What every entrepreneur can learn from UFC

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To casual observers the Ultimate Fighting Championship is little more than a brute contest. Blood and teeth spill on the Octagon. However what the organization has done to elevate the sport of mixed martial arts over the last 20 years is remarkable…and offers lesson for any startup executive.

For a fighter to be top-ranked in his weight class, it requires a rare combination of natural ability, a cultivated arsenal of skills, and the heart to persevere against uber-talented competition. To all you entrepreneurs, is this ringing a bell?

While most people will never know what it’s like to step into the Octagon, as a spectator there are many parallels we can draw from our business lives. Carrying on the tradition of B2BNN comparing our outside passions to the world of business, here is what being a fan of the UFC can teach any SMB executive or startup entrepreneur.

Performing when the lights are on us

If you’re a long-time fan of mixed martial arts you’ve probably heard it stated that in the gym some unranked fighters can give the world’s best a run for their money. However when they finally get called up to the UFC many get hit with the “Octagon jitters.” Season 17 Ultimate Fighter Uriah Hall steam-rolled his way into the finals of the reality show tournament with his petrifying striking abilities. In what most considered a major upset he would end up losing to wrestler Kelvin Gastelum. Though Hall still secured a UFC contract based on his display of raw natural ability, he went 0-2 in his first two UFC fights and wasn’t able to live up to expectations.

On the big stage, with media present, tens of thousands of fans in attendance, and while broadcasting to millions, some lock-up and are unable to execute their strategy against an opponent. In a way this is akin to being in a career-changing interview, at the centre of a big proposal, or when rolling out a multi-department initiative. You have put in the hours to know your audience, think of all the rebuttals to objections, and tailor your points to play to the strengths of your idea. However, when it’s showtime we must be present in the moment to handle any curveball (or right hook) that may come our way.

Like a UFC combatant on fight night we must be able to adapt and execute.

It’s a fight for top spot

In the corporate world, it’s an ongoing process to gain and hold position. Whether fighting for your piece of market share, or edging your way into increasingly higher caliber roles, there are only so many ways the pie can be sliced. We must grow comfortable operating at higher levels, being conditioned to bringing our A-game daily so that we can continue elevating.

Similarly, in the UFC there can only be one champion in a weight class. That is where the bulk of fighter salary goes, where a percentage of pay-per-view buys may come, and where opportunities for a lucrative Reebok endorsement deal might open up.

The top-ranked fighters walk with an ‘X’ on their backs. Other fighters emulate their strategies to win, they scrutinize how they carry themselves in the media, and even call them out on Twitter to secure a match in the hopes of overtaking their place on the rankings.

Needless to say, there is always a revolving door of challengers eager to take your spot in the UFC and in business.

Surrounding ourselves with people better than us

When a fighter has an upcoming match they compare their strengths and weaknesses to those of their opponent and begin formulating a training camp around them. This often includes training with other fighters that can mimic aspects of their opponent’s style so that they can adapt and implement their strategy.

In preparation for their title shots against Jon Jones – the greatest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet – both Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier had some training time with wrestler Phil Davis. This was to emulate Jon’s lanky and athletic 6’ 4” frame, and problematic 84.5” reach.

In business we must embrace surrounding ourselves with people that are better than us in different areas so that we can diversify and sharpen our skillset. Colleagues that take us out of our comfort zone and test our limitations allow us to improve by osmosis.

Perhaps we work with someone that is more organized, more analytical, better at reporting, or with a higher emotional IQ. While we must all play to our strengths, and draw from within, surrounding ourselves with such people allow us to stay evolving. This lesson is as important in today’s fast changing business climate as it to the ever shifting sport mixed martial arts.

Doing things we don’t like to do

The weight cut process is a crucial part of any combat sport and has often been called “the fight before the fight.” Even champions find it an enduring process. Take the former (and very brief) welterweight champ Johny Hendricks. He had to make a drastic cut from a walking weight of 218 pounds down to 170 at the weigh-ins for his title defense against Robbie Lawler at UFC 181. This weight cut was so strenuous that the experience almost persuaded him into an early retirement.

The same can be said for the dirty work we all have to do at times in our careers. Whether having to join the front lines to lead by example, perform a detailed audit to present conclusive findings, or take a proposal through a rigorous approval process, we must be conditioned to work through the less glamorous but necessary tasks that are crucial to any initiative. Usually this must happen before we can reap the rewards and accolades.

Perseverance to see things through is a largely mental exercise, and we must build up the necessary grit to grind it out. We can visualize ourselves as UFC warriors going through the rigours to help take our minds to that pole position.

At the end of the day it’s a team sport

Nobody just wakes up one day and walks into the Octagon after shadow-boxing in their bedroom. Today’s mixed martial artists must have a smoothly integrated arsenal of skills, including: un-telegraphed striking, a solid wresting base, head and foot movement, take-down defense, a ground game, and superior cardio, to name only a few.

Yes, a UFC fighter starts out with some natural ability. From there, however, there are many to be credited for the evolution. It could be their high school wrestling coach that fostered their athletic ability, their first MMA coach that aught them how to strike and fight off their back, their sparring partners that got them prepared for their first cage fight, their cut man that nursed their wounds between rounds, and all the opponents they’ve faced along the way. It’s their family, fans and sponsors that provided moral and financial support in trying times.

Showing UFC training
Showing UFC training

In the same breath, even rock star performers at work don’t just stumble upon a winning formula.   Their parents may have planted the seed for their work ethic, their spouse may have supported them when they needed it most, their first boss may have taught them about office politics, their network may have endorsed them into a career changing role, and even their teammates today – though sometimes in the pursuit of similar goals – help them continue to forge their business identities.

Perhaps we aren’t all in peak physical condition, and can’t all take and throw a punch. Perhaps we prefer to live vicariously through our favourite MMA fighters. Nevertheless, upon closer examination the UFC and our entrepreneurial lives end up having quite a bit in common. Both are survival sports.

Photos via Flickr Creative Commons

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Allan Vayman

Allan Vayman

Allan writes about leadership and success in corporate culture. With a career rooted in sales and service, he was worked for a handful of the largest financial institutions over the last 15 years.
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