It's a strangely invigorating feeling, being hit in the face or thrown to the floor. Every slam you take is a wake-up call, a rush of adrenaline that reminds you, "shit, I'm in a fight right now." It's the feeling of being truly present. But take too many hits and, depending on what your martial art of choice is, you'll lose points or much worse: you might get locked into submission, knocked out, or full-on concussed. That said, having hair hanging in your face or whipping around behind you is not the look to go for when stepping into a ring or onto a mat.
That's why you almost always see long-haired professional fighters wearing elaborate and tight braided hairstyles in favor of regular buns and ponytails. Just take it from Katyln Chookigan, a mixed martial arts fighter currently competing in the UFC. "MMA is a very high-risk sport where anything can happen at any moment, so even pulling your hair behind your ears for one second could be the moment a strike lands and knocks you out," she explains.
And any kind of bangs is absolutely out of the question (Chookigan says she learned that lesson the hard way as a teenager). Plus, UFC fighters "are not allowed to wear headbands, bandanas, or clips — for safety reasons — to hold our hair back." So, in the ring, she always wears her hair pulled back into two or more very tight Dutch braids.
Katlyn Chookagian punches Viviane Araujo of Brazil in their women’s flyweight bout during the UFC 262 event.
Sometimes, like in the case of Olympic boxing, a specific fighting hairstyle is required due to certain rules and regulations. "The rules state that boxers cannot have an inch of hair showing out of our headgear during competition, so making sure my hair is kept up is required during a fight," says Ginny Fuchs, the captain of the United States Olympic boxing team. Even so, keeping her brain on fights instead of hair is a top priority for her, too. "The sensation of feeling my hair coming out automatically shifts my focus to my hair — my hair also has fallen in my eyesight, affecting my vision in the ring," Fuchs recalls. "Knowing my hair is up safely helps give me full confidence in the ring." A pair of French or Dutch braids are what she finds to be the most effective style as well.
Hairstyling is equally important for those in grappling sports (ones that require gripping and submitting your opponents such as jiu-jitsu, judo, or wrestling). "A lot of times, girls, instead of grabbing your head and pulling it down, they'll grab onto your hair," explains two-time world wrestling champion and Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis. "Even though this is illegal, it does happen a lot." Sometimes, a wrestler's hair can even get stuck between their body and their competitor's or between their body and the mat, in which case they get stuck and can't execute certain moves. That's the worst-case scenario as far as wrestling hair goes, Maroulis adds. That's why her competition style of choice is "a bunch of intricate braids."
"Even pulling your hair behind your ears for one second could be the moment a strike lands and knocks you out."
Hairstyles represent something deeper beyond practicality to many fighters, too. As boxer and fitness trainer Holly Lawson points out, those braids can denote luck, strength, and more. "A lot of fighters are superstitious, so a lot of us have a certain way we wear our hair when we have it done for the fight," she explains. "I always feel like I am ready for battle once my hair has been braided, and I enjoy the banter that I have while I am getting it done." Maroulis feels similarly. "I always joke that once the braid comes in, I'm a different person. I'm just like, 'All right, here we go. It's fight mode. Don't talk to me. I'm just ready to go do this.'"
Depending on how far away a fight or match takes place from a fighters' home, they could be wearing their braids overnight if they don't braid it themselves (and plenty of fighters don't). "I have a woman who braids my hair for each fight," Lawson says. "I either have it braided the day of the fight before I head to the venue or before I leave for the weigh-ins."
UFC fighters, as Chookigan reveals, are provided with a hairstylist for braids and cornrows that are styled the day of fights. Maroulis, on the other hand, says she's lucky to have a couple of Olympic teammates who are impeccable braiders and happy to help everyone out with their hair pre-competition. More often than not, though, she brings a strong-hold hair gel (our favorite of all time is a classic: Got2B Glued Invincible Styling Gel) to keep everything locked down.
Fuchs does braid her own hair, and she has a specific ritual before she starts styling: "Before my hair completely dries and is still damp, I apply some kind of hair oil, leave-in conditioner with coconut oil, or Redken Extreme Anti-Snap Anti-Breakage Leave-In Treatment," she says.
Helen Maroulis during a gold medal match against Saori Yoshida of Japan.
And because we know you're wondering: Yes, those extremely tight braids can feel super uncomfortable. Lawson and Chookigan both agree that there's no such thing as hair that's too tight — they've both been having their hair braided consistently since childhood so they're very used to it. Fuchs, though, warns that competition hair can feel "like you are getting a face-lift." If her scalp becomes very itchy or the hair feels like it's being pulled, she explains, then she knows her braids are too tight.
"Once the braid comes in, I'm a different person… It's fight mode."
Headaches and itchiness aren't the only side-effects of fighting hair, by the way. "My little hairs [in the front] have broken off from constantly using my head against someone else," Maroulis laments, referring to moves that require her to rub her head flesh up against her opponents. Knotting is another problem Maroulios faces often, so she "drenches" her hair in conditioner when she showers. And to keep her natural curls intact when she's off-duty, she gives them a healthy dose of Pantene Curl Scrunching Spray Gel [Maroulis is a spokesperson for Proctor & Gamble, the brand's parent company].
Chookigan also experiences some damage due to all the tight braiding. "My hair gives me some breakage, which, with what I do on a daily basis, I just can't avoid," Chookigan laments. "My hairdresser yells at me to not put my hair up in a tight ponytail so much but, unfortunately, that is just not an option — when I retire, I will wear my hair down every single day."
Obviously, hair isn't the only factor that determines whether a boxer, wrestler, or MMA fighter wins at the end of the day. That ultimately comes down to training and mindset. Those little hair details, however — like the tautness of a French braid or cornrow — can only add to the focus and attitude that pushes them over the edge.
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