Issue 205

May 2024

Adorn your body with high-performance fight muscle, and there’s a growing chance you’ll also decorate it with ink. Ray Klerck explores what this budding relationship means to the sport. 

Tattoos were once the gritty reserve of bearded bikers, but today, it’s a billion-dollar industry, and a third of all Americans have tattoos. This makes them more mainstream than green eyes or being left-handed. You’d have to imagine that more MMA fighters have tattoos than those who are clean-skinned. Trendy they might be, but they’re nothing new, with archaeologists unearthing a 5,200 “Iceman” with ink – tribal designs, we suspect. Can ink elevate a fighter’s game, motivation, and health? We answer the stinging questions.


In MMA, your body is your weapon, constantly evolving with gains and losses that affect your tattoos' appearance. Symmetrical designs like tribal or Celtic patterns are more likely to show the effects of weight changes, but many seasoned fighters show minimal distortion. Fighters who frequently undergo weight cuts or bulk phases need not worry excessively about their tattoos losing their form. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it because you can always do a touch-up job afterward. A measly 5% of tattooed people have cover-ups, so it’s not very common, and those are probably on guys who got Beavis and Butthead motifs way back when. But what does this mean for athletes who gain muscle or lose fat regularly? 


Motivation comes in many guises, and tattoos offer a two-fold benefit, encouraging fighters to keep themselves looking fight-ready while creating a dermatological canvas on which they can place enduring positive self-talk. Research in Medicine and Science in Sports and Science found people who engaged in self with mantras such as ‘feeling good’ and ‘push through this’ not only outperformed their peers in a cycling test but also thought the workout was way easier. BMF title holder Max Holloway has Jesus across his chest and Polynesian designs to represent his faith and heritage. These are clearly things that mean a lot to him and serve as clear motivators.

According to research in The Social Science Journal, people who get a tattoo simply for the sake of covering up a little skin are more likely to regret it, according to research in The Social Science Journal. There’s also a good chance fighters will field plenty of questions about your ink because people expect a hidden meaning, so something that just looks cool isn’t going to cut it anymore. 


The financial price pales compared to the potential risk to your health because tattoos carry this element. In a first-of-its-kind survey by the NYU Langone Medical Centre, researchers found that some people who get inked experience tattoo-specific rash, severe itching, or swelling that can last for up to four months and, in some cases, years. 

“The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body’s immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood,” explains study author and dermatologist Marie Leger. 

“Some of the reactions appear to be an immune response, yet we do not know who is most likely to have an immune reaction to a tattoo.” This can put you at risk of missing valuable training sessions thanks to poor health or an infection. Fortunately, this risk is very low because a tattoo artist’s rep is on the line with every single addition they make. However, if you’re in the chair, always ask questions regarding hygiene because the most mundane elements of the procedure can create serious problems. Research by the University of Rochester Medical Centre found 19 cases of tattoos infected by bacteria found in regular tap water. So, if you see anything less than medical-grade equipment, it might be time to find another artist who does. 


Muscle definition is improved by an increased contrast between light and the depth of the shadows created by the grooves in your muscles. This means a distracting design can noticeably impact definition, so it’s wise to deliberate carefully when choosing ink to decorate intricate muscle groups such as your triceps. 

More importantly, tattoos can give fighters a psychological edge, making them appear more intimidating.

Fighters like Brock Lesnar, with his infamous sword tattoo, use their ink to enhance their formidable presence in the octagon. Others like Sean O’Malley have created a signature pink and blue color scheme. This powerful fashion statement has cemented him as a 4 million follower brand, which sells out. Tats are a symbol that’s adorned the physiques of warriors the world over, from the gangs of California to the Aztecs and Maori. Tattoos have adorned the bodies of warriors from various cultures, signifying fearlessness and aggression—qualities every MMA fighter aims to embody.


The association between tattoos and dirty places that risk making you sick may need revising. Research at the University of Alabama found that having multiple tattoos strengthens your immune system, so you’re better at fighting garden-variety infections. However, this benefit only comes into play if you get a few of them because having just one might do the opposite. "They don't just hurt while you get the tattoo, but they can exhaust you," says Dr Christopher Lynn, who published the study. "It's easier to get sick. You can catch a cold because your defenses are lowered from the stress of getting a tattoo. "After the stress response, your body returns to an equilibrium," Lynn said. "However, if you continue to stress your body over and over again, instead of returning to the same set point, it adjusts its internal set points and moves higher." So, you better take extra care of your health with solid nutritional practices after getting one. Still, if you regularly get them, you’ll strengthen your immune system as if you were painting yourself with a germ barrier that could help fighters train more consistently and win more fights. 

So, next time you see a fighter covered in ink, remember they're not just making a fashion statement—they're wielding a psychological weapon, a motivational tool, and maybe even a secret immunity booster. In the world of MMA, it's not just about having the toughest skin; it's about having the most decorated one, too.