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Is MMA a form of therapy? Sean Strickland makes 'demons' go away by fighting, but it can't fix everything

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 20:  Sean Strickland of the United States reacts after a middleweight title bout against Dricus Du Plessis of South Africa during the UFC 297 event at Scotiabank Arena on January 20, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Sean Strickland's brief reign as UFC middleweight champion ended in January after a split decision loss to Dricus Du Plessis at UFC 297. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) (Vaughn Ridley via Getty Images)

If we in the MMA community had to come up with a business idea that might make money while also making the world a slightly better place, we could do a lot worse than a form of virtual therapy that pro fighters could do from the front seats of their cars. This technically already exists, what with the proliferation of online therapy services and all.

But the twist here is that the fighters wouldn’t have to know they were in therapy. They could go on thinking they were just making videos for YouTube or Instagram, talking to legions of fans and followers rather than one mental health professional who would reply in the comments section with probing questions such as: “Where do you think that feeling comes from?” and “How do you think that affects the way you view yourself?”

The profit part of the equation still needs working out — maybe a cut of the next fight purse, or a recurring charge for “social media consulting services” that we’ll just hope they never notice on their credit card bills — but it could work. Even if our only customer to start with was former UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland.

You may have already noticed, but there’s a lot going on with Strickland these days. To some degree it ought to be expected. This time last year he was mostly regarded as a fill-in fighter, a Vegas local who could pop on down to the UFC Apex for a fight whenever the UFC needed a warm body with enough name recognition to pass as a Fight Night headliner. Then, he got a chance to ply those fill-in skills for the UFC middleweight title and ended up winning one of the biggest upsets of the year against Israel Adesanya.

He’s since lost that title after the briefest of title runs, but in the process he discovered a fan base all his own with a lot of help from his willingness to chase controversy while also blaming any criticism on the catch-all boogeyman of cancel culture.

So Strickland must be happy now, right? His fortunes have drastically improved. He’s got far more money and fame than he did just a year ago. With the exception of losing that close decision to Dricus Du Plessis in his lone title defense, everything’s coming up Strickland lately.

And yet there he is on Instagram this week, sitting in the front seat of his car (naturally), talking to Instagram about his mental struggles.

“Man, all week I’ve been f***ed up, dude,” Strickland said in a video posted to his Instagram. “I’ve been on the Twitter saying crazy s***, just f***ing spiraling. I woke up and I told my girl, I was like, ‘Babe, I feel like I'm a danger to people. I don’t feel like I should be out in the world.’ And I think that, you know, I have everything. I’m rich, I’m famous. Like, I have everything I’ve ever f****** wanted, and I still am mentally unwell.”

This is alarming, if not entirely shocking. One of the things Strickland’s fans like about him is his unfiltered, stream of consciousness approach to talking in public.

Sometimes that means offering a window into his utterly unexamined personal prejudices, and other times it means a raw vulnerability that seems to surprise and confuse even him. He just starts talking, and even he doesn’t appear to know what will come out of his mouth. The result feels compellingly honest sometimes, even it if often veers quickly into contradiction and self-loathing covered by a veneer of tough guy cliches.

What’s interesting is how Strickland concludes this video wherein he admits that getting everything he ever wanted has not, in fact, proven to be a magic spell that fixes everything.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you guys this,” Strickland said. “I’ve just been kind of going through some s***. I’m fine, I’ll be fine. I’m going to go train right now and try to hurt all my friends, and all the demons will go away. I just want you guys to know that I have everything I could ever want in the world and I still struggle. So whatever you guys are going through, man, I hope you all feel better. Go to the gym, train. F***ing wish you all the best.”

While not everyone broadcasts it on Instagram, the underlying sentiment here is not uncommon among pro fighters I’ve known over the years. Fight sports can often be a land of misfits. Athletes who don’t fit in anywhere else, the ones who never found a home in team sports or sometimes even in polite society, tend to gravitate toward this intense world of blood and tears.

If there’s a storm inside you that wants to manifest as violence, why not bring it to the place where you could get paid rather than punished for that?

But fighters oftentimes kid themselves about what the sport can and can’t do for them as a person. Addicts who swapped drugs for compulsive training. Adults who were compelled to learn to fight in order to protect the defenseless child who still lives inside them.

We’ve all known those the-gym-is-my-therapy people (I’ve been one myself at times). And while that’s fine for some stuff, other times it just temporarily rechannels the energy without addressing underlying causes.

When women’s MMA pioneer Julie Kedzie retired from MMA in 2013 after her final UFC fight, she said she felt like she’d finally worked out the issues that had helped route her into the sport in the first place. These days, she says that was mostly an illusion. It wasn’t that the issues were resolved through fighting, Kedzie told Yahoo Sports this week, it was more that fighting had stopped working as the Band-Aid it had once been.

“Fighting is a distraction that also has the fantastic benefit of endorphins and whatever else gets released through intense exercise and problem-solving,” Kedzie said. “But it’s untenable as an alternative to therapy because therapy is kind of about naming and facing issues head on — not finding substitute activities and then hiding in them.”

In other words, while martial arts can be good for a lot of things, it’s too much to ask it to be everything. And while social media can help us all build genuinely helpful and supportive communities, some issues might still be better discussed with someone other than Instagram followers alone.