Mauro Ranallo opens up in powerful detail about his constant battle with bipolar affective disorder in his new Showtime documentary, BIPOLAR ROCK ‘N’ ROLLER.
In addition to the mega Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor spectacle, Ranallo has called some of the most seminal fights in MMA history. He also served as the voice of WWE’s SmackDown Live, before suddenly leaving that position, which Ranallo discusses in this Q&A. He is now the lead voice of WWE’s NXT.
Ranallo shares his feelings on mental health illness, its stigmas, and his personality in a glimpse of what readers will experience in the new Showtime documentary, which premieres tonight, Friday, May 25 at 9pm ET.
Justin Barrasso: There are some heavy topics from your life in the documentary, ranging from losing your best friend to your parents’ struggles throughout your battles and your number of times being hospitalized. You open up your whole life; what was your first impression of the finished product?
Mauro Ranallo: It was admittedly surreal and at times difficult to watch, but I wanted it to be difficult to watch since I was going to make a documentary that was trying to show mental illness in all of its forms. I have always said that I’m blessed and cursed by being diagnosed with bipolar disorder because I believe it’s truly helped me in my career but it has also exacted an incredible toll on my life and especially my family’s life, so for me, the documentary needed to be bipolar in its makeup.
I wanted to show the highs, the epic highs, of calling the two biggest pay per views in combat sports history and the abject lows, the abyss of being hospitalized, the longest period being three months. Being suicidal. Watching a parade of loved ones come to a hospital room and noting their reaction. This condition doesn’t just affect the person, there is a ripple effect.
I grew up on camera. I started at 16. I’ve never been ashamed of being the ham, or the provocateur as it were in my style of commentary, or my style of showmanship. So having my friend Haris Usanovic document the film was not difficult for me, but then seeing the finished product—and seeing what they showed about my life—was powerful and did impact me. But if I can save just one life by showing this documentary, then it will be well worth any backlash or any awkward feelings I may have had about doing so.
JB: The documentary was perfectly set up to mirror bipolar disorder, documenting the extreme highs and the lowest lows, while also illustrating how the manic lows are not always connected to depression. There are so many people, including myself, who do not have in-depth knowledge of mental illness, but the documentary was presented in a manner that was easy to understand and relatable. When someone is battling bipolar disorder, is it harder for the person suffering or their loved ones who are unable to correct the problem?
MR: It is most difficult for the person suffering for the simple fact that, for the most part, it is invisible to everyone else.
I am not in a wheelchair, I do not have crutches. With all due to respect, and I’ve been impacted by cancer more than most people and I know we all are impacted by cancer, but I’m not suffering from cancer. I don’t have HIV. Why I’m using these examples is because, very necessarily, we need to raise as much awareness and funds for those conditions to cure them and knock them out, and the same goes for mental health issues. There is no known cure, and the reason that I have suffered as greatly as I have is because I don’t agree in ‘Big Pharma.’ I don’t want to put just anything in my body and not know why it works. The question that is posed is, ‘Why does that medication help me?’ When the answer is, ‘They don’t know’, then I would rather do what I have done for much of my adult life, and that is use cannabis.
Cannabis is the biggest reason why I am still alive, why I’m still on this earth. That is another part of the documentary that I am so glad and empowered by is that they were allowed to show that message. I believe the biggest stigma, right now with mental health, is that a lot of men are not talking about it. I know way too many people who have committed suicide because of it. I don’t wish this on anyone, and I truly mean that.
It’s a daily struggle for me to stay alive. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, hyperbolic, or go into my broadcast mode. But even that, my career is bipolar. So that is what made this uniquely compelling and powerful; my entire journey, with the amount of success that I’ve had, parallels the amount of turmoil that my personal life is in a large majority of the time, and I wanted to share that with people and hopefully inspire and allow people to persevere through their own hardships and their own forms of stigma.
JB: In order to connect with this story, you must first connect with the man. The documentary captures your background quite well. You literally grew up on a dead-end road, which was used as a metaphor for what you feared your life would become, yet somehow became the man to call the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight this past summer.
You discovered at a very early age how your voice is an instrument, but you can’t speak alone in a room and expect anyone to hear you. Who are the people in your life who helped cultivate your voice?
MR: Personally, it’s family. Professionally, I would not be where I am if I had not met Bas Rutten.
The support system is paramount. It moves me to the core when I put out on social media an invitation for those suffering or who know those who are suffering to contact me and if I can do anything, I will try to do it. I get so many responses that begin with, ‘My family doesn’t understand me’ or ‘My family doesn’t believe me,’ and I went through a similar thing with my parents. Let’s face it, mental health has always been put under the ring. There is that stigma again; the one that’s lasted through generations. My parents came over from Italy and, in hindsight and through more research, depression has run through my family, and on my mother’s side especially, for generations. Growing up, I was very different at home compared to what I was like in public and at school, and that came from a bit of a strained relationship with my father and the way he disciplined us. I was born hyper-sensitive and debilitatingly shy, and yet I had these visions, though at the time not knowing they were visions, of my what life was going to do.
