As fans who have spent many a night watching MMA, we’ve seen this scenario before: a fighter takes to the microphone after a hard-earned victory and praises God first and foremost for the success of their endeavors on that night.

To many, it’s a devout act of humility and a giving of thanks to the intangible will of the universe that helped them to come out ahead in competition. To others, it may appear as a fruitless acknowledgment or perhaps even as a sanctimonious act that induces a rolling of the eyes.

Although it’s true that the idea of a monotheistic god is certainly the strongest kind of faith on Earth, at least by the numbers—around four billion; one half of the world—we find ourselves in a varied world when it comes to faith. It is no different when it comes to the beliefs of MMA’s competitors, even if monotheism reigns supreme.

So, as a fan who has witnessed this, and more curiously as an atheist who often hears about the importance that this unseen being known as God is to the lives of some fighters, I wondered how exactly is that faith meaningful to them when it comes to fighting. Is it some sort of positive mental approach? Is it the best answer they can find for their abstract feelings of spirituality? Simply a way of life that they decided works best for them? I’m curious to know what it practically means for those that practice those beliefs, since it’s something that is important enough for some fighters to speak up about it in mixed martial arts competition.

I asked those questions to three fighters from different promotions. The answers varied.

UFC lightweight Michael Chiesa is one of the faithful of the Christian majority, and to him, that belief in God is very important.

“For me, and I don’t want to offend anybody—some people are religious and some people aren’t—I’m a very faithful person,” said Chiesa. “I come from a Catholic family. I’m definitely a firm believer in God. When you have a strong faith, all things are possible through God.

“When something bad happens, God has an answer. When something great happens, God has an answer,” he continued. “So when you get to any point in your life where you are getting to celebrate a great victory or having to endure some loss, God will have an answer for you to help get you through that situation, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. For me, having a strong faith is very important because it gives me answers when I have questions.”

On the other hand, there’s MFC lightweight Mukai Maromo. He doesn’t put much stock in religion or faith in a god.

“I’m not a big advocate of religion—organized religion,” said Maromo. “I believe everybody has their own path to follow. As long as you’re doing what you want to do, you do what you want to do and that’s the way it works.

“I believe in religion as guidelines in how to live your life properly and how to get along with other people in a communal manner, but I don’t think you should follow it to the dot, let [belief] take the reins, so to speak, all elements of control by some distant being.”

Christianity isn’t the only option for those with faith. There are many religions out there, and those beliefs are reflected in different fighters. WSOF bantamweight Joe Murphy is a Buddhist, and to him, it’s not about faith in anything in particular, but the way we live our life according to teachings.

“It’s more the path that we choose and we carve,” said Murphy. “The way I see it is, I’m going to give it my 100 percent, and win or lose, I’m going to learn from it. If I lose, I’m going to learn a lot more. Even if I win, you gotta be humble. You gotta see where you can improve for the next one.

“It’s not pre-decided. There’s no faith involved. We’re both going to go out and see who stays calm and doesn’t crack under the pressure.”

That’s three distinct belief systems just from a random sampling of the first three guys I could find who were willing to discuss the topic. Still, one thing unites all of them, and that is that they are fighters. As we know, fighting requires a healthy mental approach. Actually, it’s considered a substantial factor in one’s success in the sport.

So, faith, no matter what the form or what driving force is behind it, should be meaningful to a fighter’s success, right?

For Maromo, it comes down to one’s own mentality and psychology. That’s as far as it goes. There’s nothing spiritual or otherworldly driving a person forward. There’s just the individual’s chosen course.

“I think that psychological—‘I have to win, I am the best, I have done what I need to do to be the best’—is very important,” Maromo explained. “Whether you get it from religion or you get it from training or you get it from your coach getting you revved up or slapping you before the fight, or whatever, getting that psychological factor of the game intact is very important. Without that, I don’t think you can find success in anything. Life included.

“That mental approach—having that mental confidence in my game, in what I’ve trained and what I can do—is what I look to have, as opposed to saying, ‘God has helped me through this.’ If there is a God and he exists and it’s for the betterment of all mankind, does that mean he doesn’t like the other guy? Was the other guy wrong? Does God not like him as much as you? Losing sucks. God did not want him to win? So God does not factor into the plan.”

