MMA fighters and poker players may seem miles apart when it comes to the skillsets they require to do their jobs successfully. However, that's not necessarily the case, not in all aspects. It's not just a brains versus brawn scenario, as much of the fight game is mental. In fact, almost any fighter will tell you if your mind isn't right then it doesn't matter what your body is capable of.
Along with their striking, grappling and wrestling coaches, most top-level fighters these days have mind coaches to help them stay competitive. Gone are the days when being "tough" was simply about the torture you could put your body through on the way to victory. Real toughness stems from what's inside your head. Real performances also come from the same place.
Having the so-called "poker face" is just one small aspect. Keeping your cool under pressure and remaining focused helps in combat, and there's plenty more crossover.
Nowadays, we're seeing even more fighters crossing over into other high-profile arenas, including pro wrestling, and going from the cage to the casino tables. This can be either as a retirement plan or as something to keep them busy (and competitive) in between fight camps. Once you've had the taste for competition, it never really leaves you.
We've seen former UFC light-heavyweight champion, sometimes TNA wrestler and now Bellator signed fighter Tito Ortiz get amongst the cards and have a decent amount of success. Ortiz's reasons for doing as well as he has rely on something fighters are very familiar with; practice, practice, practice.
It's also a great attribute to be single minded about your goals. Ortiz says to be a poker pro, you have to train like a pro, exactly as you would in a cage. You wouldn't expect a guy training twice a week to be able to beat a serious athlete training twice a day. If you don't take the cards seriously, then you'll also be on the losing side more often than not. Anybody who prides themselves on winning doesn't want that, and that's exactly why Ortiz has found relative amounts of success in poker. He has basically transferred his work ethic over from one code to the other.
It's not all just something to pass the time and maybe make an extra buck - Martin 'The Hitman' Kampmann has been playing with fervor for some time now, chasing his dreams outside the cage of making it big as a poker pro. Last year he netted $52,740 for winning the Nevada Poker Challenge main event, which was a $10,000 increase from his last disclosed pay packet for fighting in the UFC. He is remembered now for memorable bouts against the likes of Diego Sanchez, but in ten years could he be known as one of poker's top players?
He made the trip to the World Series of Poker last year, too, which is a fairly high accolade for a relative newcomer to the pro game. There is definitive strategy to poker, although each player has their take on it, and like Ortiz, Kampmann is also keen to stress the similarities.
"Staying cool under pressure is a big similarity," he offered, which is something he can also take to the tables. Take your eye off the ball or make a bad call when the heat is on and it can be all over; chips gone or fight lost. At least there are no punches to the face to worry about at the tables, if that's any consolation!
Kampmann has a great mentor in the game in the shape of Jason Somerville, who has had a lot of praise for the Danish combatant. In particular, it's another trick Kampmann picked up from mixed martial arts that has really shone through. Somerville says Kampmann's ability to take instruction and retain the knowledge is almost unrivaled.
When you're training and taking call after call from your coach to do things differently, you have to adapt. In the fight, when the pressure is at its peak and your corner is shouting instructions, that ability to take them and act on it is vital. In Reno when Kampmann scooped over $50,000, Somerville said that's part of what helped his success.
"He's impressed me since the beginning and I actually think he has a bright future in poker if he chooses to pursue it," he said.
Physically, the stereotypical poker player would look much different to the stereotypical UFC fighter but, as we've seen, inside the head the workings are very similar. That's why poker has a lot to offer combat athletes, not just as a past time (or even a job for the better players), but also for improving their psyche. It is a tool for understanding how to deal with pressure, and a great way to improve those facets whilst not sustaining any more damage than is necessary. Maybe only to the check balance to start with, but then the success can come.