Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Former Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight titleholder Ronda Rousey has no shortage of firsts in mixed martial arts. She recently notched another one, which sheds light on life outside the Octagon.
The 29-year-old superstar admitted on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” that she had a suicidal thought after her second-round knockout loss to boxing crossover Holly Holm in November. Holm snapped Rousey’s 12-fight, four-year winning streak in MMA when she dethroned the judoka with a left high kick that shocked the MMA world and even those beyond it.
No one has made a bigger mainstream splash for MMA than Rousey. The ripples surrounding her first career loss were equally significant. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist -- she was the first American woman to medal in judo -- has become a sports icon through fighting, redefining her sport while tackling body-image issues, women’s empowerment and other important topics in the past.
Between August and November, Rousey experienced both her peak and the roughest moment of her career. She headlined million buy pay-per-views in back-to-back fights -- unheard of in MMA. She overcame personal heat with Bethe Correira, as she left the United States for the first time as a professional mixed martial artist, flew to Brazil and knocked out the previously unbeaten Brazilian in 34 seconds. In her next outing, Rousey drew a record crowd of 56,000-plus fans to Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, for UFC 193, only to be dominated by Holm for five minutes and 59 seconds. There, she suffered the knockout that sent her into the depressive state she touched on during her interview with Ellen Degeneres. It was one of MMA’s sharpest peaks and valleys because no one has produced million-buy shows on such opposing ends of the emotional spectrum before. Rousey’s last two fights became cultural events, the biggest achievement for prizefights.
“What am I anymore, if I’m not this?” a teary-eyed Rousey said, as she described her experience during post-fight medical checks. “I was literally sitting there thinking about killing myself. That exact second, I’m like, ‘I’m nothing. What do I do anymore? No one gives a s--- about me anymore without this.’”
One is the loneliest number. Losing in competition and getting physically devastated by another fighter’s arsenal are two different experiences, the latter a markedly reductive one. Fighters are alone at the top and also when they fall.
In short, Rousey’s disclosure was significant because no other MMA fighters talk about their losses on a platform like “Ellen,” and their words certainly aren’t reported by CNN International. She is enduring the buildup and tear down only combat sports can serve to its participants.
MMA is also the first major sport to rise after the Internet, so Rousey as its biggest crossover star has probably suffered more cyber bullying than any other fighter in history. The heat of that magnifying glass can be intolerable. In a sport where the prevailing sentiment is to dig deep beyond the core, there isn’t as much talk about what happens when a fighter realizes he or she is holding the shovel. This is not to be macabre; it’s just why Rousey’s reflection is noteworthy.
Stars across entertainment have discussed depression openly before. None I can remember went to the degree Rousey did in their comments. Rousey’s remarks are extraordinary because they are still fresh from the inciting incident -- the event that triggered post-traumatic stress, which is replayed wherever she might find herself. Just three months later, Rousey became one of the most significant examples of a celebrity discussing suicide.
Even if it wasn’t to a lengthy degree or in deep depth, it was no less poignant. DeGeneres did a fantastic job contextualizing why Rousey’s reach and recognition of her dark moment are critical. Mental health in America is underserved. Rousey may not be struggling with chronic depression or any serious disorder. Yet her acknowledging such a deterministic negative thought publically continues building crucial understanding necessary to treat mental-health illnesses. MMA, like any other community, should never shy away from treating such thoughts with the gravity they deserve.
Rousey is fortunate more observers in this unforgiving sport didn’t chew her up and spit her out, like they have so many others. If all mixed martial artists had been cared for like Rousey, we would have a totally different sport on our hands. Former UFC heavyweight champion and current World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Brock Lesnar lent offered his support, as did former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Holm did the same.
A truly gracious champion, Holm empathized with Rousey during a pre-fight press conference for UFC 196, where she will defend the women’s bantamweight title against Miesha Tate. She shared the experiences from her own setbacks in boxing.
“People would say, ‘Oh, it’s not the end of the world.’ I was like, ‘Well that’s exactly what it feels like -- the end of the world,’” Holm said. “When you put your heart and soul into something and it gets shut down devastatingly, it’s terrible. It’s a horrible feeling.”
Rousey concluded by saying her personal support system helped quell her suicidal thoughts and allowed her to make sense of it all, because “the best things come from the worst things.” Perhaps she sees the loss as a means to illustrate how one can climb out of such a highly publicized valley.
“I really do believe I’m still undefeated because being defeated is a choice,” she said. “Everybody has losses in their life, but I choose to always be undefeated.”
She could not have said it better. Whether it was a rehearsed talking point or through-and-through authentic, Rousey’s words reverberate. She said the right thing about the 10th-leading cause of death in America, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide claims 40,000-plus lives every year. For every suicide, there are 25 attempts, and suicide costs this country $44 billion annually. As everyone now knows, Rousey lost her father to suicide as a child. That tragedy has been part of why she has been lauded for her perseverance and why her success has been so well-received.
We’re far removed from when Andrei Arlovski claimed he played Russian roulette following his knockout loss to Brett Rogers in 2009. Despite the fact that he was a former UFC heavyweight champion, Arlovski’s admission never received half the attention Rousey’s did. While his situation was no less important, Rousey has demonstrated how much more influence MMA fighters can have nowadays.
MMA has dealt with suicide before. International Fight League veteran and Apex Jiu-Jitsu owner Jeremy Williams, 27, killed himself in 2007. ProMMANow.com journalist and MMAJunkie Radio fanatic Eddie Constantine, 31, took his own life in 2010. These instances and others like them leave many unanswered personal questions.
Concussive damage cannot be separated from questions surrounding mental health for fighters. The Sports Legacy Institute’s findings in 2007 cannot be ignored. Pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide of wife Nancy and 7-year-old son Daniel were linked to chronic head trauma that left Benoit, 40, with the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. It was a game-changer. Since then, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has become a lighting-rod issue in athletics, even in minimally aggressive sports like soccer. CTE seems to haunt the National Football League on an almost daily basis, as concussion-related suicides stories, like the one involving hall of famer Junior Seau, continue to make headlines. It is woven into boxing and will impact MMA, too.
Rousey’s story isn’t about CTE to any known degree, but her revelation will prevent those connections from being made if and when they become relevant for MMA. Her admission showed her vulnerability while also celebrating her survival instincts. Considering how far she had fallen, it sets the stage for her rebound.
That’s a message worth millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes. Maybe it will reach someone who desperately needs to hear it. Rousey’s “Ellen” moment deserves a standing ovation. It is further proof of her championship qualities, independent of whether or not there’s UFC gold draped over her shoulder.
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).