When it comes to professional sports, many top athletes have memorable and iconic tattoos. While everyone gets inked for a unique reason, some competitors choose specific designs or themes in order to help focus and enhance their drive to win. In other words, it’s about a psychological boost.
In some cases, the relationship between an athlete and their tattoo might run even deeper. This is often the case for MMA (mixed martial arts) pros, who fight to become a world champion in their weight class in competitions like UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Champion.
As the most popular and expansive MMA league in the world, the UFC sees regular viewers tune in from around the globe and coverage from leading sportsbooks. This is particularly relevant in the US, where offers like a BetMGM promo code introduce bettors to new sports like MMA.
One of the first elements many viewers notice, aside from leg kicks and grappling, is the elaborate nature of upper-body tattoos. Not only are the symbols and animals used attention-grabbing, but some of the techniques and styles are new and exotic. In fact, MMA tattoos are derived from fighting traditions around the world—and they’re much more nuanced and varied than some fans realize.
Muay Thai Influence
One of the most popular tattoos seen on MMA fighters s from Muay Thai traditions. Muay Thai is a style of mixed martial arts that stretches back centuries in Southeast Asia. Specifically, Muay Thai is based in Thailand, where a style of tattooing called Sak Yant is popular.
Sak Yant is a manual tattoo, which means an artist uses a bamboo point to ink the design. The traditional style of tattoo creates a type of ‘formula’ using ancient scripts like Lan Na, which are combined to create extra power, protection, and speed.
When a tattoo artist gives a Muay Thai fighter a Sak Yant tat, they’re literally imbuing them with the power of a script, animal, or certain design.
Another common tattoo seen in the Octagon is called a ‘tribal’ tattoo. Typically, these tattoos stem from areas like New Zealand and Samoa. Locally, they aren’t referred to as ‘tribal’ designs, but by proper names, such as the Ta Moko (Maori, New Zealand) or the Pe’a (Samoa). Like Sak Yant, they’re hand-etched and created for a specific purpose.
Tribal designs include geometric shapes that stretch across the legs and torso. Traditionally, they helped define a right of passage. However, they’re also used by MMA fighters to gain strength and poise during matches. These vary greatly by region and history. In some cases, it might take up to a year to find the correct design that will auger the desired results.
Again, the tattoo isn’t just about aesthetics or building emotion in others. It’s about what the tattoo can provide for the fighter in terms of psychological power and resilience.
Another common tattoo found in UFC is the American traditional style. These tattoos include thick black outlines and basic coloring, which often focus on fierce animals, weapons, and even flowers. Many of these tattoos are recognizable from the early days of bare-knuckle boxing when competitors often had American traditional designs inked onto their forearms.
One of the most famous American traditional designs is stamped on Conor McGregor’s chest. The massive gorilla wears a crown while eating a heart. The fighter says the idea came from honoring one of the first gyms he attended and that he ‘just likes the way it looks’.
In this case, the rules around how and why to get a tattoo aren’t based on tradition. Instead, it’s about building an aesthetic that taps into a fighter’s deepest identity.
Though all fighters have unique reasons behind getting tatted, MMA has become known for a revolving wheel of common designs. Are the symbols played out because too many fighters have adopted them—or is it the proof behind the power of a tattoo to help imbue wearers with a bit of extra oomph when the cards are down?