Religion has deep roots in fight game

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.



Editor's note: Matt Hughes fought at UFC 135 in Denver on Sept. 24. This story is part of our preview package for the debut of UFC on FOX and the heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, which airs live Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

Down here, ringside at a recent UFC fight, it feels like the pit of hell.

“I just know there’s always somebody there to help me,” Matt Hughes says of his faith.

A cacophony of rap and heavy metal shakes the packed Pepsi Center. A well-endowed UFC Octagon girl takes off her satin robe, reveals her barely-there bikini and struts around the ring, passing Steven Seagal in the front row as cameras snap her picture and spectators catcall her name. In the well-lubricated crowd, a fan wears a t-shirt with Osama bin Laden's face crossed out and the slogan "PUNISH YOUR ENEMIES." To the fans' delight, one fighter has already broken his jaw this evening and another has been knocked out in 47 seconds. The medical staff encircles the fighter for five minutes as the crowd squeals and gasps when the replay of his knockout is shown over and over on the big screen.

Two by two, warriors with nicknames like "The Barbarian" and "Rampage" walk into the Octagon, poised to meet their fate. It's the modern-day equivalent of the Colosseum in ancient Rome, where gladiators fought to the death and Christians were fed to the lions. "These fighters are willing to walk through fire," an announcer says in a hype video before an undercard.

As the profane production echoes from inside the arena, Matt Hughes kneels on a wrestling mat in a locker room, hidden from this bloodlust. His head is on the ground, his glove-clad hands are clasped in front of him, he's rocking back and forth. As he does before every fight, Hughes prays: for wisdom, for strength, for speed, and most of all, for his family.

A Bible is packed away in the UFC Hall of Famer's gear, the first thing he read on the morning of this fight. All day leading up to his co-main event at UFC 135, friends texted Bible verses to him. They knew this could be the 37-year-old's last fight, and he needed prayers to back him up. An hour before his fight was to begin, Hughes said what he always says in the pre-fight locker room filled with fighters and coaches: That he was going down on bended knee, and that everyone was welcome to join.

Out in the arena, a video is shown to hype the fight before Hughes'. A fighter says his opponent "is going to feel like he was pulled down to hell tonight and has a demon on top of him, tormenting him."

Into this scene, perhaps the least likely place for a man of Christ, strides Matt Hughes. And an odd realization occurs: In this place of decadence and depravity, in this sport that's taken over boxing as America's most violent and most extravagant, the thing that might make a good UFC fighter great is a faith in something greater, and the infallible confidence religion brings.

The crowd goes wild as Hughes enters the Octagon to face the younger, faster Josh Koscheck. Hughes' t-shirt doesn't read "Deathclutch" or "Affliction" like other fighters, but instead has two Bible verses: "The Lord our God is one" and "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy ..." The rest of the arena is bathed in darkness, except here, where hundreds of spotlights shine down.

And before the bell sounds and the fighters touch gloves and the spectacle begins, Hughes prays the same thing he always prays: "Your will be done."

As long as the pugilistic sports have existed, so has their odd marriage to religion.

Go way back to Tiger Flowers in the 1920s. The "Georgia Deacon" or the "Fighting Deacon" was the first black middleweight champion. Before fights the devout Christian would recite a passage from Psalm 144: "Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight." It's the same Bible verse touted 80 years later on the gear of former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin.

Still fighting at age 48, Evander Holyfield is very much driven by his faith.

Ethan Miller

The 1950s welterweight champion Carmen Basilio would never cross himself or thank God before a fight — only after, because he didn't want to seem like he was asking for God's help, instead just thanking God for getting through a bout unscathed. Henry Armstrong is recognized as one of the finest fighters of all time, with 27 knockout wins in a row in the 1930s. Yet, his nickname "Homicide Hank" didn't stop him from becoming a Baptist minister after his fighting career ended.

"It's probably more religious than other sports, with everyone hollering to God to do something for them," said boxing historian and International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Bert Sugar. "They may feel, 'I have the Lord's power in my hand, that I'm fighting for the Lord, that this great right hand is somehow equated with justice.' I mean, how many people walk around saying they're talking to God?"

God told the converted Muslim Muhammad Ali he was going to win fights. Ditto for born-again Christian Evander Holyfield, who, at 48, believes God still wants him to keep fighting, and plans to enter the ring again this December. George Foreman became a Baptist minister after a born-again moment after a loss in the 1970s. Ernie Shavers, the heavyweight whom Ali called the hardest puncher he'd ever faced, became a Pentacostal minister after he was done fighting.

"It's an individual sport," Sugar said of combat sports. "You don't have other help. Maybe you're looking to God for help. It's not like you're standing around looking at 10 other men in football or four other men in basketball or eight men like in baseball. You're on your own, one on one."

