On a snowy morning in January 2016, I sat in the living room of former MMA fighter and kickboxer Gary Goodridge in Barrie, Ontario. The walls were plastered with memorabilia. Pictures and posters showcased his iconic grimace. "Big Daddy" left opponents with a foreboding feeling just before they stepped foot inside the cage. But there sat a weak and vulnerable 6'3", 280-pound man steeped in depression.
"I truly, honestly believe if it wasn't for the pills I'm taking, my life would've been done a long time ago," he said matter-of-factly. "I would've taken my life."
"You would've killed yourself," I said, repeating his unsettling confession out loud to help it sink in.
"Absolutely," he says. "Mental disability is a huge thing, and it's got me crippled."
At the time, I was reporting for AXS-TV's newsmagazine show Inside MMA. Goodridge said he had been diagnosed in 2012 by Dr. Donna Ouchterlony with dementia pugilistica. He said he had been told his symptoms could indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive and degenerative form of memory loss that slowly suffocates the brain by strangling brain cells, though there's currently no accepted diagnosis of CTE in a living person.
When Goodridge's daughter, Tyra, showed up to the interview, they joked about the glittery nail polish she put on her father's toenails, a concession for bonding time with his daughter. Then things got serious.
"Sometimes he will just forget he was supposed to pick me up," Tyra said.
Her father was haunted by darker fears—the prospect that one day, he may not remember his child at all.
"I don't want my family and daughters feeling like they gotta look after me," he said.
Goodridge seemed obsessed with forgetting because all he wanted was to remember. Memory loss is the main attribute of his condition. He's trapped in a real-life hamster wheel, clinging to memories from the past and unable to retain new ones.
In various home videos taped for Inside MMA, he documented his inability to remember. On one occasion, he attended a party, first socializing and later lamenting that he wouldn't remember the people or the conversations the next morning. Over a one-month span, Goodridge used his iPhone to capture the monotony and solitude that accompanies a damaged brain. Most days, he had trouble getting out of bed.
"You don't want a 6'3", 280-pound man like me walking around angry," he said during a recent FaceTime interview. "It becomes a problem."
It was a problem. One of Goodridge's outbursts helped him discover his dementia.
"All the sudden, I'm in handcuffs, and cops are taking me away," he said of a domestic incident that happened years ago. "It wasn't until then that I realized I had a problem."
In an uncharacteristic fit of rage, Goodridge had wrapped his hands around an ex-girlfriend's neck. That's when he started visiting physicians.
On his bedroom counter, I noticed bottles of pills.
"That is for my mental stability," Goodridge said, pointing to one bottle.
"And what does this do?" I asked.
"It makes me not want to beat you," he said.
We laughed uncomfortably. A moment of levity tainted by a tragically truthful undertone. Another purpose of the pills: to keep his suicidal thoughts at bay.
Doctors say dementia pugilistica is caused by repeated blows to the head, and Goodridge is no stranger to head poundings. Despite his impressive fight record for Pride, K-1 and the UFC, he still suffered 25 losses by knockout. He often fought multiple times in one night, battling in an era where concussions were an afterthought and rest cut into profits.
Goodridge is perhaps best known for his first UFC fight against Paul Herrera. The matchup lasted a mere 13 seconds. When Herrera went for a takedown, Goodridge trapped him in a crucifix position, jackhammering his massive elbows into Herrera's head. For some, it's painful to watch. It's still one of the most memorable finishes in UFC history.
Goodridge fondly remembers his fight career and how it felt when it suddenly ended.
"One minute, you're out jet-setting all over the world, and then the next minute, you're retired and you sit in your home and watch the walls," he said. "You might get a call from a friend or two here or there, but it's nothing. "
His depression was palpable.
When the story aired, it defied all expectations, receiving more than 300,000 views on Facebook and YouTube in less than two days. Spiraling into the sphere of social media, it generated an outpouring of love and support from engaged and compassionate fans. Goodridge's global fanbase resurfaced. Up until the story aired, many had no knowledge of his deep, dark struggles.
The textual empathy communicated itself through comments from across the world.
"I hope there's a medical breakthrough for you Gary," wrote one well-wisher. "Respect to the warriors who gave us everything in the ring."
"God bless you, Gary," wrote another fan. "You are a legend."
The power of social media was on full display, like that good Samaritan everyone hopes will surface when needed. There it was, en masse.
As kindness blew through the screen, the discussion also turned toward concussions in what many consider to be a fringe sport. MMA lags behind the NFL and other mainstream sports where medical and precautionary change is not only demanded by media scrutiny and new research, but compelled vis a vis class-action lawsuits.
In MMA, a knockout to the head is still a celebrated finish. It's a chance to turn a suspenseful competition into a crowd-roaring spectacle. Hits to the head are at the heart of the sport. Most older fighters, now experiencing the effects of those knockouts, suffer in silence. Sometimes, the consequences of doing what they love become their only companions when the show is over.
Since no major promotion offers comprehensive health insurance, post-career brain trauma is on the metaphorical backburner. Fighters with a voice in the game are still scrounging to solidify basic rights for fair pay and treatment. Many, with emerging symptoms of brain damage, still fight. They're the subjects of locker room banter but are hard-pressed to find an advocate or a protector.
"Not very many people talk about what's wrong. ... People are now starting to talk about it, but as far as I knew, I was the only one with this problem," Goodridge said. "Now people are popping out of the woodworks. ... I'm glad that I started something...I feel that I'm not alone."
