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Sports Heroes and Dark, Violent Places: Why we need to worry about a fighter’s mental health.

  • Written by Aneel Deshmukh


DBZ was one of my favorite shows growing up. Every week I would tune in to the epic showdown between good and evil, the final fight between the galaxy’s greatest warriors, the battle to determine the fate of the universe. The story was simple: you had the good guys and the bad guys. Yet, curiously, many of the good guys could also be pretty bad. Goku, the show’s daft yet undyingly good-natured protagonist, was once sent to Earth to destroy all life on the planet. Fortunately for us Earthlings, baby Goku was found by a kind-hearted old man who sensing Goku’s terrifying capacity for destruction, raised Goku to appreciate all forms of life while channeling his latent destructive impulses toward the pursuit of martial arts and friendly martial arts competition. And yet, as ludicrously nice a person as Goku became, he never lost his destructive impulses and bloodlust and instead had to use all of his discipline to suppress his violent urges. Indeed, what’s curious about DBZ and its ostensible heroes is that they were all at one time or another antagonists or outright villains, monsters who murdered millions of lifeforms before evolving motivations aligned them with Goku’s fight to protect the Earth. Yet that never made them champions of right and justice. Piccolo, Vegeta, Android 18, and Majin Buu all possessed an incredible capacity for violence combined with a sadistic or sociopathic desire to cause destruction, but if you ask a DBZ fan, everybody usually has a favorite hero. By the way, if this is spoiling anything for you, then you’re 20 years late to the party.

The world of combat sports similarly sees a variety of motivations. Some fighters talk about using their skill to feed their families. Peter Aerts, much like Goku, just loves a good fight with impossible odds. And then there are those who fight because they need an outlet for their desire to hurt people or a means to cope with their rage or anger. Is this healthy? Does it matter as long as they still play by the rules? Often it seems like they’re just as capable of becoming Combat Sports Heroes as a genocidal psychopath like Vegeta can become a member of Earth’s Special Forces. Mike Tyson and Badr Hari have both admitted to dealing with varying forms of mental illness. Tyson recently came clean about his substance use and bipolar disorder, while Hari has spoken about his problems with blackout rage. Prior to these revelations, these two men were known both for their incredible skill as well as their violent behavior outside of the ring, yet for many fans, controversy fueled their legend and the hero worship only intensified in the face of ever growing rap sheets.

Dave Walsh recently wrote an excellent article on MMANuts about the role of the promoter and the promotion of well-spoken, professional, GSP-like athletes vs. the fighters with pain, suffering, and violence in their hearts. No matter who the fighter is, a good story always captures hearts and sells tickets. Rarely, a promoter will try to market the deep dark depths of a fighter’s soul (see GSP’s “Dark Place”). K-1 oddly doubled down on Badr Hari’s dark place, rendering him as a Golden Boy with a troubled childhood who’s struggling to control his personal demons while lashing out at the world, with the silver lining being his potential to become a champion and thereby somehow resolve these personal troubles. No matter how many people in or out (allegedly) of the ring got stomped or soccer kicked, all was ok because Badr was trying so hard to be a champion.

As personally satisfying as a good story can be, maybe it’s time to stop talking about fairy tales. However public sports figures may fit into a compelling theatrical drama of anti-heroes and human adversity, they are human beings at the end of the day whose mental health matters, especially when they are suffering inside. Maybe it’s time for promoters, writers, fans, you and me, to begin to recognize and vocalize the need for people struggling with inner conflict and rage to get the help they need. Having worked with mental health professionals at many levels, I can attest to their efficacy in helping people deal with issues that otherwise threaten to tear them apart. The ring is the last place that a person who is losing control of his/herself or their life needs to be.

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