This past Friday, the world saw popular mixed martial artist, author, and actress Ronda Rousey compete in her latest fight—if you can even call it a fight, that is. I saw it as a brazen act of exploitation.
At the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 207, viewers did not see the return of a former champion but a woman whose questionable mental status made her a liability in the octagon. Rousey, the woman who in 2015 was the third most-Googled person, has endured her second major fall from grace, and probably the last of her competitive career.
The UFC did everything to get her into the octagon. They paid her $3 million just for showing up—the largest disclosed purse in UFC history (her victorious opponent got a measly $200,000). They allowed Rousey to opt out of all media appearances—something they’ve never done before and likely will never do again. They were bending over backward to get Rousey in the octagon, at all cost, even the cost of her physical and mental health.
Less than twenty seconds into the fight, Ronda looked lost and afraid. By the 48th second she had stopped defending herself and lost by technical knockout. “She lit Ronda up like a Christmas tree,” said ringside commentator Joe Rogan, about Rousey’s Brazilian opponent Amanda Nunes. “Merciful rescue by Herb Dean,” he added about the referee’s quick stoppage of the match.
Since the fight, many people have been analyzing what went wrong for Rousey, with most critics adopting the narrative that her coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, failed her. The Washington Post weighed in as much this week.
But as I see it, Rousey’s actions leading up to the fight suggest that she had mental health issues that needed addressing—mental health issues that everyone ignored for a big fat pay day.
As a psychologist, I don’t take lightly how Rousey said after her November 2015 loss to Holly Holm that she had suicidal ideation, especially given her family history of depression and suicide. Rousey’s father took his own life when she was eight years old. The world could see she had fallen into depression after losing to Holm; all the while the UFC tried to sell a different story—one where Rousey was motivated and bringing her A-game to recover her title. It was a convincing piece of propaganda, perhaps. The fact that Rousey negotiated with the UFC to avoid all media appearances before the fight was spun as if she was choosing to be more focused than ever. But it could just as likely have been avoidance of high-stress environments due to emotional fragility and unpreparedness. I am certainly not Rousey’s therapist, but lest we forget, extreme avoidance is also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association has stated that mental health issues can be just as detrimental to athletic performance as a physical injury. Mental illness, the APA stated, “is not a sign of weakness and should be taken as seriously as a physical injury.” By this reasoning, Ronda Rousey should have never been allowed to compete in this fight. Recently, when fighter Cain Velasquez disclosed that he had a nagging back pain, the Nevada State Athletic Commission deemed him medically unfit to compete. “The financial incentive for fighters to compete is strongly compelling,” the Commission gave in its reasoning, “and it is the responsibility and obligation of this commission to intervene when excessive risks are evident. It’s obvious Mr. Velasquez is physically compromised, and competing would place him in significant physical risk.”
These exact words could have been used to exempt Rousey on mental-health grounds. To suggest that Rousey had mental health issues that impaired her performance is not a knock on her as an athlete, but an acknowledgment of the seriousness of mental health issues and how they can interfere with peak performance. Sports like MMA, boxing, or racecar driving are not ones that are safe for participants if they are struggling with significant mental distractions. If we ignored the scripted media promotion (which never included Rousey’s own voice), we could see that Rousey was effectively fed to the lions. (Or “the lioness,” as they call her opponent, Amanda Nunes.)
UFC president Dana White “didn’t sound concerned Rousey would be unprepared,” according to the Wall Street Journal. White exclaimed, “Ronda was dominating everyone, breaking records, beating everyone in seconds, and she loses once and it’s ‘Everything is wrong,’” He laughed. “Everyone’s a trainer when [someone] loses, you know? What I say is: you guys sit on the couch, mind your business and leave it to the professionals.”
I ask, what professionals? The promoters and UFC execs trying to get more pay-per-view profits? Clearly White was not talking about medical and psychological professionals.
The so-called professionals responsible for getting Rousey back in the octagon should be ashamed of themselves. Unfortunately, Rousey was surrounded by people who had a lot of money to gain from her exploitation. The only voice of reason, it seemed, came from a post-fight interview with her competitor. “I do feel a little bit bad,” Nunes said candidly. “I think people pressure her.”
This comes after an otherwise good year for celebrities going public with their struggles with mental health. Singer Selena Gomez recently took a break from her tour to focus on recovering from depression. Lady Gaga also opened up about suffering from PTSD after a sexual assault that happened years ago. The late Carrie Fisher left us with a model example of someone who was open and genuine about overcoming mental health issues and drug addiction.
It would have been justifiable, even courageous, for Rousey to step down before the fight. But some conditions require outside interventions. The fact that the UFC, her coach, and her handlers let her compete makes me doubt there was ever anyone in her corner.