Collectors of music are often compelled to exist in paradox. On the one hand, there's the drive to hear—to amass—as much music as possible. On the other, the compulsion to narrow vast stores of records and songs into finite lists: albums of the year, songs of the decade, even the true crucible of music fandom, the desert island, all-time, top five.
But for anyone with even a passing interest in both music fandom and combat sports, I have to imagine the challenge is even more stringent. Instead of a whole five albums, you have to imagine what one solitary song you'd pick to introduce you on the long walk to the ring or cage.
Recently, I've learned just how tough it is when the idle hypothetical becomes an actual to-do list item. Having accepted a grappling match at Fight For It III, a promotion in Hickory, North Carolina, which includes grappling, MMA, kickboxing, and boxing on its cards, the exercise is no longer theoretical. Fortunately, I'm not the only one who's given this a lot of thought. Jeff Shaw, a friend and fellow jiu-jitsu enthusiast, understands my overthinking.
"You can't take this stuff lightly," he says. Before decamping to Bellingham, Washington, earlier this year, Shaw trained in Durham. He organized Toro Cup, a series of jiu-jitsu cards that benefit various local charities, and launched his podcast, Dirty White Belt Radio, from Hillsborough's WHUP. To say he's involved in the grappling scene is an understatement. And when he had to pick his own walkout music for a jiu-jitsu cage match in Durham, he took it very seriously.
Shaw's "Walkout Music" playlist on Spotify collects more than thirty songs, ranging from on-the-nose gangsta rap (Ghostface Killah's "The Champ") to anime theme songs ("Cowboy Bebop"); from unexpected pop hits ("It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls) to hometown upstarts ("D.U.R.M." from Professor Toon & The Real Laww). With a narrowing-down process, he ultimately settled on an El-P remix that he felt had the right dynamics for the setting, but also carried a personal significance. In second place: a novelty rap song called "40-Year-Old Vegan."
What Shaw realized—as many music-and-fighting-fans must—is that the walkout song can leave as much of an impression as the fight itself. Recall Mike Tyson's title unification bout with Michael Spinks in 1988. Tyson entered the arena to a throbbing, ominous drone. It was an intimidating prologue to the fight, in which Tyson starched Spinks in only ninety-one seconds.
In similarly persona-defining fashion, former UFC champion Ronda Rousey walked out to the Octagon with Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" blaring overhead. At the time, she was poised as the division's unbeatable heel. In hindsight, Rousey's embrace of that role seems even more apt, as it foreshadowed her burgeoning career in the WWE.
I found myself immediately gravitating toward blunt-force metal with unsubtle titles like Ringworm's "One of Us Is Going to Have to Die" or Phobia's "Submission Hold," but I fully defined my parameters. Again, Shaw had some advice.
There are four or five ways to approach a walkout song, he says. There's the "pump-up song," which is employed to fire up the crowd. This is the tactic Anthony Wright employs. He's a 3-0 MMA pro, and my teammate at Elevate MMA Academy in Durham.
"My walkout music is always something that's gets me pumped and the crowd can enjoy and take part in," Wright says. But, what he's listening to backstage is more internally focused, selected to put him in a "warrior mindset."
Shaw's second category is "personal meaning." For this, he cites Irish UFC champ Conor McGregor walking out to Sinead O'Connor's version of the folk ballad "The Foggy Dew." Next is the "signifier song," which has more to do with branding—like when Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone enters the cage to Kid Rock's "Cowboy."
The next two, the "ironic song" and the "optimal performance song" wouldn't seem to have much in common, but my coach, Cody Maltais, an accomplished MMA pro himself, managed to combine them (and the "pump-up song") when he walked out to The Isley Brothers' "Shout" before trouncing his opponent by guillotine choke at Next level Fight Club 6 in Raleigh. I thought it was inspired.
For Maltais, selecting walkout music was a part of a long-evolving process, inspired by chess and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin's The Art of Learning, which outlines a process by which to create a trigger for intense focus. Maltais fights better when he's having fun, so an upbeat standard suits him best. If an opponent clashes his choice with a predictably aggressive nu-metal track, all the better.
But the final category seems to be the thread that unites the choices of everyone I asked for guidance in my own process. Samantha Faulhaber, a jiu-jitsu black belt and movement instructor, who also coaches me at Elevate, described her optimal song selection as "anything that makes me feel fun and excited to be there."
"That's when I fight best," she says. "I won Pans to 'Shut Up and Dance with Me.'"
I still haven't settled on a song, but I've got my thirty-track-and-shrinking playlist on my headphones as I write. Pruning the list has me more anxious than the bout itself. All my life, I've defined myself—at least in part—by the music I listen to. Now, the stakes have never been higher.