And so it's an easy mental transition for a fighter. One man fighting another man becomes good fighting evil. Supernatural faith helps David conquer Goliath. It all goes to explain why the marriage between faith and fighting has endured all the way into the 21st century glitz and glamor of the UFC.


Faith is confidence, your confidence in your ability to do the things necessary to win. In a contact sport, you squint your eyes, you see things, and that’s what you see and what you hear. Faith is being able to see beyond that ...

Evander Holyfield

Because if a fighter truly believes in something greater, truly believes he is righteous and holy and destined to win, then fear is left outside the ring.

"Faith is confidence, your confidence in your ability to do the things necessary to win," Holyfield said in an interview. "In a contact sport, you squint your eyes, you see things and that's what you see and what you hear. Faith is being able to see beyond that ... As the Bible says, don't forsake your confidence. You forget your confidence, you forget to do the little subtle stuff that usually comes naturally. You get so caught up, you forget to breathe. The air gets trapped. You panic. And that'll cause you to lose. And faith is confidence, and when a person's confident, they breathe."

In December, Holyfield will get in the ring again, a 48-year-old fighting a man 20 years younger than him. He's not scared. After all, God told him to keep fighting.

"You don't have to take away fear if you don't have no fear," he said.

Back in Denver, God's will has been done, and God has willed Matt Hughes to lose by technical knockout with one second left in the first round.

Hughes had started the fight with his hands up, protecting his face, but Koscheck attacked, then attacked some more. Hughes landed a knee, but then Koscheck turned up the heat, pummeling Hughes' head, knocking him down, pouncing on him until the referee intervened and ended the fight.

And so Hughes walks out of the arena, his head hanging.

Count Jon Jones among the many UFC fighters that hold deep religious beliefs.

Jed Jacobsohn/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Sometimes Hughes wonders if, since he found God, he's become a weaker fighter. It was seven years ago when he went on a mission trip to an orphanage in Mexico. His church group was praying on a mountainside over El Paso. The sun was going down. He can remember the feeling when he said "Amen."

"It was like I got hit by a lightning bolt."

He confessed his sins to his friends and his wife. He gave Bibles to his team's fighters in "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show. And once he even prayed mid-fight, his first rematch with B.J. Penn, when Penn got Hughes in a nasty reverse triangle. "God, you get me to the next round, I'll do better," Hughes prayed. A couple seconds later, Hughes broke the hold. The round ended, and Hughes went on to win.

"I just know there's always somebody there to help me," Hughes says. "If you pray long enough, if you believe in it, it's going to happen."

Has religion made him a softer person? Maybe. Of course, maybe he's softer because he has two daughters, and he's grown older and his hunger has waned. Just as likely is that Hughes' faith has propelled him in this brutal sport. He'd rather think of it this way: That his fighting success has given God a bigger platform. After all, he says, what better place for a pastor to go than to Sin City?

Hughes walks out of the arena. In the dark bowels of the Pepsi Center, as the crowd gets pumped up for the final fight of the night, a cavalcade of cameras marches toward Hughes. They're surrounding Jon Jones, who is walking out for his light heavyweight title fight against Rampage Jackson.

"Good luck, guys," Hughes says as he walks past Jones and his seven-person entourage.


It's hard not to fall hard for the UFC Octagon Girls.

Hughes heads to the locker room. Jones pauses before he heads into the thumping, pounding arena. Earlier in the day, Jones, whose father is a Pentecostal pastor in upstate New York, had gone to a secluded waterfall outside Boulder for meditation and reflection and prayer. Then he got ready for the fight in his locker room, where Bible verses were taped to the wall: Samuel 22:34. Psalm 144:1. And Philippians 4:13: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength."

So, you shouldn't be surprised what happens moments before Jones heads toward the Octagon. He circles his coaches and trainers around him. They get quiet, and Jones leads them in a prayer.

He prays that he and his opponent make it through the fight without major injuries. He asks that the Lord bless him with speed, power and wisdom, and that the Lord make him victorious.

"Lord, now let your will be done," Jones says.

Jones puts his hands above his head, does a little dance, closes his eyes, then opens them. He struts into the arena, into the pit of hell.

Four rounds later, after roundhouse punches and up-kicks and takedowns and screaming fans and no shortage of blood, Jones gets Jackson in a rear naked choke, Jackson taps out and Jones raises his hands in the air, still champion. The Lord's will has been done.

Afterward, Jones sits in the training room, his family surrounding him, his feet and shins wrapped in ice. Jones' mother turns to him: "God, he was watching you," she says. Her son nods.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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