In my previous post about intuition, I posed a question at the end. 

When intuition lets us down, what then?

If you think about it, (ironic since there is typically no time to think in such situations), your instinct will inevitably kick in.

By definition, instinct is our natural reaction that occurs without thinking. And because it is often framed as an impulse and sub-conscious, there is an unchallenged acceptance of instinct as inheritable and unalterable.

So, if we truly are hardwired and things go south, do our reflexes stem from no more than just a few lines of genetic code?

Looking back on my experiences inside the octagon, I believe that instinct is both innate and learned. In the face of chaos and uncertainty – when you lean into your instincts as a fighter – you fall back on your training. Therefore, the imperative is to practice and prepare over and over again to condition your reactions and muscle memory.

This is why fighters tailor an entire fight camp lasting weeks just to prepare and game plan for a particular opponent. You drill different scenarios with your trainers repetitively to prime your reflexes for match day. 

So much so that when your instincts take over, you don’t even realize it till after. 

Walk with me down memory lane. It’s 2012 and I’m headlining UFC 147 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

My opponent is the hometown legend who they call “The Axe Murderer”. For those who don’t know, Wanderlei Silva is a man who, despite his gruff outward exterior, lurks a gentle soul within.

But on this night, he had a mission, and I was his target. This was going to be a slugfest.

Late in the second round, Silva connects with a vicious right hook that floors me instantly. The crowd goes crazy.

Silva pounces and he’s going to town on me until the bell finally sounds. It was the most frantic 30 seconds of my life.

Silva knocks down Franklin

UFC 147 Franklin vs. Silva


To everyone’s surprise, including my own as I watch the replay, I come out in the third round looking fresh as a daisy, fleet-footed and popping that jab as if nothing had happened before.

Rewatch the match and you can tell I looked a lot better in the third and fourth round than I ever did in the first two. 

Just before the final round gets underway, I take a deep breath, look at my cornermen and go, “All right guys, I’m back!”

They knew it. I was on autopilot in rounds three and four and now, I was ready to go.

During my post-match interview with Joe Rogan, I couldn’t explain what had happened. I was happy to get the win, but still fuzzy about what went on in the third and fourth rounds.

A post-mortem with my trainers concluded the following.

I was operating mostly on instinct those two rounds. Because if I truly had my wits about me, I would not have performed a series of embarrassing stretches in full view of the cameras and fans. (in my defense, I was the victim of an unintentional kick to the groin)

Here’s the other kicker: Just because I am fluid on my feet and firing punches did not mean instinct had taken over entirely.

Even though my brain wasn’t actively thinking “these are actions I ought to be doing”, my body was actually recalling the muscle memory and repetitive motions honed from training.

In MMA, grinding those practice reps can mean the difference between losing or staying in the fight.

It all comes down to instinct and practice.

As I like to say, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.