There's a popular notion that "anyone who has the guts to step into the cage/ring/whatever deserves respect for their courage." I vehemently disagree. Yes, it takes some degree of bravery to do that, but much less than you think.
The prospect of getting beat up can be harrowing, especially for those who aren't used to full contact sports (or unsanctioned fisticuffs). Worse yet is the possibility of being publicly humiliated -- being dominated, dismantled, or even decimated in front of countless spectators. Yeah, that's definitely scary, and I get why you'd want to give someone credit for putting themselves at risk of suffering those outcomes.
But seriously, that's *nothing* compared to what the majority of fighters put on the line.
When a fighter gives their all during a 6-8 week training camp, they sacrifice so much in the way of blood, sweat, tears, and time. They are pushing themselves to the brink; giving up their social lives, the basic pleasures of food and drink; suffering the rigors and damage of hard training, the physical trauma of a weight cut; AND THEN risking hurt and humiliation on the night of the fight.
For fighters diligent in their preparation, what they risk on fight night pales in comparison to what they've staked on the outcome. Losing a fight doesn't hurt nearly as much as the accumulated pain, suffering, and sacrifice of the past two months being poured down the drain as your opponent's hand is raised. It's the culmination of every moment of your life that you staked on this crazy gamble being swept away when all is said and done. It's knowing that you traded everything you had -- every ounce of you that could be scrounged up in exchange for the hope of sweet victory -- only to find out that it wasn't enough.
That's a far higher price to pay than taking a beating in front of a crowd. I have the highest respect, admiration, and empathy for anyone courageous enough to put all of that on the line -- regardless of whether they win or lose. I have much less, if any, for those that don't.
If you aren't deeply entrenched in local combat sports, you may be surprised by how many fall into the ladder category. If your only exposure to the world of pugilism is through televised high-level competitions, where almost everybody trains to an admirable degree, then you might not realize how many participate just say say they did. Just to tell their friends that they're a fighter. Although, I guess it's still a step up from telling everyone at the bar they're a cage fighter without having done it at all. So maybe a sliver of respect for that...
The fakers and clout-chasers rely on the layman's assumption that EVERYONE who steps into the cage puts it all on the line like the professionals do, and are hence deserving of the same respect.
Where the respect should really go is towards those who give it their all -- yes, obviously -- but also for the countless competitors who do that from the obscurity of the local scene. The amateurs and professionals training as much as they humanly can while balancing a full-time job, who give far more to the sport than they will ever get back.
Being on the stage itself isn't worth half the respect that the journey warrants. The courage of each fighter should be measured foremost by how much of their work, their selves, and their soul that they've put into the pot because that is what determines how much they're risking. It's not about being there: it's about the dues you've paid to get there.
That's what's worth respect.