No UFC Heavyweight Champion has defended the belt more than twice! Winning is difficult, and when the competition is stout, repeated winning has an extra element of difficulty. The gravity of past success can be as hard an obstacle to overcome as winning the title, to begin with.
Take a look into the mentality shifts that happen after champions win, and how that affects their chances of future success.
The Luxurious Life Of The Champion
“The biggest challenges facing Georges (GSP) are the biggest challenges facing anyone who ever made it in any combat sport.
It’s hard to get out of bed when you’re sleeping in silk sheets with millions of dollars in the bank account, and go into a gym filled with angry people who want to punch you in the face.
The challenge for a fighter isn’t so much the rise to the top, but the attempt to stay at the top. The world is full of people who fought hard to get to the top, but then fell quickly because they couldn’t handle
Those silk sheets and millions of dollars John Danaher is talking about can be purely metaphorical for the Jiu Jitsu competitor. Winning a local tournament won’t make me a millionaire, but it may make me feel on top of the world. My ego gets invested in that belief that I’ve made it, I’m at the top of the summit. Sadly, the only place I have left is to fall if I can’t stay hungry and diligent. I am on my way to tumbling down due to the gravity of past success.
The Gravity Of Past Success
Losing can persuade you to change what doesn’t need to be changed, and winning can convince you that everything is fine even if you are on the brink of disaster. Only when the environment shifts radically should you consider a change in fundamentals.”
Competing after a loss is relatively easy and straightforward. The loss tends to motivate and usually, a spotlight shows a particular area of needed improvement. I realize things like, “I’ve got to improve my cardio”, or “I need to prepare and answer to stripping the grips from spider guard”
Winning however brings with it the psychological fallacy that I won because I was doing everything right, and if I keep doing that, I will win again. In hotly contested events like Jiu Jitsu, letting off the gas pedal to put on cruise control is the kiss of death. There is also a certain pressure that comes after a win, where there is an expectation that I SHOULD win again, giving your opponent the benefits of the determined underdog
This is what I call the gravity of past success. Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine. We think only of the positive results without considering all the things that went wrong-or that could have gone wrong-along the way. After a victory we want to celebrate, not analyze. We replay the triumphant moment in our mind until it looks at though it were inevitable.”
I have seen more competitors get “ruined” by a win than were ever ruined by a loss. After losing, most competitors are able to go back to the drawing board, focus on their newfound foe as a source of fuel, and shore up the gaps that lead to their downfall. Conversely, a competitor who has a great day at a tournament with a particular move can feel like his execution is unstoppable and become slightly addicted to that technique. What he fails to realize is that everyone is preparing specifically to stop that move now, motivated by their losses to him, and executing this once-successful move is going to be much more difficult.
Waking up in the middle of the night after tournament losses thinking about what went wrong and writing out the things I have to work on is a regular occurrence. Winning matches I sleep like a baby.
Commemorate The Losses
On an older episode on Open Mat Radio’s Podcast (Episode 83) Garry Tonnon talks about his version of a trophy room. He tosses all of the medals he has won in a shoebox in the back of his closet where they gather dust and never get looked at. His losses are processed much differently though. He posts photos and event fliers from his losses on his wall on display with a note about why he lost and the lesson he learned and leaves them there. He is able to refocus his losing into growth and try to avoid the pain of repeating past mistakes instead of over-focusing on his winning and getting sucked into the gravity of past success.
Hone The Wins
The final example in this case study is Anderson Silva in his prime. At his peak, “The Spider” dominated his division and held the record for longest win streak (16 wins!), most consecutive title defenses (10!), and most finishes in the UFC (14!). What made Anderson especially dangerous is that he always seemed to be trying to fight the perfect fight. The fight where his opponent couldn’t touch him and he could do whatever he wanted against the best in the world. This approach lead to his victory over Forrest Griffin, which many consider one of the most impressive displays of Mixed Martial Arts ever. Aging and succumbing to the gravity of past success definitely contributed to his downfall, as he tried to repeat this amazing fight with other competitors and became predictable instead of adaptable.
The key to improving while winning is to find the small losses on the way to victory. If I win a Jiu Jitsu match by points 6 -4, I should try to go back over the footage and see the mistakes that lead to him scoring on me. If I win a Jiu Jitsu match by submission in 5 minutes, I try to figure out why I couldn’t get it done in 3 minutes instead.
We Lose And Learn, We Win And Learn, Or We Lose Again.