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It is generally accepted that toughness and perseverance are fundamental prerequisites for success. Life is hard and adversity is inevitable; you have to be able to overcome the obstacles in front of you, whatever they may be, in order to achieve your goals. The word “grit” has gained tremendous traction in this context, especially in the world of education. One of the most prominent researchers on the subject, Angela Duckworth -- who literally wrote the book on grit -- defined grit as: “… passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
As Duckworth noted in the same speech, grit is the single most significant predictor of success, more so than talent or intelligence. Most professional fighters would probably agree. Fighters are lauded for their toughness, for “embracing the grind.” The weeks spent preparing for a fight, as well as the minutes spent actually fighting, are among the most physically and psychologically grueling contrivances in modern sport. Anything short of a quick knockout requires a type of determination that is alien to most of us in the audience.
Yet unconditional grit can be a flawed virtue. Sometimes a challenge is not worth the effort, or simply impossible to overcome. In such cases, it’s in a person’s best interest to give up. A recent study led by researchers from University of Southern California and Northeastern University put hundreds of people through various tests of grit. In light of UFC 224, the findings were discomfortingly on-the-nose. The study found that, “Gritty people stick with the task before them, but sometimes it’s at the expense of their own financial gain -- and even overall performance” and that “[grittier people were] more likely to continue when they were losing, even though they risked walking away with nothing.”
It’s almost as if the researchers were addressing their findings directly to Vitor Belfort and Raquel Pennington. In different ways, both Belfort and Pennington showcased how difficult it can be to know when to quit.
Belfort’s story is more familiar at this point. The 41-year-old has been fighting professionally for more than two decades and has not had a meaningful win in five years. Since 2015, he has gone 2-4-1 and suffered five knockouts. His only wins in that time have been against Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt, both kindred spirits on the old-man circuit. On paper, his fight against Lyoto Machida did not appear to be the squash match it turned out to be. Machida is only 14 months younger than Belfort and was in a similar rough patch in the same timeframe. Going into UFC 224, Machida was 1-3 since 2015 and had been finished in each of those losses. Alas, the matchup did not turn out to be close, as Belfort woke up smelling feet just six minutes into the fight.
It’s clear that Belfort’s best days have long been behind him -- he hasn’t won a championship since 2004 -- so why fight anymore? Though his toughness and determination to keep going are admirable in a vacuum, after two decades of blunt force head trauma they become problematic.
Then there was Pennington. Known for her grittiness, “Rocky” hung tough for the opening frames against reigning champ Amanda Nunes but was ultimately outmatched. After four rounds, her face and legs were busted up, and she had no chance of winning outside of a finish. Before the fifth round, she told her corner that she was done. Her coaches reflexively dismissed her and sent her out for another two and a half minutes of punishment before getting TKO’d. Immediately, the corner was criticized for not throwing in the towel at their fighter’s request. That criticism was warranted, no doubt, though perhaps not as self-evidently righteous as some would believe.
Neither of these situations are as simple as they seem on the surface. It’s easy for me to dole out career advice from the couch without any connection to the consequences of these decisions. For someone like Belfort, I can’t imagine what it means to give up fighting for good. Few professions compose the core of a person’s identity like fighting does. Even as a function of language, fighting is something you are more than something you do; you play football, but you don’t play MMA. Fighting shapes your worldview and personality in profound, permanent ways. For most of us, what we do to pay the bills is disconnected from our true passions, so retiring is often celebratory, even when its met with some existential trepidation. For a fighter, it’s more than that. The term “former fighter” is oxymoronic in a way, an ouroboros of identity that extinguishes itself with its own modifier. If you’ve spent your whole life being a fighter, what does it mean when you stop? How do you reconcile no longer being who you have always been?
Throwing in the towel can be just as wrought and complex as the decision to retire. In his seminal essay “Throwing in the Towel,” former boxer and coach Gordon Marino likened the feeling of throwing in the towel for his fighter to “a left hook to the liver.” His fighter, too, was livid: “He kept shaking his head in disappointment as though the man who had been with him five to six days a week for the last two years had suddenly put a shiv in his back. Maybe I had; I really didn’t know.”
The relationship between a fighter and his or her coach is hard to understand from the sidelines. They spend countless hours with each other in extremely trying and exhausting conditions. Coaches aren’t there just to drill technique; they train the quit out of their fighters. This fortifies deep trust between them, one that is easily betrayed when a coach throws in the towel. As Marino notes in his essay, when Joe Frazier’s coach Eddie Futch stopped the third fight against Muhammad Ali, “Frazier was so irate that he barely spoke to Futch for the next 20 years.” Indeed, throwing in the towel has consequences that can permanently alter the bond between coach and fighter, in and out of fights.
Both Belfort’s and Pennington’s situations ultimately come down to the psychology of a fighter. Those who are willing to step into a cage and risk their physical well-being for a paycheck are not going to be the types to assess their situations with a level head. Fighting requires a kind of self-belief that won’t allow someone to quit, a confidence that can be indefinitely uprooted by the mere exposure to quitting.
The same courageous resilience that allows a fighter to succeed -- the noble defiance that turns bloodsport into something beautiful and virtuous -- is also a fighter’s tragic downfall. We as spectators crave the spectacular violence of fighting, but we often don’t want to face up to the realities that allow it. It is the inherent bargain of combat sports that, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, “our common bond is sometimes our common shame.”
Should loved ones -- family, friends, trainers and coaches -- be responsible for injecting some cold reason into a fighter when he or she may not be making the best decisions for themselves? Probably, but that’s not as simple as it sounds from the outside looking in. As the article about the negative effects of not giving up concludes: “Grit, then, is like any other gift -- it’s worth evaluating whether you’re using it to help, rather than hurt, yourself.”
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.