Ranallo calls combat sports' biggest events, fights mental illness

Mauro Ranallo chuckled as he gazed down at the table. His iPhone lay before him, wrapped in a case with "Stigma Free" written across it. He uses words to make a living as a broadcaster, so he took a moment to gather them.

For a decade, Ranallo allowed a close friend to shadow him in hopes of helping to shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness. The process was arduous; the camera captured a bare-chested Ranallo weeping inside hotel rooms, growling at himself with rage and pounding his keyboard in euphoria. Watching the film made him uncomfortable. And now, over lunch, Ranallo fretted about what would happen next.

"I sometimes wonder what it is going to be like when everyone sees it, and if I can even handle that," Ranallo said as he waited for a bowl of wonton soup at the MGM National Harbor Casino. "Like at times watching myself, I go, 'Whoa. What if I end up killing myself?' I say it as a weird joke, as a throwaway line to myself. But where does that come from?"

Ranallo, 48, has carved a niche as one of the most prolific and distinctive announcers in combat sports. He calls boxing matches for Showtime, mixed martial arts for Bellator and is the lead announcer for WWE's NXT. He spends more than half the year away from his home in Simi Valley, Calif., riding the waves of his bipolar disorder: the anxiety that cloaks him each morning, the bursts of mania he channels into his broadcasts, the depression that awaits him after the adrenaline fades.

Showtime trusted Ranallo to guide viewers through Floyd Mayweather's showdown with Manny Pacquiao in 2015 and Mayweather's cross-disciplinary caper with UFC star Conor McGregor in 2017. He has won announcer of the year in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter three consecutive years. At WWE events, fans serenade him by chanting his catchphrase: "Mamma Mia!"

The viewers only feel the propulsive energy and freewheeling expression of his announcing. They do not see him struggle to extricate himself from bed or chastise himself for his performance. They cannot feel his impulses toward self-doubt or self-harm, like when he huddled inside his room after Mayweather-Pacquiao and told a friend, "I'm not doing well, man. I'm never going to do well."

Ranallo lives within "a constant vacuum of negativity and fear of being exposed as a fraud, fear of failure," he explained.

"Those thoughts that come in where others don't, that's what weirds me out about me," Ranallo said. "I'm a highly intelligent, highly articulate, very empathetic, down-to-earth person. But man, my thoughts are incredibly dark. Incredibly dark."

Ranallo was 19 when he was hospitalized for the first time. In his 20s, shuttling through six separate hospital visits, he took to introducing himself as the "Bipolar Rock 'N' Roller." His friend Haris Usanovic used that as the title for his documentary on Ranallo, which airs this weekend on Showtime.

Ranallo views his success as a blessing and a platform. He hopes the film will spark discussions about the need for empathy and research about mental health. He intends to use his voice so fans, especially the men who gravitate toward combat sports, won't shy away from vulnerability, because "stigma is literally killing people," he said.

Frank Shamrock, a former UFC champion who is Ranallo's business manager, believes Ranallo's life purpose is to share this message. "And I think only he can. I've never seen anything like him," Shamrock said. "I've driven him to the hospital. And then two weeks later, he's on TV. He's able to somehow repair himself. It's extraordinary."

Ranallo grew up on a chicken farm about an hour east of Vancouver. His parents had emigrated from Italy. Mauro was their oldest child. The farm held little interest for him; as a child he hated to work with his hands, unless he was using a toilet-paper tube as a make-believe microphone. He inhaled books. He studied voices on the radio.

The family would gather around the television to watch wrestling. Ranallo noticed how his father absorbed the spectacle. A lifelong obsession began. On the weekends, he staged matches with his brothers and his best friend, Michael Janzen. In 1986, at 16, he talked his way into a gig as an announcer, and then a bad-guy manager, for All-Star Wrestling in Vancouver.

Sporting a bodacious mullet, Ranallo screeched and spat at the camera. The bombast hinted at the condition yet to be diagnosed. Ranallo felt he could power through the depressive episodes and mood swings that were starting to manifest.

"His heel managing, it was really good," said Dave Meltzer, the founder of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "He could have been great at that, without a doubt."

The dream derailed in the summer of 1989. Ranallo was woken up one morning by a call from Janzen's sister. Janzen had grown faint and passed out under a tree. He never woke up. The cause of death was a heart attack. Grief overwhelmed Ranallo. He was soon committed to a hospital and diagnosed for the first time.

Ranallo cycled through hospital stays during his 20s. He saw the decade as "basically a writeoff," a blur of drinking and cocaine, mania and depression, flourishes of productivity that eventually led back to the hospital. He worked as a radio jockey and a TV announcer but figured he would not see 30.

Even so, the work kept coming. Ranallo called wrestling in Calgary and became the voice of the Pride Fighting Championships. Ranallo learned how his illness drove him. His fear of failure made him prepare obsessively. His compulsion fed a lyricism that separated him from peers. He found friends to serve as a safety net. Talking about his life felt therapeutic.