I know it’s hard to believe, but at 4 and 5, I visualized being a member of All Star Wrestling as an announcer and performer, which I did starting at 16. I visualized being in WWE, I visualized being in Hollywood. What I’m saying is, I had these incredible dreams that you’re supposed to have but ones that are never going to come true. Somehow, they came true. They came to fruition, they manifested themselves, and I believe that also triggered certain catalysts in my brain.
Unfortunately, I still don’t know why I suffer from what I do. Some people say it’s a chemical imbalance, others say it’s a product of our environment or our diet or it is genetics. I just know, with the beginning of the death of my best friend, I went through an unspeakable hell and my family is the biggest reason I’m here. The turning point of my life, and it’s in the documentary, was in 2003 when I ventured away from home to try to salvage the relationship with Jenni Neidhart, but more importantly, to try to prove to myself that I was capable of living on my own. Doctors had said that, because of my condition, I wasn’t going to be able to hold down a job and I would probably be under parental care for as long as possible. I was ashamed, I was embarrassed, but I refused to believe that. I wanted to prove everybody wrong.
I went to Calgary, and to make this really long story short, I had this epic collapse. My friend’s girlfriend, where I was staying at the time, felt the energy and was afraid that they were going to find me hanging from the ceiling. I was in a bad place. They put me on a plane back home to British Columbia. My father and brother had to fly to Calgary to drive my car home, and not only was the day I hit rock bottom the day I totally surrendered myself to the disease and trying to get better once and for all, and you can call this fate or a ridiculous coincidence, but it was also the day that Bas Rutten called and left a message about Prize Fighting Championships looking for an announcer.
That was the moment I literally collapsed on the floor in a heap. I had to get better because that was an opportunity that was never going to come my way again. Two weeks after going to the hospital, I was in Japan calling Pride FC: Bushido 1 in October of 2003 with Bas Rutten at the Saitama Super Arena. The support put me in that spot.
Even people like Bas Rutten, who I met in 2000 at a grappling tournament, and obviously I knew who he was. We were put together in this low budget film that was being funded by a friend of mine, and they were trying to track me down and it just so happened I was at this grappling tournament. The filmmaker said, ‘I’m doing this martial arts film, I need an announcer, and I immediately thought of you.’ I’d been a DJ where he worked as a doorman. I showed up to the studio, Bas Rutten is the other guy. We hit it off immediately. He tells me, ‘Hey, give me your number. If we ever have the chance to work together, I’ll look you up.’ You hear that all the time, but Bas looked me up. Bas kept in touch with me intermittently, and sure enough, three years later, he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.
JB: The documentary touches on the intense moments that heated to the boiling point in April 2017 in WWE, when you no longer called SmackDown Live, that underscored the lack of awareness surrounding mental illness. That is not a knock on WWE, as mental illness is not fully understood all around the world. Yet you’ve been able to turn negatives into positives throughout your entire career, and working for NXT instead of calling SmackDown has been a benefit. What did you learn from that experience?
MR: My whole life, and not just that experience, it has been since day one of my life: it’s one high, as a straight-A student in school and class clown and popular kid, to going home and being obsessed with death and wondering how old I’d be when my parents died. I would do that math in my mind at the age of 10. So what I’m saying there is that the real lows always propelled me to greater heights.
With WWE, the biggest issue was the weekly travel for SmackDown. I also had a job with Showtime Championship Boxing, and now Bellator MMA, so I was busy almost every weekend and the fact that I had to be on the road with SmackDown Live, which was a dream job in live TV on the USA Network, was going to kill me. Literally. My close friends saw how it was affecting me, and it just came to a head. There were other issues, and they’ve been dealt with, and honestly, I’ve never had a better relationship with WWE, especially Paul [Triple H] Levesque and Michael Cole, two people who are instrumental in me being the voice of NXT. The amount of support I’ve received from everyone, and I mean from Vince McMahon to Stephanie to Shane to the entire locker room, it’s incredible.
When they first approached me about coming to WWE, I even joked, and in every joke there is a morsel of truth, that I’d take their offer even if it were calling NXT. They said no, they wanted me to launch SmackDown, and I said that was amazing. I’m a wrestling announcer and a wrestling storyteller. Because of my experience with MMA and boxing, I’m all about the story being told in the ring. With NXT, you get a solid hour of just that, and yes, you get the promos and the character-building.
Also, I have to say this, at this stage of my career, I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. Not many people can say that before the age of 50. So I want to give back, and I’ve already been put in a position to help the other announcers and the young talent. I love watching the underdogs and I want to give them every opportunity to succeed with my lyrics, as it were, to their music in the ring. NXT has been a godsend and, honestly, WWE could not be more supportive and I love the fact that they are beginning to take more focus on mental health. It impacts every industry. We are seeing it with what Mariah Carey recently did with People Magazine, Demi Lovato, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love in the NBA, Michael Phelps; I’m a speck when it comes to the so-called celebrity radar, I’ve never, ever considered myself that, but the wave is building and that is why the doc is so timely. I wanted to make it at this time because we’re losing too many lives, and especially men, to suicide because of the stigma attached to mental health.
JB: The documentary focuses on how the people at Showtime went out of their way to support you. Do you feel that same support with WWE?
MR: I do want to say this: my relationship with WWE has never been better. There were many little things but it was my mental health that was deteriorating at a rapid pace. I needed to get off the road. The other issues have been dealt with, and it’s not my intention with this documentary to go into my relationship with the WWE. They have indeed been incredible in allowing not only Paul Levesque to be involved directly [in the documentary], but allowing the use of footage. It’s mind-blowing to me, just bringing me back to NXT, knowing about my issues. That could be the headline of the Showtime story. You hear about mentally ill people being dangerous to society or dangerous to themselves, unstable and unreliable. That’s the biggest reason I’m making this doc: I’m a high-functioning individual working my dream job.
JB: You called two seminal fights within the past year: Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor and Tommaso Ciampa-Johnny Gargano. You made those two fights and their stories, which were very different in nature, as real as reality.
MR: That was the greatest year that I could have ever had, and that represents the highest of the highs. Johnny Gargano-Tommaso Ciampa, TakeOver: New Orleans, which is being hailed as one of the greatest pro wrestling shows ever. McGregor-Mayweather, the larger-than-life spectacle surrounding that once-in-a-lifetime event. For me, as much as I understand the significance and how critically acclaimed both were, and I know the vitriol, and the ‘Why did Mayweather-McGregor even happen?’ I get all that, but it did happen and it was huge–and it was probably even more entertaining than it had any right to be. If I could be any part of the reason for that, then I’m doing my job. I don’t want to be a cookie cutter broadcaster. I’ve never even thought of myself as such. I’m a storyteller, I’m an entertainer, I’m a performer. I love to paint word pictures, in any realm.
It does represent the highest of the highs, and that’s why my career, in the most positive representation, is bipolar. Just saying that, I wonder how people will interpret that. It’s up to them. I’m showing you mental illness in an unflinching fashion. If you’re inspired to learn more, or feel differently, that’s fine. If you choose to say, ‘Wow, what performance art, this guy is a weirdo or wacko,’ hey, that’s fine, too. I just want to save lives. That’s all.
This is not a vanity piece, although I do believe I have a uniquely compelling story to tell. I didn’t know what we were doing at first when I let my best friend, Haris Usanovic—who, by the way, deserves as much credit for this as anyone—film. He did the majority of this on his own before the incredibly talented people at Showtime took it to bump out the edges. This guy is a young filmmaker and someone on the rise. What he captured and what he was able to tell with his visuals speak for themselves, he’s a very talented guy.
JB: I know you want people to take away their own impressions from the documentary, and although your goal is to save lives, isn’t a big part of that raising awareness of mental illness? Is that also an integral part of your goal?
MR: Yes, that’s exactly it. That’s why everything is so arresting. They had to pull me back, because I wanted to show even worse. I really want people to understand that this is still someone that you, for the most part, rave about as an announcer and a person. I pride myself with being able to get along with almost anyone in this industry. I shake everyone’s hands, whoever you are on the team, from catering to camera to the people on the truck, we are all talent. I hate the fact that I get labeled talent because I’m in front of the camera, that’s bulls---.
For me, I want everyone to say, ‘Wow, I feel this way’ or ‘Man, maybe that’s why he’s this way.’ Just start the conversation. We talk so much about sports, we talk so much about fights, we talk so much about the weather. Can we not talk about something that can actually save a life? It doesn’t have to be as in-depth or intense, it’s just genuinely asking, ‘How are you today?’ and not taking ‘I’m fine’ as the answer. Just sit there and listen. If you give the person an opportunity and that safe space, you will be amazed at what someone will share. That’s what I want: I want to share my pain and suffering because I hope that someone doesn’t have to go through what I go through on a daily basis.
As much as I am successful and in a good place, I don’t wish this on my mortal enemy. I don’t wish this on anybody. That’s why we need help, we need money, we need awareness, we need support. We are only going to lose more and more people if we don’t [crying]. I apologize for my emotions, but this is who I am.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.