keeps his head on his shoulders is far more likely to land shots (be they the lead or knuckle variety) on target: it simply takes up too much of your maximum capability to both freak out and get to work.

When training with other fighters, there’s nothing that will make you look less mature or capable than a lost temper. If you step in or on the ring, cage, or mat, you should expect to hurt, you should know that things are going to go wrong, and you should approach the match with an open mind that’s ready to learn. Getting pissed off about a submission or bell-ringing blow just shows that you lack the mental strength to overcome adversity or pain, not that you’re a tough guy. If you’re pissed about losing a mock fight, your tough guy title has pretty much already been lost.

Losing with your head on straight is the most important thing a fighter can learn how to do, because until time runs out or your heart stops beating, there’s still a chance to pull it out and end up on top. Your opponent can be beating you senseless right up until the final seconds, and all it takes is one seized opportunity to turn things around and emerge the victor: you just have to be calm enough to see it through a hail of elbows and knees. If you’re angry, you’ll be using too much your brain’s traction trying to act on that anger to hear opportunity come knocking in the form of a reversal or dropped left hand.

I know from experience: I won my second fight by simply outlasting a bigger guy that really seemed to tire himself out kicking the shit out of me in the first round. Let the anger fuel you, but keep it where it belongs: in the gas tank.


Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps