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

The way Dustin Poirier put it seemed to surprise many people. Maybe it’s because of who he is, which is to say one of the most successful and seemingly levelheaded fighters still active in the sport, the kind of guy who seems to always have it together. Or maybe it was because of how he put 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 slipped into a “darkness” that consumed his thoughts, causing genuine concern for his own well-being.

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

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

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

Stick around this sport long enough and you’ll realize this is a recurring theme. Those periods after each fight, whether they win or lose, can be hard on fighters. There are several very good reasons for this, just like there are several reasons why active fighters aren’t eager to admit to struggling with it. (Just look up some of the reactions from peers to Volkanovski’s admission, for instance.)

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JULY 29:  Dustin Poirier sets to punch against  Justin Gaethje during their Lightweight fight at UFC 291 at the Delta Center July 29, 2023 at the  in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
UFC veteran Dustin Poirier recently opened up about his mental health struggles after his loss to Justin Gaethje last July. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images) (Chris Gardner via Getty Images)

I was reminded of this while asking around among fighters this week. Many of those still making their way in the sport didn’t want to discuss the bouts of post-fight depression. They worried fans or fellow fighters might use it against them in the future. Then I asked Chael Sonnen, half-expecting to get some tough guy answer in keeping with his public persona.

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

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

Stann may be one of the most all-around remarkable individuals to ever fight in the UFC. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he played linebacker on the Midshipmen football team, Stann received the Silver Star for valor in combat while serving in Iraq.

Stann entered the UFC just after exiting the Marine Corps, and went on to have a solid career in the UFC that included memorable bouts with Sonnen, Chris Leben, Michael Bisping and Wanderlei Silva. After retiring from fighting he instantly became one of the top color commentators on UFC broadcasts. He went on to earn an MBA from Northwestern, and now serves as CEO of Hunt Military Communities, the nation’s largest owner of military housing.

Stann is another one of those people who seems to have it all together. Maybe that’s why hearing it from him made it easier for Sonnen to accept that post-fight depression could get 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, you have this monumental feeling that simply can't be replicated anywhere else in your life,” Stann said. “You had this huge mountain to climb, you do it, it finally happens. And when it's over, you kind of fall into this lull where it’s this dead zone as a fighter. It’s like that until the phone rings and you get your next fight, your next mountain to climb. That can be really tough, especially when a lot of fighters, their life is really different when they're in training camp.”

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

Training for a UFC fight is an intense, all-consuming process, Stann explained. There’s a date on the calendar and another human being somewhere out there in the world who’s thinking only about beating you up. And you, similarly, are thinking only about him.

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

“You miss it,” said Stann. “Suddenly there’s 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 all that stuff to look forward to plus the despair of professional failure. It’s like any career setback, except this one was broadcast on live TV — and it may or may not come with a free concussion thrown in for good measure.

The other part is that, with a win or a loss, everyone you know seems to want to talk to you about your fight. That can get annoying even in victory. In defeat it’s borderline intolerable.

“I remember when I lost to Chael, my barber had an opinion on it,” Stann said. “I had a job at the time, and the people at work would read the articles and tell me what the writers and the journalists had to say about my fight. You can't find people who ask you, ‘Hey how are your kids doing? Drove past your house, looks like you did some work to the front lawn.’ Nobody wants to talk about that. They only ask you about the fight. And man, you could get really caught up 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 part of why fighting can be like an addiction for many people, Stann said. If you fight and win, you get a high that you can’t get anywhere else in your life, followed by a lull that only encourages you to chase the next high. If you lose, the fall is even more precipitous, and you become convinced that only the high of a win will bring you back up again.

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

“I think that that's really essential,” Stann said. “And it's really the same thing for military veterans. I've seen military veterans go to way darker corners of their mind with regret, with survivor's guilt. When they took that uniform off, they felt like that's what made them who they are. They have to get to a place where they realize it's not, that they can still take all the energy and skills and leadership abilities they gained and apply it to something new.”

Gaining that perspective can be easier said than done. According to Poirier, beginning therapy after his loss to Gaethje helped him put things in the proper focus. It’s how he came to realize that fighting could be a job, but might ultimately leave him unfulfilled as a totalizing identity.

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

Because when the fighting is done, then it’s only the person left. And eventually, no matter how many fights you win or how much money you make, everyone has to take off the gloves for the last time.