Conor Clinch's FIGHTER is a photography and short film project in support of CALM that focuses on the hyper-competitive world of Mixed Martial Arts to reveal fresh perspectives on masculinity, vulnerability and mental health.
Mixed Martial Arts has seen a rapid rise in popularity in recent years, going from an illegal sport in New York to a billion-dollar fight at Madison Square Garden. Mental health is not something that immediately comes to mind when we see cage fighting, but a good mind-set is a fundamental part of the fighting game and can have even more of an impact on a fighter’s performance than their physical skills. Having the ability to drive yourself into a state of intense focus is an incredibly difficult challenge.
FIGHTER sees Conor Clinch, one of the UK's most talented young photographers, exploring the physical and mental challenges that MMA competitors face in and out of competition and the surprising emotional issues and sensitivities that sit alongside displays of brute force. FIGHTER aims to reshape the macho lad stereotype and hone in on the vulnerability of the young men involved in this brutal sport.
In this feature, Conor visits professional MMA fighter and coach Dean Garnett at his gym Aspire Combat Sports Academy in Liverpool, to chat about the mind/body link in fighting and the pressures to succeed at his game.
I think people need to start measuring success by what you can do for others. Having a community that you're part of, I don't think there's anything that's more rewarding... - Dean Garnett
FIGHTER: A film by Conor Clinch and Jack Hartley
Conor: What got you into fighting Dean?
Dean: Growing up on a rough council estate, fighting was part of life. I remember being 12 years old watching UFC on Bravo and thinking; “That’s what I want to do!”. Anger problems and problems at home had quite a negative impact on my life as a kid. When I was 19, I found an outlet for my anger through MMA. I’ve now built a successful career as a fighter, coach and social entrepreneur and I enjoy it every second of the day.
Anger problems and problems at home had quite a negative impact on my life as a kid. When I was 19, I found an outlet for my anger through MMA.
C: What inspired you to open Aspire Combat Sports Academy?
D: I wasn’t happy working multiple jobs, so I went back to university and studied coaching. I wanted to do something new and cutting edge. Aspire is one of a kind in the UK and I love having the opportunity to see people grow to their fullest potential.
C: What are the most challenging things you face as a fighter?
D: Fighting is a hard career and only a small percentage will make it. A lot of parents laugh at young people when they say they want to be a fighter. The gym’s motto is “Better Never Stops” and I’m a firm believer of that. I want to see young people get their qualifications and push them to do well in life. On top of that, self-discipline is a huge part of being a fighter so it’s about having that mental strength to push yourself to do better. I live and breathe MMA, 24/7, 365 days a year but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
C: How do you mentally prepare for a fight?
D: Preparing for a fight is a long process. It usually starts 10 weeks before a fight. I off load my other commitments about 5 weeks before so that I solely can focus on the fight. I up the ante two to three weeks before the fight, training 4 hours a day and planning for every potential scenario. The world stops for me at this point and life is all about the fight.
It’s always about being 1% better than the day before, at a minimum. The mentality is contagious, and it seeps into all other areas of my life. The social element of the team around me is what pushes me.
C: Cutting weight is obviously one of the most gruelling aspects of being an MMA fighter, how do you cope with this?
D: There’s a lot that goes into nutrition, sports psychology, recovery and training. Your body is like a candle, you can’t keep burning it and expect it to keep shining. Being a fighter is about being the best version of you and that’s what inspired me. It’s always about being 1% better than the day before, at a minimum. The mentality is contagious, and it seeps into all other areas of my life. The social element of the team around me is what pushes me.
C: You incorporate holistic practices into the training routines of fighter’s at Aspire. What encouraged you to start this?
D: Over the last few years I’ve become a lot more open minded with nutrition, medicine etc. It’s about promoting the right lifestyle and making small changes; incorporating things like yoga, meditation and cryotherapy all contribute to a better lifestyle and state of mind.
C: There’s a tough stereotype that comes with being a fighter. Do you think there’s pressure on you to be a “hard man” and do your younger fighters feel the need to take on this attitude?
D: There’s a lot more to it than roughening people up. That’s why the young lads want to get into it but over time that mentality changes and they end up becoming more self-disciplined. It’s easy to get caught up with the wrong crowds when you’re young. So many times I’ve been in ruts, especially at the back of these losses. It’s been hard to pick myself back up again but I’m a firm believer that the world assigns pressures to make you feel bad about yourself. We’re forgetting how much that there is to achieve. I’ve seen a recent study on the longevity of life; fitness and diet obviously play a huge part but being part of a social network was one of the top finds. I have two great groups of friends and my MMA family is one of them. Find something you’re passionate about and become part of that world!
I’ve seen a recent study on the longevity of life; fitness and diet obviously play a huge part but being part of a social network was one of the top finds.
C: How do you stay so focused when you start to slack?
D: Minor decisions affect me the most. If I miss my alarm in the morning, my whole day gets thrown off! You’re not going to condition yourself to be resilient with one off tasks, it’s got to come from taking constant small steps. Practice smaller decisions and success is a given. The world owes you nothing, you have to work for it.
C: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a combat sport?
D: Meet different gyms before you make your mind up. It’s your journey so make the right decision. People can be intimidated about going into these environments but it’s a family here and we all work together. Whether it’s training the smaller guys in ninjas, or 40+ women, everyone is welcome. There are lots of like-minded people here from all types of backgrounds.
C: What does the future hold for you and Aspire Academy?
D: The future is bright for me and the club. I am going to reach the top end of the sport. Aspire will continue to make a big impact on young people and the sport going forward. I want to empower everyone here to reach their maximum potential and become the best version of themselves.