The interplay of MMA and mental illness.
On a Californian afternoon in July 2008, Quinton Jackson, known to the world as recently relieved UFC champion ‘Rampage’ Jackson, drives his pickup truck into two cars on the freeway before fleeing the scene.
Jackson’s vehicle is wrapped in camo and adorned with huge pictures of the man himself, shirtless, wearing a steel bike chain around this neck.
When police catch up with Rampage, he engages them in a reckless high-speed chase; driving over traffic dividers before hitting several more cars. He eventually grinds to halt and police surround his car with guns drawn. The next day, Jackson is released on $25,000 bail, posted by Dana White.
The next day, at around 4:30 pm, Rampage’s friends flag down a patrolling police car worrying about his behaviour. Police take Jackson to a psychiatric hospital where he is held for 72 hours. He is diagnosed with delirium as the result of dehydration — he hadn’t eaten or slept in four days.
When asked by a journalist why he hadn’t eaten or drank anything in that time, he replied that it was because he had been touched by God. When asked if he’d ever suffered from depression, Jackson answered…
“No. I’m not depressed. Do I seem depressed?…I’m happy — you see why I drive around laughing at stuff all the time? Do I look like a depressed person?”.
In 2014, welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre retired from fighting at the height of his reign. He revealed to have suffered from OCD since childhood, with the pressures of fighting overwhelming him. As welterweight king, St. Pierre claimed he could never relax. Even on vacation, he would fixate on the next opponent and potential strategies.
In 2016, after suffering a head-kick KO and losing her title, Ronda Rousey broke down in tears on the Ellen show. She admitted that straight after the fight she asked herself, “what am I if I’m not this?” and considered committing suicide…
“In that exact second, I’m like, ‘I’m nothing. What do I do anymore? No one gives a shit about me anymore without this.’”
Earlier this year, the wife of former UFC interim lightweight champion Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson the police. Ferguson had thrown ‘holy water’ on her, expressing paranoid delusions about people being inside the walls and complaining that a computer chip had been implanted in his leg. His wife assured police that Ferguson hadn’t been violent, just that his behaviour was erratic and troubling, and that he was refusing to accept help.
Recent reports are reassuring. Ferguson posted on twitter yesterday: “Psychologist appt went well, thanks doc”.
Is there a causal link here?
Prize-fighting is a perfect storm of mental illness.
Fighters often come from difficult backgrounds. Rampage Jackson recalledbeing taken under the wing of a drug dealer at 8 years old. Recently dethroned UFC strawweight ‘Thug’ Rose Namaunas has discussed suffering sexual abuse and witnessing violence growing up. Thug Rose’ father, who suffered from schizophrenia, sadly died when she was 16.
The octagon itself brings unpredictable emotional ups and downs. There are considerable financial incentives to winning (sometimes doubling the paycheck), and the feeling of failure after a loss can be unbearable. Several other MMA fighters have detailed their experience of depression after a loss or even in periods of injury.
There’s also the issue of traumatic brain injury, shown to happen more often in MMA than boxing (likely because of the standing 10 count and referees checking fighters after a knockdown). Traumatic brain injuries are defined by memory loss, poor impulse control as well as anger and depression. Studies show that mental symptoms can manifest decades after physical injury.
Although cage-fighting can exacerbate poor mental health, martial arts training has proven to be uniquely effective for the treatment of depression, PTSD, anxiety and drug addiction. More on that next time.
Thanks for reading.
In my last article, I spoke about the volatility of Mixed Martial Arts and how anything can happen in the octagon. Because things are so unpredictable, most great fighters have losses on their records. Except for one man.
Jon ‘Bones’ Jones uniquely defies volatility inside the cage. His world-class athleticism, complete mastery of the spectrum of MMA disciplines and ridiculous reach allow him to be unbeaten and unmatched. He also exists today in a particularly shit division in a time where welterweight, middleweight, lightweight and featherweight are full of talent and more exciting than ever. That’s not to say that he’s never been tested, he has. He came up a time where there was a lot of talent in that division and has disposed of some of the greater fighters that have fought in the UFC.
The volatility of Jon Jones’ takes place outside the cage: a documented love of steroids, driving offenses and cocaine topped with a truly sociopathic hit-and-run involving a pregnant woman (Jones returned to the scene to retrieve cash before fleeing again). There has recently been an interesting shift in this narrative; from ‘bad boy’ to bad person. This is likely due to his repeated moral infractions that he justifies with hard-to-listen-to narcissistic religious rhetoric.
Jones became the youngest UFC champion in history aged 23, only beginning MMA training at 19 as a JUCO wrestling champion. The fact that his striking is one of the best in best in the UFC is baffling if you consider the amateur boxing credentials of someone like Alexander Gustafson. There are parallels with Georges St. Pierre: Pierre learned to wrestle as an adult with great effect in the UFC, getting the better of wrestlers with years of experience in collegiate competition. Jones’ brothers both play for the NFL, which gives an insight into why he is the most gifted athlete in the UFC.
In my view, Jones represents what will likely be the future of MMA. There was a time when MMA was about a contest between styles. The style, not the man, was the superpower. After this, athleticism became a kind of superpower of its own. Watch early Ultimate Fighter seasons to see ex-NFL players storm opponents using strength and athleticism, some of them with less than 6 months training (my favorite was child-like colossus Marcus Jones in season 10).
Traditionally, fighters come into their prime between the ages of 26 and 33. Most fighters start training in their mid to late teens and most MMA fighters don’t compete professionally until 20/21. I’m making generalisations here but bear with me for the sake of argument. Jon Jones’ genetic gifts meant that he could be a champion at 23 and remain dominant inside the octagon ever since.
Jones’ natural abilities neutralized the extensive fighting experience that many of his opponents had. Jones, unlike many fighters who come to the UFC and dominate, doesn’t have extensive pre-MMA combat experience anywhere except wrestling. In the future, my predictions will be that kids will start training kickboxing, boxing, BJJ and wrestling in their young teens and those with Jon Jones level of athletic ability will come front of the pack, becoming champions at 18 or 19.
On the Joe Rogan Experience, Welterweight champion Kamuru Usman recalled watching the UFC with Jon Jones back when they were wrestling buddies at college. Neither of them thought they would participate in MMA at the time. In the future, I believe the move to MMA will be a premeditated one, decided early in an athlete’s career.
The question remains: how good is Jon Jones really?
Is Jon Jones a once-in-a-generation athlete or a sample of the future of MMA? I think Jon Jones is the closest we have to a top-level athlete like Lebron James coming into MMA. We will only understand how much of an anomaly Jones is when MMA fighters earn a comparable salary to boxers and NFL/NBA players and there is an equal flow of talent.
I fear that everymen like Dustin Poirier, Michael Bisping, and Cowboy Cerrone will be pushed from the spotlight by unrelatable genetic freaks like those in other sports that I don’t give a shit about. People always seem to say that in MMA ‘anything can happen’, that’s why I love it. The only exception is when Jones is fighting. I wonder if that will always be the case, or if he is the first of the fighting super-athletes.
Volatility: A liability to change rapidly and unpredictably, especially for the worse.
Mixed Martial Arts’ isn’t really a sport like boxing or wrestling. It is a rule set that implies that everything outside of these exclusive rules are OK.
Athletes normally enter MMA with competitive experience in one combat sport (boxing/kickboxing, collegiate wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu) and build up the other aspects of their game.
Some end up becoming dangerous everywhere (Jon Jones, TJ Dillashaw, Tyron Woodley), while others stay as specialists (Damien Maia, Israel Adesanya, Ben Askren). Normally good fighters have one or two ways that they can control the fight: “A should be careful of B’s knockout power” or “B’s ground game is dangerous, A needs to keep it on the feet”. These are the kind of conversations that we have about MMA.
It’s highly unlikely for two fighters walking into the octagon to have comparable skill sets in striking, takedowns and grappling. There are also variables like physical attributes, conditioning, ‘fight IQ’ and mentality that make the outcome of an MMA fight hard to predict.
What I’m trying to say is that in the cage, anything can happen.
In mixed martial arts there are no journeymen and there are no tomato cans. Jorge Masvidal had two back to back losses (albeit decisions) at the hands of Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson and Demian Maia, before knocking out Darren Till at UFC Fight Night London on the 16th of March. Till’s only loss until that point had been at the hands of the-then dominant welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.
Before the fight, Masvidal’s UFC welterweight ranking was at #11*, which may as well have been #111 because most casual fans only care about the top 10, i.e. who has a chance at getting the belt. I’ll be honest, before the fight I would have struggled to identify him in a police lineup. In any case, after the Till fight, Masvidal is ranked at #5.
Two days after the Till fight Masvidal was asked what fight he wanted next, he answered ‘biggest fight out there or title shot’. When ESPN journalist Brett Okamoto spoke to his Masvidal’s manager Ali Abdelaziz, Abdelaziz said ‘We think Jorge Masvidal deserves the next title shot.’
Before the Till fight, Masvidal hadn’t won a fight since January 2017. Now he is a legitimate contender with a chance to be champion; while Damian Maia (who bested Jorge Masvidal in May 2017) takes Masvidal’s old spot on the rankings at #11. Darren Till, once the starlet of the welterweight division, sits further out of the championship equation at #7.
Unlike boxing, MMA doesn’t give much of a fuck about having losses on the record. I’m not saying that a shine doesn’t get lost when an undefeated fighter gets handed their first loss; like when Darren Till lost to Tyron Woodley at UFC 228 or when Brian Ortega got brutally out-struck by Max Holloway at UFC 231. MMA fans know that the game is volatile, we know that anything can happen. There are exceptions (Jon Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov are both undefeated), but at the highest level of MMA this is particularly rare.
In MMA, everything is to play for. This is what makes it so compelling and why we are so endeared to the people that step into the cage. We’ll talk more about the players of the volatile game next time.
Thanks for reading.