When mixed martial artist Ian McCall retired from the UFC in May 2018, the fighter was broken in both a mental and physical sense: suffering from a twenty-year addiction to opiates after decades of injuries and thousands of hits to the head, the father and former flyweight contender found himself struggling with thoughts of suicide.
In an exclusive interview following news that the UFC is interested in studying psychedelics as a potential therapy for fighters, McCall details the changes in his life before and after using plant-based medicines like cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms, including innovative products such as magic mushroom chocolates.
Overcoming The Cycle Of Trauma
“There was a lot of brain damage, a lot of trauma that had happened to me. I was so broken, and it got to the point where I wanted to kill myself,” McCall says by phone.
Victims of repeated head trauma tend to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. While a definitive diagnosis can only be made in an autopsy, several athletes in the UFC, NFL, NHL, and other organizations have opened up about the struggles associated with life after repeated concussions.
McCall, who had been turned onto the healing potential of medical cannabis after it helped his daughter’s rheumatoid arthritis, and then onto psychedelics through friends like Joe Rogan, began using both to help him heal from some of the mental and physical effects that stem2 from a career of fighting. Among them were memory loss, depression, anxiety, and anger issues.
“I wasn’t able to understand my life and what was happening,” he says. “I couldn’t put things together and I couldn’t be happy. You get so impulsive, you have all this plaque buildup in your brain and you’re not making the right decisions. Everything goes wrong, and you’re in this state of confusion and fear that leads to more self abuse. It’s a vicious cycle.”
It’s this cycle of trauma that keeps people in a negative feedback loop and unable to improve their mental health, McCall says. He emphasizes that trauma can come in many, many forms, not just blows to the head and body.
McCall credits his use of high doses of psychedelics with relieving him of the symptoms associated with CTE. While some symptoms like memory loss may still linger, he says they’ve improved dramatically since taking his first dose. Other athletes including former NFL player Kerry Rhodes, former NHL player Daniel Carcillo, and former UFC fighter Dean Lister have also used psychedelics to help overcome trauma to the brain, and were featured on an episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel with McCall in November 2020.
“Everything is tied back to inflammation, and that comes from stress, from trauma, from abuse of the body in one way or another,” he says. “It’s incredible to be able to fix that, and knock some of that down with the purgative effects of psychedelics.” In addition to helping his brain heal, he’s a firm believer that psychedelics have the power to “heal the human condition.”
Today, McCall says he feels like a different person. He hasn’t had a painkiller in years, and says he doesn’t care to. “I’m not hung up on it, it’s over with,” he says. “I’m responsible, I’m efficient, I’m extremely happy, and now I’m able to teach this stuff.”
Together, McCall and Irena Marin, his fiancé and a psychedelic educator and wellness coach, have created an integration program for high-performance athletes and performers called The McCall Method. Together, they’ve developed protocols for integrating the lessons learned during a psychedelic experience for athletes, couples, and families. “It’s a good team effort, and I’m very proud of what we’re doing,” he says.
Introducing Psychedelics To The UFC
So how does a former fighter introduce the idea of psychedelic therapy to an organization like the UFC, which only just loosened its rules around cannabis?
In 2019, McCall found himself discussing the efficacy of psilocybin mushrooms with friend and UFC Senior Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky ahead of a major fight card in Las Vegas. Novitzky was interested but stressed the importance to McCall of a legal approach through a clinical study, as psilocybin is still a Schedule I substance.
“[Ian] came to me saying, ‘Look, I’m trying psychedelic therapy and it’s really working for me. I want to to spread this news and help other fighters because I know what they are going through,’” Novitzky recalled over the phone.
“A little over a year later, I sent Dana a link to the Real Sports episode,” McCalls says. Novitzky confirmed that it was UFC President Dana White’s exposure to the show that cemented the promotion’s interest in digging deeper.
While nothing is set in stone, ESPN reported earlier this week that the UFC has been in contact with Johns Hopkins University, “with an eye toward seeing if the drugs can be helpful for fighters dealing with brain issues.”
“Dana White came to me and gave me a directive, saying ‘look into this, this is something I want to be involved in if there is evidence that it could help some of our fighters,’” says Novitzky. While talks with Johns Hopkins are in the preliminary stages, he says that interest in working together from both parties is high.
The VP emphasized that the UFC is “leaving no stone unturned” when it come to potential treatment and therapy options for its athletes, and is “making sure that we give our fighters the best when it comes to health and safety.”Just last week, the promotion contributed another $1 million to a professional athlete brain study at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a study of which it is a key funder.
“Anything that we’re going to be involved in needs to be in a very conservative, safe, government-approved clinical trial-type environment, with the backing of reputable medical institutions like Johns Hopkins,” he says. “They get government approval to do these psychedelic studies in a very controlled clinical environment, so early on, it seems to check all of our boxes.”
McCall says right now, his goal is “to be a catalyst for massive change”. “[The goal is] for people to be able to heal themselves, or go to a clinical study and get it done,” McCall says, noting that psychedelics can benefit all people, not just former fighters. “Everyone should have access to these opportunities.”