March 18, 2016
Mauro Ranallo lays supine in a white gown, on white sheets, in a white sterile room, and yet he feels the darkness creeping up on the edges of his face. His heart beats its way up his throat, as his heavy eyelids blink at the ceiling and he wonders if it is strong enough to hold him. The extreme tells his mind to slow down, to ease up and breathe, and a chill overwhelms him. The cursing echoes, thankfully, have been heard: “You’re a real son of a bitch, a coward, for taking the easy way out. How can you do that to your family?” And he pulls back from that brink, curls up and cries.
Ranallo, the acclaimed Showtime boxing broadcaster whose lengthy career behind the mic includes MMA and now one of the prominent voices of WWE, as its lead “SmackDown” announcer, thought about killing himself many times, just like he did that terrible night in a Toronto hospital while pushing back his inner demons. He has visualized his death a number of times, seeing the passing funeral procession of cars and people paying tribute in a surreal celebration of who he was and what he had done. He has wept often during the war he’s waged and won not that long ago against an opponent he always sees though will never defeat – himself.
“I never attempted suicide, but I have had suicidal thoughts. The biggest challenge is there are many days I feel like a fraud. I’ll be honest. Then I think I helped myself get to this point in my career. Everything I thought of came to fruition."
Behind the booming voice that comes through your TV each time you watch Showtime Championship Boxing is a purity and honesty that is almost childlike. Ranallo is gritty, real and so full of fear that he is actually courageous for the way he keeps getting up. He suffers from an illness from which he does not hide. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Ranallo has not let that define nor deter him from fulfilling a dream and making the transition from being an MMA broadcaster to being “the voice” of some of the biggest fights in the last five years. The 45-year-old is also something else: an inspiration.
“I think mental health issues have to be more and more prominent; that’s who I am,” Ranallo said. “I know there is a stigma, and we’re still not comfortable talking about it in our society. You even asked me if I was OK talking about it for this story. I’ve been very open about this for many, many years. I firmly believe that’s who I am and we’re still not comfortable with talking about it in society, but I want to be an advocate. I want to make it easier for people to talk about. I hope that one day we’re still alive when people don’t have to ask and there is no stigma attached to mental illness.”
The Mayo Clinic defines bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, as a mental illness that “causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). When you become depressed, you may feel sad or hopeless and lose interest or pleasure in most activities. When your mood shifts in the other direction, you may feel euphoric and full of energy. Mood shifts may occur only a few times a year or as often as several times a week. Although bipolar disorder is a disruptive, long-term condition, you can keep your moods in check by following a treatment plan. In most cases, bipolar disorder can be controlled with medications and psychological counseling (psychotherapy).”
The mind is powerful, and when it races uncontrollably it becomes even more powerful. The fear is real. You become hypersensitive to everything, from the sound of a swirling dryer to the faint buzz of a machine. Everything irritates you, like a million tiny needles prickling your skin at once. Ranallo, a near-genius who can memorize a script at a glance, would often retreat into a different world. He would literally scream death threats at his family and threaten to kill himself. He says he would turn into “The Hulk.” It was out-of-control behavior, where he would go to his room and not come out for days. He would not eat or shower. Overnight, he would turn into a hobo.
“I would go through these unbelievable mood swings,” Ranallo said. “I would come into the house with a smile and ask how everyone is doing and then close my bedroom door and suddenly, ‘I’m going to [expletive] kill you.’ It would scare everybody. I think every person on earth is impacted by mental health issues. People think it’s a label, an excuse. It’s not. It’s very real, but it can be dealt with and I’m living proof people can lead functional lives and be bipolar. I first heard the term ‘bipolar’ in 1989 when I was first diagnosed. I was sitting there at 19 and they called me crazy. I was like, ‘[Expletive] you, you’re crazy,’ I told the doctor. I’m not crazy. Then I started seeing things. I wasn’t getting out of bed. I wouldn’t shower. You see the patterns, and these things become apparent. Then you realize that there is something wrong with you. You let it take you over, and sometimes I did.
“I never attempted suicide, but I have had suicidal thoughts,” he added. “The biggest challenge is there are many days I feel like a fraud. I’ll be honest. Then I think I helped myself get to this point in my career. Everything I thought of came to fruition. What I’m doing now is what I always thought I would do as a child. I still can’t look at myself and see positives. I will say that I like myself more now than I ever have. I have my alter ego with my closest friends. Thankfully, those who pay my bills love the way I am; my drama, my high energy level. I love who I am. I may be over the top, but this is my voice and if you’re committed and love what you do, you’ll live a good life. I do look back and shake my head, though, about how I even got here.”
Ranallo is a bit of an anachronism. He was born in 1969, though one look at his background and it hints at someone produced from the 1920s. He was raised on a six-acre chicken farm on a dead-end street in Abbotsford, British Columbia. His parents, Elio and Duilia Ranallo, had left Italy for more opportunity in North America.
Mauro’s passion for broadcasting came early, through listening to Vancouver Canucks’ hall of fame broadcaster Jim Robson and watching Saturday morning pro wrestling. However, Elio was old-school and hard-edged, and he could not comprehend his son’s craving. Mauro was expected to do what his father did. Go get your hands dirty, Elio urged. No, his oldest was more content sitting on the couch occupying his Saturdays by taking notes on wrestling matches. They clashed often, and it led to some tension.
Mauro would steal away to his room, and his fertile imagination would take him to faraway places where he was the king of his small universe, playing the intrepid reporter with the ever-ready mic in hand. He remained persistent toward his path, though he was not exactly encouraged at home. At W.J. Mouat Secondary School, in Abbotsford, he was the school’s public address announcer and did all of the sports; and when Al Tomko’s “All-Star Wrestling” showed up at W.J. Mouat, there was Mauro, with his buddy, Michael Janzen, ribbing the veteran carny.
“You could tell we were getting under Tomko’s skin a little,” Mauro said with a laugh. “Halfway through the show, Tomko asked if anyone ever used a microphone, because he had to do something backstage.”
Ranallo jumped at the chance -- and did the rest of the show.
“I did the ring announcing, and I noticed that Tomko’s not coming back,” Mauro said. “I knew who everybody was and I got into it. I started announcing their towns and weights. At the end of the show, everyone was raving that I did a fantastic job. Tomko was smiling ear-to-ear and told me, ‘Kid, I may have some work for you.’ He asked for my name and number, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ I was 16 in 1986. I wanted to get into the business, and this guy was giving me my chance.”
Two weeks later, Tomko called W.J. Mouat looking for the teenaged Mauro for a television broadcast that had been viewed across Canada for over 30 years. That was it. That is what launched Mauro, the kid who once ran around a farm with a toilet paper roll interviewing chickens to play a bombastic, over-the-top character for three years, catapulting him to other stages. Something, though, was eating away at him, and he could not quite figure out what it was. Unfortunately, the darkness did not creep in until a personal tragedy forever altered him: the sudden death of Janzen, who died of a heart attack at 19.
“We were inseparable, but he was more like a brother than a friend,” said Mauro, who still has a tough time talking about Janzen. “Every Sept. 27, which was Mike’s birthday, and every July 6, which is the day he died, I call his parents regardless of where I am. It hits me every time I talk about him. His whole family and I have forged a unique bond. They have, in a sense, adopted me. I can remember his father taking the time to visit me in the hospital. It could be five or 10 minutes, but he was always there, and he always made sure I was OK.
“That’s what brought it out,” he added. “I was probably showing signs as a performer when I was a kid on TV. Everyone couldn’t believe that the same debilitatingly shy kid was this loud-mouthed, obnoxious wrestling character on TV who was screaming and yelling and yet had this vast vocabulary. I was literally on fire.”
The signs began manifesting themselves then.
“The unique part of my diagnosis, and a lot of mentally ill people with the label, it feeds your creativity, yet it takes away other things,” Mauro said. “It’s a gift at first, in its simplest forms. When my friend passed away, I grieved. You go through that process, and it was hard, because it’s the first time death had hit me so close, but it wouldn’t go away. That began the rollercoaster ride. I was deejaying at a night club, and I had a breakdown. My girlfriend at the time rushed me to the hospital, and they thought I was on drugs. My father thought I was on drugs, that I was partying too much and it was taking a toll on me. The ER doctor asked if I was drugged. We’re talking 1989, and that’s when they said I was manic depressive. I refused to believe it.”
Still, the jobs came tumbling in: local radio, a TV weatherman assignment, news updates for local access TV. By 1999, Mauro’s brand landed him another super gig, as the commentator for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, where he was paired with Allen James Coage (Bad News Brown in World Wrestling Entertainment). Every two weeks Mauro would do TV tapings and then fly back home, still trying to deal with his medical issues.
