The Psychology of Trash Talk: Fear, Strategy or Hatred?

It seems that there has been an amping up of trash talk as of late in the MMA world.  From Frank Mir‘s unprecedented, and apparent sincere, death comments to Chael Sonnen’s relentless diatribe against Anderson Silva, one has to wonder whether such statements are born out of actual contempt, fear or simple strategy.

Talking trash to one’s opponent is nothing new to sports.  Babe Ruth did it in the 1932 World Series when he told pitcher Charlie Root, “I’m going to knock the next pitch down your goddamned throat.”  Michael Jordan did it in the NBA, football linemen make it a habit in the NFL and, of course, Mohammad Ali mastered the skill throughout his career. 

Ali did it with a wink and a nod and he is a good example of a smart trash talker; someone who does it not out of emotion but for strategy.  His goal was to get into his opponents head and it often worked.  Before his 1972 bout with Joe Frazier, Ali did not confine his trash talk to media appearances; he would show up at Frazier’s training sessions and outside his hotel in Manila, publicly derided Frazier by calling him all kinds of names (ugly, flat nosed, etc.).  Most agree that such tauntings “worked” in the sense that they got under Frazier’s skin, however, the jury is still out as to what affect it had on Frazier’s actual performance.  In the MMA world, Dan Hardy seems to be a master at strategy-based trash talk and he makes no secret of this.  The affects on his opponents, like Marcus Davis, are obvious.  Chael Sonnen is another fighter that seemingly uses trash talk for an end-game.  Lately, his repeated comments about the current middle weight champ are accomplishing their purpose for Sonnen: Hype and gossip about a potential match-up and about Sonnen himself; something that barely existed before his rantings.

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As for pure hatred being the catalyst for trash talk, the boxing community has a rich treasure trove of examples.  During the early 1900s, Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion (1908-1915).  This outraged many white, racist, Americans not comfortable with a black champ. This prompted former heavyweight Jack J. Jeffries to come out of retirement in 1910 to challenge the champ stating, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro”. 

Today, hatred-based trash talk is often motivated by personal reasons, like humiliation. No one disputes the fact that Brock Lesnar’s resounding defeat of Frank Mir, coupled with his own trash talk after the bout, sparked deep seeded emotions in Mir. Mir’s now infamous death comment was preceded by a statement that belies this notion when he said, “I hate who he is as a person.” Such a comment, said with what appears to be sincerity, is a perfect example of hatred based trash talk.

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Finally there is fear. Shakespeare said it best: “Methinks the [fighter] doth protest too much.”  Often, in life and in nature, it’s the one who beats his chest the most who is the most afraid of a conflict. 

And then there are James Toney latest rants towards UFC president Dana White, er, never mind; not even Sigmund Freud could figure that one out.