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Phil De Fries advocates for mental health in MMA after dealing with crippling anxiety during his career

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Phil De Fries

It’s impossible for Phil De Fries to forget the way he felt before every single fight when he was competing in the UFC.

The British heavyweight came to the organization with an undefeated record and he picked up a unanimous decision win in his debut. He then went 1-3 in his next four fights, which ultimately led to his release from the promotion.

According to De Fries, his UFC career was plagued by something he thought was just pre-fight nerves as he sat in the backstage area getting ready to walk out to the cage.

“I had mental health issues when I was in the UFC,” De Fries revealed when speaking to MMA Fighting. “All my life I have. Like before I fought, I’d be fighting these world class people but before I’d fight I’d fall to bits. But I could never understand it.

“It was like what if I get beat? What if I get knocked out? What if I get cut, I’ll have no job? Every little minor factor. I’d look at the bookies and the bookies would have me down as the [underdog] and I’d think, ‘oh they know exactly what’s going to happen.’ So I’d go in and I was totally beat. I was absolutely terrified. I couldn’t make judgment calls.”

The issues he was having not only affected his fight career but De Fries said it began bleeding into his everyday life yet he still didn’t know exactly how to deal with it.

“My life was unbearable,” De Fries said. “I couldn’t take phone calls. If I was taking phone calls, I would get all sketchy. If I saw someone I even half knew, I couldn’t make small talk with people. I was kind of an assh*le. I was a d*ck cause I couldn’t talk to people or endure situations. It wasn’t just fighting. It was my life.”

Once he got cut from the UFC, De Fries fought across Japan, Russia and his native England while still suffering through the same problems. To compound the issues, De Fries turned to alcohol to calm his nerves, which as you can imagine only made things worse.

Hitting rock bottom finally convinced De Fries that it was time to look for help.

“After I got cut from the UFC, I fought in another show and I lost and I hit the bottle a bit,” De Fries said. “I started drinking. Then I started finding out about mental health and found out what anxiety was.”

Anxiety disorder is actually one of the most common mental health concerns across the globe. In the United States, over 40 million adults have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder.

For his part, De Fries was completely unaware that the problem he faced was actually an anxiety disorder that only elevated in heightened situations like his fight career. Once he realized what was happening, De Fries sought out help and his life has been dramatically different ever since.

“I didn’t know what it was,” De Fries said. “When I was suffering from anxiety really badly, I just thought I was anxious, that’s all. I was just worrying about things but I was having the worst time with myself. You’ve got education yourself. If somebody had taught me about this years and years ago.

“I just didn’t know what anxiety was until I educated myself a little bit. It was just second guessing everything. What if I take him down and he gets up? What if this happens? What if that happens? I got treatment for the anxiety. Then I started fighting again and I haven’t lost since. Basically it’s been my super power.”

As he prepares to defend his heavyweight title in the main event at KSW 57 this weekend, De Fries is in a much better place than he’s ever been in before regarding his fight career.

He’s healthy. He’s happy. And more importantly he’s approaching his mental health with a one-day-at-a-time attitude because even with treatment and medication, De Fries fully acknowledges that his anxiety disorder isn’t going away.

Instead, he’s treating his anxiety like any opponent — De Fries is constantly fighting the good fight and looking to win the battle each and every day.

“I feel great,” De Fries said. “Losing is possible. Heavyweights all throw big punches but before [receiving treatment] with losing, I’d be terrified. I’d be thinking what if I’m walking down the street and people are laughing at me? I’ll be a disgrace.

“I know it’s possible to lose and I’m going to do my best to win but if I do lose, it’s not the end of the world. When I was dealing with the anxiety, I’d be in the back thinking why did I choose this as my life? Now backstage, the calm lasts and I can’t wait to get out there. I like to feel the cage. I take it all in.”

De Fries has also spoken honestly and openly about his mental health issues because he knows in a sport filled with tough guys, it’s not an easy subject to broach yet fighters deal with the same kinds of problems as everybody else in the world.

In fact since first revealing his own fight with anxiety, De Fries says a number of athletes have reached out to him and he wants to continue spreading that word to take away the stigma that seeking help is somehow seen as weakness.

“When I speak about it, I have fighters message me,” De Fries said. “You’re never completely over it. I still have spells like when I’m laying in bed or something but luckily the medication helped me. I love to talk about it if I can help anybody, that’s great.”

De Fries competes at KSW 57 on Saturday as he defends his heavyweight title against Michal Kita in the main event.