Chiesa agrees that a healthy mentality backed up with hard work is paramount to success, but he see’s the force of God at work when it’s time for a person to meet any challenge. One of the greatest difficulties in his life was documented for all the world to see on television when Chiesa worked his way towards winning the 15th season of The Ultimate Fighter on FX. To him, that’s a prime example of one’s faith being tested by God in the face of adversity.

“It’s definitely a mental and a spiritual thing. This sport is 99 percent mental,” said Chiesa. “People don’t realize that you can train as hard as you possibly can, but if you’re not mentally prepared or mentally ready, it can really break you down. So being a faithful person and having faith in God, it really helps boost your mentality and your spirit. The body cannot work without the mind. If your mind is not functioning, your body can’t function either.

“A pretty good example is when I was on The Ultimate Fighter and my dad passed away. I’m thinking ‘Why? Why is this happening? Why does this have to happen to me when my dream is coming true, having to live through this nightmare?’ You turn to God and he has an answer for everything, and you have to believe that everything happens for a reason. You go through hardships in life and God gives you as much as you can handle. I know that God knows how big my heart is and how tough of a person I am, not just in the cage, but life in general. So I feel that when people go through hardships in life, you should feel blessed because God is putting this upon you because he thinks you can handle it. He knows that you’re a strong enough person to handle it, and if you have faith in him, you know that all things are possible in God.”

It appears that there’s an underlying theme to the topic of faith in MMA: that a belief in one’s own self is key to a fighter’s mental strength, which in turn is key to their success. The power of positive thinking is no secret. Anyone from a fighter to a billionaire CEO will tell you that it serves an important function no matter what you’re doing in life. We could spend all day arguing about which kinds of philosophies work best, but it doesn’t change the fact that different methods can achieve the same end.

One person’s particular way may seem odd to others, such as a practicing Buddhist that goes from the meditation mat to drilling kicks into another person’s head inside of a cage, but who’s to say that can’t work for them just because it might seem odd to outsiders?

“I’m not going out there to hurt him. I don’t wish injury upon any of my opponents. I mean, I use a gentle art, I use jiu-jitsu,” Murphy explained with a chuckle. “In my fifth professional fight against Rodney Rhoden, he lost even though I didn’t even throw a punch.

“There’s no need to harm someone. It’s a contest. We’re there to test our skills. Just like any other sport, we’re just trying to beat the other guy and then we love [them].”

While Chiesa looks to God to find answers, he also made it clear that he doesn’t need to get down on his knees to pray every time he needs help.

“I’m a very faithful person, but it doesn’t dictate the way I live my life,” he explained. “I’m a knowledgeable enough of a person to where I don’t have to turn to God every day to get through my day. Through God all things are possible, but I don’t necessarily live every day of my life through him, because I have to be an upstanding individual to where I can make choices on my own.

“God empowers me to make my own decisions and be strong enough of a person to where I don’t always have to turn to him for advice or I don’t always have to turn to him to make choices. So when I do go through hard times or when I do come into situations where I have to ask God for help, he’s always there for me and he does always provide an answer.”

“Just got to look through the good book and look for the man upstairs,” Chiesa concluded.

While the tradition of gods and religion certainly doesn’t appeal to me, I can see how it works for others. For someone like Chiesa, it involves a close community of people working together to strengthen one another. For others like Maromo, who is a part of the world’s minority of non-religious individuals, the same benefits of that mentality can be attained without having to sign off on any certain group’s beliefs.

“In thanking god, I can understand why people do it. I have nothing against it. I wouldn’t say, ‘oh, you shouldn’t do it.’ I would say I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t tell other people not to do it,” Maromo explained. “That’s the thing with fighting. At the end of the day, it’s not like basketball, or football, or lacrosse, or soccer, where it’s a team sport and everybody shoulders the burden of the loss. When you lose the fight, you lose the fight. You’re the one getting punched. You’re the one kicked. You’re the one getting choked. You have your corner guys kind of shouting at you about what to do and everything, but nobody goes over and punches and kicks and chokes them.”

This small sampling of fighters showed what a varied world we live in when it comes to faith. However, one thing remains a constant unifier at the core for each of them, and that is a positive belief in one’s self to perform in life and be prepared to meet challenges.

That’s a belief to which any one of us can subscribe.

Photo: Mukai Maromo (Arnold Lim/Sherdog)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.