Behind the Bench, Sports

More than gold: The psychological impact of winning a UFC championship belt

In one of the most remarkable upsets in the promotion’s history, Sean Strickland, a controversial figure in mixed martial arts, shocked the world on Sept. 9 by beating Israel Adesanya, arguably the face of the promotion, to capture the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight title. The looks of astonishment from Adesanya, UFC CEO Dana White, and even Strickland himself were a reminder to fans of the life-changing implications of winning a UFC belt.

During Strickland’s post-fight press conference, there was a stark change in the fighter’s speech—he had never seemed so present, comfortable, and introspective as he did with the belt in his possession. Despite this, Strickland’s frequent offensive remarks directed towards Adesanya and previous UFC opponents cannot be ignored. Winning the belt neither redeems his racist past nor romanticizes his neo-Nazi youth. The belt’s significance lies in how it bestows responsibility on the fighter.

This fascinating change in Strickland’s demeanor following his victory exemplifies the mystique of the UFC belt. In his post-fight interview, it became clear that the impacts of this accomplishment are far beyond the belt and the sport itself: The value lies in what it teaches someone about themself.

Strickland is certainly not the only example of the phenomenon. Throughout the promotion’s 20-year history, UFC fans have seen time and time again how winning the belt can have a transformative impact on a fighter’s mindset, behaviour, and fighting skills. 

On Aug. 20, 2022, UFC welterweight Leon Edwards snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when he knocked out champion and consensus best fighter in the world, Kamaru Usman. After being dominated for four rounds, Edwards executed a picture-perfect head kick to stun Usman—and the world.

Due to Usman’s dominant title reign of six straight championship wins and impressive performance prior to the knockout, the UFC immediately booked the rematch. Many fans counted Edwards out once again because Usman had outclassed him for the majority of the first fight. However, the rematch was a stark contrast from their previous bout; Edwards looked like a different fighter and was in control from the first bell. Ultimately, he won by majority decision. He fought the same opponent as he did six months prior, with the only difference being that he was now entering the fight as a UFC champion.

A similar revelation occurred with former UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling, who captured gold due to his opponent Petr Yan’s disqualification. Sterling appeared to many fans as an illegitimate champion, as he appeared en route to a lopsided defeat until the controversial disqualification. Few gave Sterling a chance in the rematch with Yan, and yet, he emerged victorious. Sterling then continued to defeat the division’s top contenders, as his initially questionable title reign transformed into one of dominance, once again displaying the belt’s transformative impact.

The belt carries a supernatural property that elevates a fighter’s game. By taking a closer look, the triumph of winning the belt seems to spur a considerable psychological shift in a fighter’s mind. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a sport that always focuses on a fighter’s next challenge. Even after an impressive win, there’s always the question of whether they can beat the next opponent. The pressure and expectations on fighters are relentless, until one wins the belt.

This is what makes winning the UFC belt one of the most unique and transformative achievements in modern American sport. The belt is the stamp of approval, giving a fighter a sense of self-assurance that permeates throughout their entire aura. This accomplishment allows a fighter to shed the perpetual question of “am I good enough?”, which prompts them to sit back, take a breath, and reflect in an unparalleled way. The cathartic experience of becoming a champion is a life-changing juncture. No matter the result of future fights, that moment will forever be embedded in one’s essence. Once a champ, always a champ.

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