Even as recent as twenty years ago, tattoos in the West were viewed in many locations as a symbol of counterculture. Sometimes, tattoos were used to create a group identity, as with naval tattoos. Other times, they were purely about style, as with the tattooed ladies of early freak shows.
In other locations around the world, tattooing has a long and storied history, with specific social and spiritual meanings that are still in use today. In Southeast Asia, sak yant tattooing imbues recipients with numinous power. In New Zealand, Maori tattoos indicate ancestry and history. In North Africa, Berber tattoos are used for protection and vitality.
Clearly, tattoos are about declaring an identity while also imbuing the recipient with certain qualities. Unsurprisingly, this has made them particularly relevant for athletes who regularly push their bodies and minds to the limit. In fact, in the West, boxers and martial artists were some of the first people to display their tattoos publicly.
Though popular in UFC, not all prize-fighters have tattoos. And when it comes to choosing which fighter to back in UFC betting, the most relevant details include recent performance, history against an opponent, and physical health. A tattoo doesn’t directly affect any of these conditions but may help a fighter get into a stronger mindset.
For example, Betway lists Yair Rodriguez as the favorite in a November 28 faceoff against the tattooed Max Holloway. Holloway’s tribal chest piece isn’t enough to help him turn the odds, but it could boost his sense of identity and confidence in training in the weeks leading up to the fight.
So what’s behind UFC’s beastliest tattoos, which feature predators like bears, tigers, and lions? And do these ideas have a deeper origin related to combat?
Walking a Warrior’s Path
UFC competitors are some of the toughest athletes in the world. Not only do they need to deliver maximum strength with each strike, but they also have to make critical split-second decisions without compromising their technical form. Any slipups can lead to devastating results.
When UFC fighters enter the ring, they assume a persona similar to that of a predator. As such, it makes sense that they’d adorn themselves with other celebrated predators, from bears to lions to tigers. The idea is to take on the ‘identity’ of that animal to harness its strength and agility during the match.
Though tattoos are relatively new in the west, ancient European practice saw warriors take on the likeness of a bear, wild boar, or wolf before entering battle. This is a common trope related to the ‘berserker’ when ancient warriors donned bear and wolf hides. In Old Norse, berserkr can even be translated as ‘bear-shirt’.
Comparing Tattoos to Success
For warriors in ancient Europe, wolves, wild boars, and bears provided inspiration. However, it seems boars didn’t quite survive the jump to modernity. Instead, UFC fighters around the world seem to have adopted animals like bears, tigers, lions, and, in the case of Conor McGregor, apes into their repertoire.
Still, not all successful fighters choose to tattoo themselves. As mentioned above, Max Holloway is considered one of the greatest fighters of all time—bare skin and all. The same goes for Anderson Silva, Stipe Miocic, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Demetrious Johnson. Clearly, inborn talent and hardcore dedication will do more than a tiger tattoo ever will.
And, of those who do end up tattooing themselves, not all fighters look toward beastly animals for inspiration. Jon Jones, for example, stuck to a simple Biblical verse, which is tattooed on his chest. Georges St-Pierre also opted for a simple chest tattoo, which means ‘jiu-jitsu’ in Japanese Kanji symbols.
Sometimes, tattoos are added later in a fighter’s career. For example, Amanda Nunes earned her reputation as The Lioness before opting for a shoulder piece that highlighted how she sees herself: as a predator and a Queen of the Jungle. She also has an owl tattoo, which she opted for because of the creature’s association with the night and invisibility rather than brute strength.