“There was always that price to pay, that rollercoaster ride where I would do the tapings and take whatever it was out on my loved ones,” he said. “I got into radio again, and I still wasn’t committed to my meds; the anger would come out. I was falling, and I didn’t realize it.”
That is when the bottom scraped another reef. On Sunday, July 13, 2003, Mauro had another breakdown. He was put on a plane from Calgary, and upon landing in British Columbia immediately rushed to the ER. It looked like his career was over. After arriving home, his mother was reluctant to bring up a message on the family answering machine from a man with an accent. The Ranallos wanted to relieve any additional stress on Mauro, but he had to know who it was. So he listened.
“It killed me; it really killed me to hear it,” Mauro said, his voice trembling.
The message was from the legendary Bas Rutten, who Mauro had met in 1999 while playing the announce team for a low-budget movie that was never released. Rutten and Mauro hit it off immediately, and Rutten liked his style and energy. He asked Mauro for his contact information, if anything else came up in the future, and Mauro thought very little of it -- until the day Rutten left the message that Pride Fighting Championships was looking for someone. Mauro collapsed to the floor in tears.
“I was 33 years old and I was dead … I was dead. I wanted to commit suicide. I wanted to end my family’s pain. I wanted to end my own pain,” he said. “Forget it, that was it; it was the lowest I ever was in my life. The rollercoaster had to stop. I had great opportunities and my illness manifesting itself kept knocking me off the tracks. Everyone around me was so tired. No one knew what to do with me. I was sitting in a black hole that was expanding. I didn’t see a way out. I went back to the hospital, and thanks to Dr. Pieter Strauss, everything changed. He was the first psychiatrist I ever came across that treated me like a human being. I wasn’t a sample or someone to experiment on. Dr. Strauss literally saved my life. It was due to my connection with Dr. Strauss that I began to understand what I was dealing with.
“I began reading everything I could get my hands on about bipolar behavior, and it opened up a whole new world for me,” Mauro added. “That was me; that was my story. I became the biggest student of bipolar behavior that anyone could imagine. I could be writing these books word-for-word.”
It was Strauss who told Mauro about other creative people throughout history that may have had mental issues, like Leonardo da Vinci and John F. Kennedy. On Oct. 5, 2003, Mauro made his debut as the play-by-play announcer for Pride alongside Rutten. Just two weeks before getting on a plane to Japan, he was in a hospital staring at no future.
When they first met, Rutten was quickly taken by Mauro. So was Frank Shamrock. So is pretty much everyone that comes in contact with him. Though he is highly self-critical, Mauro has an innate ability to laugh at himself. That is what struck Rutten.
“Mauro is a lot like a fighter,” he said. “Mauro doesn’t use a prompter. He can do anything off the top of his head. My job is easy. I’m talking about something I have been doing my whole life, and that’s fighting. The play-by-play guy has to know everything, and Mauro can lose his notes and he still knows everything; and he has this illness that he fights constantly. It’s why I say he’s one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.
“When we first met on the movie set, they gave us a six-page script,” Rutten added. “Mauro memorized it in minutes. They wanted us to do some ad-libs and were going to film the scene around what we said, which didn’t make any sense to me; but Mauro got it. We had everyone laughing by the end. I asked him for his number to see if we could work again. The thing with Mauro is once you meet him and talk to him, there’s no way you can’t not like him.”
Rutten came across a few manic episodes while working with Mauro. He said he shoots off into “Mauro world.” One time in Japan around 2003, when Mauro forgot his medication, he was yelling at cars passing by.
“We were on our way to lunch, and he began acting strange,” Rutten said. “Mauro began doing somersaults on the street for about 30 yards -- I’m not joking -- and he disappeared around the corner. The Pride people were nervous, wondering if Mauro was going to be OK, but the one thing with Mauro is he can be in a totally different world, but as soon as the lights go on, he’s brought right back.
“I always had an ability to get into people’s heads when I was fighting,” he added. “I grabbed his face in my hands and told him to focus. He has a photographic memory, and he’s a talent that makes you feel very safe when you’re on the air with him. The lights go on, and Mauro goes on. We’re going to be doing podcasts together. People that listen will love him instantly. Everybody does when they know the real Mauro.”
It was happening again, however. Mauro loved MMA. It introduced his style to a whole new audience. He got a chance to work with Rutten, who Mauro considers a dear friend. After Rutten left Pride, Mauro did not feel right.
“I didn’t like the direction Pride was heading in terms of its American production,” Mauro said. “I saw the writing on the wall. I’m not in it for the fame or the fortune, but I didn’t need to be somewhere that I wasn’t happy. I love broadcasting. I know I shocked a lot of people when I left Pride, but at the same time, I began working at The Fight Network in Toronto.”
The Fight Network’s dreams, however, were bigger than its capabilities. Mauro learned that quickly, so in 2009, he moved over to The Score, also a Toronto-based sports network, and hosted “The MMA Show” for two years. In 2012, Mauro was out there again job hunting, though on a health note, he had gone without a breakdown since July 2003.
In the meantime, his relationship was blossoming with Shamrock, who goes back with Mauro to the inaugural Strikeforce event on Showtime. There, he fought Renzo Gracie on Feb. 10, 2007 at the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, Miss. During the talent meeting leading up to the event, Shamrock noticed a sullen figure in the corner of the interview room.
“The broadcasters interview the talent -- and I distributed my storyline to Showtime -- and you interact with dumb and boring questions,” Shamrock said. “I was trying to spin a bunch of other stuff, and this guy asks me the most pointed question of anyone. I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy [expletive] up my story and my presentation?’ I could tell he was very connected to the moment, unlike anyone else I ever met. Mauro cut through all of the smoke and mirrors that I wanted everyone to follow. He knew. He knew the truth.”
Shamrock lost to Gracie by disqualification. Later in the evening, well after the event was over, he came across the shadowy figure again in the lobby of the hotel where those associated with the fight promotion were staying.
“I couldn’t help myself. I started screaming, ‘You know Mauro, you know! No one [expletive] knew, but somehow, you knew!’” Shamrock said. “I screamed at him for a few minutes, and ironically, five months later, we were working together. I was doing a tryout for Showtime, we started working together and I fell in love with the guy. He’s totally nuts -- in a good way. He has to pull back on this thing that’s captured him. I recognized his honesty and talent. I thought he was a guy I wanted to be friends with. After about a year, I could tell no one was really helping him get past what his talent is worth. That’s when we struck up a business relationship.”
Shamrock went on to become Mauro’s agent and moved him out to California, where they live about 15 minutes apart. The move had to be made after Mauro suffered another breakdown in October 2012 in Toronto.
“I’ve seen him at his worst, and what I realized with Mauro ... because I know what happens, mental illness runs in my family. I had a brother who lived on the street,” Shamrock said. “I could tell Mauro was burning the candle on both ends. He needed to be cared for, and I stepped up and did that. I’m his friend. I wasn’t going to let him down. My biggest fear was that he wasn’t going to make it.
“Rock bottom for him was flying to Canada, sitting with him holding his hand [and] telling him, ‘This has to change; we have to make a change.’ He had a tremendous amount of fear and hesitation,” he added. “It was the only step that he could make. When I fought, no one was going to stop me. Mauro is the same way. He has such intensity and commitment. I never in my entire life came across someone as talented as Mauro -- ever. What a waste it would be if we lost him.”
Each morning, Mauro takes medication that agrees with him. He gives thanks to his Showtime boxing family -- David Dinkins, Gordon Hall, Stephen Espinoza, Al Bernstein, Paulie Malignaggi and Steve Farhood -- and his MMA family, Rutten and Shamrock. He continues battling the bipolar paralysis that sometimes grips him.
“They stayed with me and supported me through the good times and the bad,” Mauro said. “All of us have some kind of mental health issue, but there is a huge difference from having a bad day and being clinically depressed. You can’t move. You’re stuck in bed. You don’t want to eat. You don’t shower. You turn into a real bum. People see me and think I’m living the life, but I am sick. I have to take my pills when I’m at my sickest. I would not wish on my worst enemy what we go through at our lowest points.”
And the highest point? On a Saturday night in May, Shamrock sat down on his living room couch to watch the biggest combat sports event in history -- the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao boxing match on May 2. The first thing he heard was Mauro, and a tear streaked down his face.
“I cried when I heard him do the opening voiceover that night for Mayweather-Pacquiao. It’s the pride you get when your child is doing what he always wanted,” Shamrock said. “It’s probably why it instantly overwhelmed me. The more you get to know Mauro, the more you hang around him, the more you know what’s behind that voice, his voice, and what it took to arrive there at the top. There is such realness there that hasn’t been crushed. There’s something beautiful about that. It’s why he’s just a beautiful human being.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. This article first appeared on Sherdog.com. It is reprinted with permission.