The Fight Within: MMA and Depression

by FIGHT! contributor Larry Pepe

The physical injuries that go hand-in-hand with being a mixed martial artist are plainly visible. Not so obvious are the emotional demons that haunt a small subset of fighters. October saw two very different fighters (and people) make news for comments and behavior that have nothing to do with a head kick or a rear naked choke.

This season of The Ultimate Fighter saw coach Rashad Evans chastise “Rampage” Jackson for leaving his guys alone in the cage after a loss. Evans went on at length about the depths of depression a fighter can fall to after losing and how important it is for fighters to have support from coaches and peers. That point was reinforced by the actions and statements of two prominent fighters, and no, FIGHT!’s TUF blogger Matt “Voices in my Head” Mitrione wasn’t one of them.

Junie Browning, 24, again made headlines for the wrong reason when it was revealed that the TUF 8 alum was admitted to a Henderson, Nev. hospital for taking 16 doses of an anti-anxiety drug called Klonopin in an apparent attempt to harm himself. Unfortunately, this was the latest example of unstable, disturbing behavior MMA fans have witnessed since we first laid eyes on him on TUF but probably has much deeper roots. By his own admission, Junie comes from a troubled past, not unlike many other fighters who have successfully used MMA to escape similar histories and has, in his words, “a lot of problems.”

While Junie’s behavior didn’t stun the MMA consciousness, Mirko Cro Cop’s revelations did. The 35-year old’s stoicism before, during and after fights gives no indication that the man even has emotions, let alone who battles them. A former government official in Croatia, he had a legendary pre-UFC career and is, by his account, financially set for life due to wise investments. Despite his many successes, a string of poor performances that culminated in a loss to up and comer Junior Dos Santos has him on psychological tilt. Imagine our collective shock when Mirko disclosed that he was so disturbed after his most recent loss that he “wished to hang myself in my hotel room so I would be gone” and said that he wouldn’t accept millions to quit fighting because fighting “is my life and I don’t know any other way to live.”

Thankfully, neither Junie nor Mirko’s headlines this month read “MMA Veteran Found Dead in Apparent Suicide”. That one belonged to former UFC fighter Justin Levens last year. Levens is believed to have shot his 25-year old wife before turning the gun on himself. Their deaths were not without warning signs as police were called to the couple’s home twice in the weeks before the suspected murder-suicide, once for a possible drug overdose. Affliction’s Tom Atencio told People Magazine that Levens had a very rough childhood and “had some personal demons that he couldn’t overcome.”

Personal demons, suspected drug overdoses, bad childhood? Sounds a lot like Junie.

Levens also lost his last five fights in a row, a fact not lost on Atencio. “Fighting was Justin’s life but it wasn’t going well for him. I know he was considering leaving the sport. But Justin was a fighter, I don’t know what else he would’ve done.”

Losing streak, considering leaving MMA, life is fighting, didn’t know what else he would do? Isn’t that virtually identical to what Cro Cop said last week? But there is one huge difference. Mirko also said that he is going seek out a psychiatrist. We should applaud him. Unlike Levens and Browning, he recognized the warning signs and is planning on getting professional help before things go too far south.

But what are we to make of Browning and Levens and what can be done to help others who find themselves in a similar dark place? Clearly, emotional instability, personal demons and the pressure cooker of trying to succeed as a professional mixed martial artist while potentially being thrust into the limelight are a bad mix.

There are 341 fighters on the combined rosters of the UFC, WEC and Strikeforce and every non-superstar knows that they may just be one or two fights from being cut. That’s an extraordinary amount of pressure. Compare that, for example, with the 1656 roster spots filled by NFL players who frequently have the advantage of contracts with built in guaranteed money. And how often do you hear about NFLers getting cut once the season starts? Rarely. Another big difference is the preparation footballers get playing in front of huge crowds and media in their college careers, better preparing them for the spotlight that awaits them on the big stage. Our pro MMA fighter has a much bigger adjustment ahead. Most take the transition in stride. Some, not so much.

What can the major promotions do to help fighters who are battling demons or facing some emotional challenges? What about creating a program where fighters can get confidential, anonymous counseling from a mental-health professional who is familiar with issues fighters might confront? Perhaps the promotion can pay for a certain number of sessions for fighters who feel they need some help? Junie, Cro Cop, Paulo Filho, Josh Neer, Melvin Guillard and Chris Leben are all fighters who have had psychological or substance issues that could benefit from such a program. And it can’t be star-power based. We shouldn’t determine who can get potentially life-altering or life-saving help based on a win-loss record or how many tickets they can sell.

The expenditure makes sense from a business standpoint as well. Those ignorant to the true spirit of mixed martial arts and the quality and education of the fighters on a whole often stereotype them as barbaric, troubled guys who get locked in a cage and beat the hell out of each other. When fighters have legal, substance and psychological issues that become public and don’t end well, it hurts the sport. And don’t tell me about how many football players have issues. I get it. The difference is that the NFL has overwhelming mainstream acceptance and coverage. Mixed martial arts, as of 2010, does not.

What can we do as fans and media? For starters, we need to recognize and understand that when it is all said and done, as much as these athletes may be absolute warriors in the cage, they are still human beings with emotions, issues and past experiences that range from good to bad to horrific. That doesn’t all go away because they can execute a perfect armbar.

Larry Pepe is the host of Pro MMA Radio.

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