And the thousands of private messages he received on social media after the story aired helped, too. The public love gave Goodridge the impetus to alter his lifestyle. Support from strangers was a game-changer.
"I got tons, tons of messages. 99.99 percent of them were positive," he said. "People were just telling me, 'Go out and tell people your story, and people can learn from it and actually go somewhere. That's your calling. That's what you should do.'"
So he did. He started slowly, by recording fight analysis from his home office and posting it on YouTube. He continued recording iPhone videos, this time outside the house. He even took his story to the big screen, inviting documentary cameras into his doctors' appointments and offering chilling, tear-laden warnings to fighters about the long-term health effects of fighting in the theatrical release of The Hurt Business.
But that was just the beginning.
Last August, he decided to take the words of fans and turn them into a reality. Teaming up with Legends of the Cage, an organization that connects fans with their favorite fighters, he took his message on the road, embarking on a charity tour. LOTC co-founder Brian Moore helped fund the trip, along with a few small donations. First stop, Ohio, where he spoke with around 200 kids at the West Central Juvenile Detention Center in Troy.
"I told the kids, 'Life is rough, life is tough,' and they already knew it. ... I kept telling them to stay positive and move forward. If somebody is negative in your group, you gotta move away from that person," he said. "I had a lot of fun, a lot of fun doing that."
Next stop: Dayton Children's Hospital, toys in tow. Sick children hooked to IVs, wearing the blue hospital gowns no child should ever wear, walked into the room. Goodridge greeted each heartbreaking sight with a smile.
"I met quite a few kids; a few of them are not with us today," he said, somberly. "Some terminally ill, some a little ill. I met some rough cases that were just happy to have somebody really come see them. It didn't matter if I was an ex-UFC fighter, it didn't matter if I was Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. What mattered was somebody came to see them and listened to them...and talked to them on a one-on-one basis. I really loved hanging out with the kids."
From there he went to a Ronald McDonald House in Columbus, then a church, then a restaurant to mingle with fans and a gym to train local fighters.
"It was a great, solid positive movement and I was happy to be a part of it," he said. "Just being part of it was a big thing for me, it helped me as a person." Goodridge paused. "When you place yourself back in the public and you get a little, 1 percent of who you were before, it's such a heartwarming feeling."
And 'pay it forward' kept circulating, thanks to social media.
An accomplished wrestler and Goodridge fan named Aleksa Balasevic invited him to extend his charity work in Serbia. Twitter established the connection, and off Gary went. When he landed this past September in the city of Novi Sad, a flurry of fans greeted him at the airport, all decked in shirts stamped with his face. They whisked Goodridge to his hotel in a stretch limousine, champagne flowing.
He spent the next few days generously giving back to sick children in Serbia through gifts, donations and fighting techniques. Before leaving, Goodridge attended a party. He sat in a lavish garden, below flower-filled candelabras, mingling with prominent politicians and businessmen. He was the guest of honor and received an honorary key, as a beautiful brunette in a sparkling evening dress sang a cover of "Mercy" by Duffy.
Thousands of miles from his Canadian home, Goodridge's journey was symbolic. He was in a place he never thought he'd be, a place he never would have been had he not put himself out there.
"My life is to move forward and to help people moving forward," he said in a recent interview. "Muhammad Ali was a great inspiration and motivation for me. ... I feel that he dropped a torch, I'm gonna try to pick it up and run with it. I'm gonna try to follow in his footsteps."
He and Ali were both born on January 17th. Goodridge calls him his "birthday brother." His followers on social media provided a different motivation, one born from caring. To them, Goodridge had this message.
"I thank you very much," he said. "When you're an athlete and you're done, you attribute that to your work is done and you're no good anymore, you're finished. I think every athlete goes through that. I went through a very depressive state because my work was done. I was very isolated and very depressed, and it brought me up. I loved it. Social media really helped me, and it's still helping me," he said.
His journey is still not easy. On his flight back from Serbia, he started suffering from seizures.
"When I was coming to, I could hear these people talking, and finally I came to, and I had urinated in my pants, in the seat," he said. "Everybody was around me, trying to wake me up or perform CPR. Thank God nobody was kissing me," he said, with his characteristic twist of humor and cartoonish grin.
This past November, he spent some time in the hospital after a seizure sent him headfirst into the ground and split his forehead open. He had planned to return to Serbia and resume his domestic charity tour for the holidays, For now, his plans are temporarily on hold. His doctor took his driver's license until it's safe for him to drive.
"I have to try to figure out where these seizures are coming from," he said.
But his mantra will stay the same. As soon as he's medically cleared, he says he will keep paying it forward, rescheduling cancelled trips to children's hospitals and juvenile detention centers in Pittsburgh and Indiana, promoting a new LOTC-organized MMA museum and recruiting more fighters to help with the organization's charity work.
"When you called, you started a ball rolling for me," he said. "So just trying to keep it rolling. ... The phone keeps ringing and I keep saying, 'Absolutely, let's do it.'"
For now, you can find him in that transformative space: social media. The digital land of possibility for those who think life is sometimes hopeless or hard.
"Stay positive, stay up, just keep moving," he said. "I'm always on at my Twitter @GaryHGoodridge, always on sending inspirational things and making up my own stuff and sending it out. I have fun with it, it passes the day for me. It is nice to connect with my fans and make new fans on there."