‘I thought it was my dirty secret’: The truth about post-fight depression

By | March 16, 2024

The way Dustin Poirier put it seemed to surprise a lot of people. Maybe it’s because of who he is, i.e. one of the most successful and seemingly down-to-earth fighters still active in the sport, the kind of guy who always seems to have it together. Or maybe it was the way he said it in an interview with Ariel Helwani on “The MMA Hour” earlier this week.

In the aftermath of his knockout loss to Justin Gaethje last year, Poirier said, he fell into a “darkness” that consumed his thoughts, leaving him genuinely concerned for his own well-being.

“The world doesn’t know, but the people close to me know,” Poirier said. “I’ve been through some real mental struggles.”

This echoed what we heard a few months ago from former UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. Attempting to explain why he accepted a weight class fight on short notice against an opponent who had already beaten him once, Volkanovski explained that he was struggling mentally and hoped booking a fight would help.

“For some reason, when I wasn’t fighting or in camp or busy, I just put my head in,” Volkanovski said at the time.

Stick with this sport long enough and you’ll realize this is a recurring theme. Those periods after every fight, win or lose, can be difficult for fighters. There are several good reasons for this, just as there are several reasons why active fighters are reluctant to admit that they struggle with it. (For example, look up some responses from colleagues to Volkanovski’s confession.)

SALT LAKE CITY, UT – JULY 29: Dustin Poirier goes to bat against Justin Gaethje during their lightweight bout at UFC 291 at the Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

UFC veteran Dustin Poirier recently opened up about his mental health struggles following his loss to Justin Gaethje last July. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

I was reminded of this when I asked around fighters this week. Many of those still finding their way in the sport didn’t want to talk about the bouts of depression after a fight. They were afraid that fans or fellow fighters could use it against them in the future. Then I asked Chael Sonnen, half expecting to get a tough guy answer that matched his public persona.

“OMG, post-fight depression is very real,” Sonnen wrote back. “I experienced it every time, and I pretended because I thought it was my dirty secret.”

What made him realize he wasn’t alone, Sonnen said, was a conversation with a former opponent named Brian Stann, who explained it in a meaningful way. It also helped him realize that he wasn’t the only one struggling with it.

Stann is perhaps one of the most remarkable individuals to ever fight in the UFC. Stann graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where he played linebacker on the Midshipmen football team, and received the Silver Star for valor in combat while serving in Iraq.

Stann joined the UFC shortly after leaving the Marine Corps and had a solid career in the UFC, including memorable fights with Sonnen, Chris Leben, Michael Bisping and Wanderlei Silva. After retiring from fighting, he immediately became one of the best color commentators on UFC broadcasts. He went on to earn an MBA from Northwestern and is now CEO of Hunt Military Communities, the nation’s largest owner of military housing.

Stann is also one of those people who seems to have it all together. Perhaps that’s why hearing him out made it easier for Sonnen to accept that post-fight depression could happen to anyone. When I reached out to ask what Stann had said to Sonnen to explain the phenomenon, he had no trouble putting it into words.

“When you win, there’s a monumental feeling that can’t be replicated anywhere else in your life,” Stann said. “You had a huge mountain to climb, do it, it’s finally happening. And when it’s over, as a fighter you fall into this silence where it’s a dead zone. This is how it goes until the phone rings and you get your next fight, your next mountain to climb. That can be very tough, especially if there are a lot of fighters. Their lives are very different when they are at training camp.”

HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 08: Chael Sonnen (white shorts) prepares to punch Brian Stann to the mat during the UFC 136 event at Toyota Center on October 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 08: Chael Sonnen (white shorts) prepares to punch Brian Stann to the mat during the UFC 136 event at Toyota Center on October 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Chael Sonnen prepares to punch Brian Stann to the mat during UFC 136 at Toyota Center on October 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas. Sonnen won by submission in the second round. (Photo by Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Training for a UFC fight is an intense, all-consuming process, Stann explained. There’s a date on the calendar and somewhere else in the world a person is only thinking about beating you up. And you think only of him in the same way.

You live like this for weeks. A “razor focus,” as Stann put it. Your exercise regimen and diet are the most important things in your life. All the other things you might want to do—take your kids out for ice cream, have a cold beer, eat a big meal, and fall asleep on the couch—become things you’ll do later, after the fight. In your mind, that beautiful life on the other side of the battle feels like a paradise waiting. But when you actually get there, Stann explained, what you feel most is a sudden absence.

“You miss it,” Stann said. “Suddenly there is a lot of white space in your day and you don’t really know what to do with it.”

And that’s if you win. That’s the best case scenario. If you lose, you have a lot to look forward to plus the despair of professional failure. It’s like any career setback, except it was broadcast live on TV – and it may or may not come with a complimentary concussion.

The other part is that, win or lose, everyone you know seems to want to talk to you about your fight. That can become annoying even in a win. In defeat it is almost unbearable.

“I remember when I lost to Chael, my hairdresser had an opinion about it,” Stann said. “I had a job at the time and people at work read the articles and told me what the writers and journalists had to say about my struggle. You can’t find people to ask you, “Hey, how are your kids doing?” I drove by your house, looks like you did some work on the front yard.” Nobody wants to talk about that. They only ask you about the fight. And man, you could really get caught up in where that becomes your identity. Your identity is no longer your character, your family, who you are, your faith. Your identity is the last performance you had in that Octagon.”

This is one reason why fighting can be an addiction for many people, Stann said. When you fight and win, you get a high you can’t get anywhere else in your life, followed by a silence that only encourages you to chase the next high. When you lose, the fall is even steeper and you become convinced that only the high of a win will bring you back up.

It’s this thinking that can be very dangerous, Stann said. His advice to fighters in the throes of this cycle was to remember that fighting is something they do, but not the entirety of who they are.

“I think that’s really essential,” Stann said. “And it’s basically the same for military veterans. I have seen military veterans harbor regret and guilt in the deeper recesses of their minds. When they took off that uniform, they felt like it made them who they are. They need to get to a point where they realize that this is not the case, that they can still take all the energy, skills and leadership qualities they have acquired and apply them to something new.”

Gaining that perspective can be easier said than done. According to Poirier, starting therapy after his loss to Gaethje helped him put things into proper focus. This is how he came to realize that fighting can be a job, but can ultimately leave him unfulfilled as a totalizing identity.

“I think it’s important to open up and talk about how you’re feeling,” Poirier said. “You know, we’re so in the spotlight that we’re tough guys all the time, but we’re human too. That’s the part of the mentality, like Dustin the fighter. But what about Dustin? What about me?”

Because when the fighting is over, only the person remains. And in the end, no matter how many fights you win or how much money you make, everyone has to take off the gloves for the last time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *