How One Former UFC Fighter Is Helping Ordinary People Win The Fight Against Mental Illness

Doug Larson Photography/ Eliot Marshall

For MMA fighters, being able to compete in the UFC is often considered to be the ultimate achievement.

But for Eliot “The Fire” Marshall, the amazing things he’s accomplished in martial arts have only served as tools to help him reach his true dream of helping others.

Marshall is not only a UFC and The Ultimate Fighter veteran, but also an accomplished jiu-jitsu athlete. He was the first U.S. American to win as a blue, purple, and brown belt at Pan Ams. He’s also a nine-time Grapplers Quest champion, and in 2006, he got third place at Worlds.

But the road to success has been a long one, starting way back when he was just six years old and training Soo Baahk Do. Near the end of his childhood, a few of his friends got into jiu-jitsu and encouraged him to try it.

After moving to Boulder, CO, Marshall met and began training under Amal Easton (with whom he now runs Easton Training Center). Too broke to pay for classes, he paid his gym dues by cleaning the mats and bathrooms.

But money wasn’t the only struggle he had to face.

Marshall has also battled with an anxiety disorder, which he said faded out about fifteen years ago and recently “came back with a vengeance.” He recognizes that he’s been fortunate in his ability to get access to treatment – not only does he have the money to pay for medication, but one of his friends is a doctor who provides him with free therapy.

However, he is bothered by the fact that so many people dealing with the same problems can’t afford the treatment they need to feel better.

“Not trying to get political here, but to me it’s so wrong that we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and people can’t afford healthcare. I hate to use the word ‘blessed’ because people try to make it a strictly religious thing, but really, I’m blessed in every sense of the word. My gym is successful, my wife has a good job, we have health insurance, and I have a friend who helps me out [with my anxiety]. Plus, I have the support of my wonderful family. Most people aren’t that lucky.”

Not only does Marshall recognize just how fortunate he is, but he’s also using what he has to help others who haven’t been so lucky. He regularly helps others afford the treatment they need by personally giving them money to pay for the therapy or medication that can help them get better. In fact, when he competes in Fight to Win Pro 7 on July 15, he’ll be using much of, if not all his earnings from the event to fund therapy for patients in need.

“What’s the point of being part of a society where people don’t help each other? Sure, it would be nice to have some extra cash, but it won’t affect my life that much. But a few thousand dollars could make a big difference for a few people who couldn’t otherwise afford therapy.” 

While Marshall obviously recognizes how important traditional therapy can be for someone living with mental illness, he also believes that jiu-jitsu can be a huge tool to help people deal with something like anxiety or depression. His reasoning is that BJJ, by nature, puts you in uncomfortable situations and teaches you how to cope.

“In the beginning, everyone taps because they’re tired or being squished or something. But then, being uncomfortable becomes a way of life. That’s the point of jiu-jitsu: not to learn to armbar or choke people, but to learn how to deal with the struggle. So in jiu-jitsu or in the rest of life, when the pain comes, you’re like ‘I’m okay. I’ve been uncomfortable before.’”

One of the most important things Marshall hopes to accomplish through his career is reminding people that no one is “too tough” to deal with mental illness.

“Yeah, one part of me is a gym leader and a UFC veteran, but another part of me isn’t a badass; it’s just ‘panicked Eliot.’”

He wants to eliminate the fear and stigma that comes with being treated for a mental illness . . . especially in the martial arts world.

“A lot of fighters only identify as fighters, so when any piece of that falls apart, they feel like their whole existence falls apart.”

Marshall takes pride in not only his identity as a top-level athlete, but also as a father, son, husband, and teacher. He not only accepts that he doesn’t just fit one mold; he embraces it.

Even if a large part of your identity is wrapped up in being a “badass,” Marshall wants you to remember that anyone can suffer from a mental illness. He implores us to think of anxiety or depression just like any other illness, rather than a ‘weakness’.

“If you have high blood pressure, you wouldn’t think twice about taking medication for it. You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I can’t take it, I’m worried about getting addicted to it.’ That would sound crazy. If you need medication to get better, whether it’s high blood pressure or anxiety or whatever, you should take it.”

As Marshall prepares to take on Gracie Barra’s Warren Brooks at this week’s Fight to Win Pro event, he’s still focused on making sure that anyone who needs help feels welcome to reach out to him so they can get the treatment needed to feel better.

He’s already helped pay for therapy for people who attend his academy, and he wants everyone else to know that he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to giving financial and emotional support where it’s needed. If you need therapy, but can’t afford it, he encourages you to contact him. He also has recommendations for good therapists for those who live in Colorado.

Whether or not you have anxiety, Marshall says it’s important to recognize that courage isn’t not having fear, but facing it when you do experience it.

“Don’t run from your emotions. It’s okay to be afraid or sad or happy or angry. Just be with it. Embrace it, stand up to it. Sometimes when you’re scared, you just have to wait it out and it’ll pass over you just like the clouds.”

Being as this is coming from a man who used to get in the cage with some of the baddest dudes in the world, I’d say it’s pretty sound advice.


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