Professional athletes are a blessed bunch.
We are paid handsomely to perform in front of thousands and travel the world.
Honed through years of sacrifice and hard work, we hold fierce professional ambitions and an innate love for the game.
Once in the pros however, we are often caught unaware by the cruel and cutthroat nature of the business. Between contract extensions, salary negotiations, cuts and trades, most of us either fight to keep up with the competition or just to stay ahead of the executioner’s blade.
Passion gives way to practicality and soon enough, what was once a dream soon becomes a struggle.
We begin to question our drive and purpose. Why do we fight?
Growing up poor in the Midwest, I’ve always sought to be a visible representation to kids from poor neighborhoods.
If Rich Franklin – a scrawny undersized kid – could make it to the big leagues, much less become a three-time combat sports World Champion, then anyone can do it too.
Just as I fought hard against the no holds barred brawler stereotypes prevalent in mixed martial arts at that time, British-based Somali boxer Ramla Ali fights to be a face of her sport for young Muslim women today.
Each with our different circumstances, Ali and I both found solace in combat sports. Through war, stereotypes, poverty and discrimination, we believe fighting is the great equalizer.
As a refugee fleeing war to become the first woman to represent Somalia at the Women Boxing Championships in New Delhi, be sure to check out Ali’s amazing story on Quite Franklin.
I wasn’t plucked from obscurity to become a star.
Toiling in anonymity while building a name for myself at the local levels, I had yet to fully understand the responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete.
One time after a match in Council Bluffs, Iowa, I was stopped by a man and his young son. The little boy was very excited to get my autograph. Though flattered, a small-time fighter like myself was puzzled by his enthusiasm.
Juggling a pen, I retorted half amused, “Yeah sure son, you can have my autograph but … I’m not a big deal kid.”
Soon after I spoke, his dad looked at me and said, “Look, you may not be famous or anything, but this little boy just sat and watched all the fights, and you’re a big deal to him.”
I was taught a valuable lesson that day.
It didn’t matter how famous I would ever become, I had a responsibility to anyone looking up to me.
In a world where sports is held by many as a true meritocracy, our feats of athleticism have become surrogates for fans.
Our success is at times a reflection of what they aspire to achieve. The ups and downs, from our greatest victories to crushing defeats, fans partake in them each step of the way.
As we fight to leave our mark and legacy, we forget what matters most – our journey.
Even after cresting the championship hill – with the middleweight world title around my waist as I did after UFC 53 – I thought I would have felt fulfilled.
It dawned upon me that all the mundane times in the gym, the long hours at autograph signings, the nerves and fear when I stepped inside the octagon – the little things that I loved and hated – were the ones that kept me fighting.
Like success, fame and fortune are fleeting.
On the other hand, nothing holds more value than reflecting our shared humanity and the fight to dignify struggle in the face of adversity.