"When I'm at my lowest, when I'm crying uncontrollably, and I can reach out to one of my many people in my support network, it helps," Ranallo said. "I feel better."

In 2006, Ranallo went to work for the Fight Network in Toronto. One night he went with Usanovic, an editor at the network, to a Toronto Argonauts football game. After, Ranallo invited Usanovic back to his apartment. A conversation spiraled into a performance, with Ranallo composing a song about Usanovic's life on his keyboard, stripping to his underpants along the way.

"I sat there, pretty traumatized," Usanovic said. "I was like 'What the ... is this?' "

Usanovic was captivated by Ranallo's energy. They took to hanging out several days a week, smoking marijuana as Ranallo made music and Usanovic wrote. Ranallo had experimented with various prescriptions but grew distrustful of the pharmaceutical industry. He dosed himself with cannabis because, he said, it lightened his anxiety and unlocked his creativity.

"If people knew the real truth, and you can read between the lines, it's almost 24-7 for me," Ranallo said. "I am constantly under the influence of cannabis."

As Usanovic spent more time with Ranallo, he learned more about bipolar disorder. Usanovic saw connections to relatives with similar symptoms who had not been diagnosed. He wondered how many others might relate. Usanovic wanted to share his friend's story. "We've got to do something, man," Usanovic kept telling him. After consistent prodding, Ranallo agreed.

Armed with a digital camera, Usanovic tagged along as his friend soared. Showtime hired Ranallo in 2007. His portfolio expanded across combat sports. He distinguished himself by peppering fights with metaphors, pop-culture references and zany kitsch. That was the mania, streaming across the screen in pyrotechnic spurts of phrase.

He once asked of the burly cage fighter Tank Abbott: "Which version of Tank will we see tonight: Sherman or septic?" At a WWE show in New Orleans this spring, he noted that a competitor was "feasting on his competition like tourists feast on po' boy sandwiches." When WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder blitzed Bermane Stiverne last year, Ranallo touched the Marvel universe: "Wilder's right hand is Thor's hammer and here in round one he is Ragnarok-ing Stiverne."

Ranallo might be his own harshest critic. "I actually think I suck," he said. "I think I'm one of the worst announcers, one of the worst performers there is. It blows my mind that I keep getting hired. But when I'm doing it, yeah, I'll admit: No one can do it like I can."

The episodes continued. Usanovic took Ranallo to the hospital after one in the fall of 2012. Five years later, after Ranallo had joined WWE, travel fatigue triggered another breakdown. He called Shamrock from Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He struggled to formulate sentences. "His voice was broken," Shamrock said. "His mind had slipped."

Shamrock coordinated Ranallo's return to California and continued to monitor his nutrition, exercise and mood before Ranallo could return to WWE a few months later.

"He's my best friend now, and I still worry sometimes," Usanovic said. "I don't know who else he texts this stuff to, but I will get text messages like — very rarely, very rarely, but they happen — even a few weeks ago, because of everything going on, he said, 'Brother, I almost committed suicide last night.' Those are the texts that I receive. They're hard, man."

Ranallo understands it might be uncomfortable for some in the public to hear his struggles discussed with such frankness. That is the barrier he wants to knock down. He is heartened to see NBA stars such as Kevin Love and DeMar Derozan talking about their mental health issues. He considers it vital that men open up, embrace vulnerability and accept the realities of mental illness.

"Because a lot of stigma is still attached," he said. " 'Oh, it's in your mind.' Or 'you're looking for attention.' Or, 'it's an excuse. Go get fresh air.' "

As he finished his soup, Ranallo spun a scenario. Imagine, he said, if he walked out into the restaurant and treated a physically handicapped person the way people with mental illness often get treated.

"Would you go to someone who is a paraplegic and say 'Get up and walk. Why aren't you walking, dude? God, man, you're really milking this for all its worth,' " Ranallo said. "I hate to say it that way, but that's what it is!"

Ranallo grew excited as he pondered how to spread the word. He mentioned staging a "Coachella for mental health," a festival of art and music and performance. He envisioned himself as "the male version of Oprah," using his platform to share stories beyond the world of fighting. He hoped for increased education in schools and increased compassion throughout society. He wanted viewers to understand that mental illness should not cause guilt.

"At the end of the day, that's my main mission statement, curing stigma," Ranallo said. "Because too many men have taken their lives because they felt ashamed, they felt weak. They're going to lose their 'man card,' as it were. That's what really drove me."

Ranallo has no plans for marriage or children because he feels he couldn't handle the responsibility of either. He pours himself into his work. And as Usanovic finished shooting the film, Ranallo understood how it could serve as a vessel for his message.

In the fall, Showtime plans to take the documentary on a tour of college campuses. Ranallo will make some stops when he has a break between calling boxing, MMA and WWE. His schedule is packed. His life can feel chaotic. His struggle is constant. But Ranallo will keep preaching his message.

"I have people in my corner, and I'm looked after that way, that I will never be alone," Ranallo said. "But I know that there are millions who are. I know I can't save everybody. But man, oh man, what if we save one person?"

About the Author