Ronda Rousey conquering her fear of sharks was documented in Ronda Rousey Uncaged, which aired as part of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel in 2018. Shark attack survivor and dive instructor Paul de Gelder lead the mixed martial arts champ through encounters with a handful of the underwater meat-eaters — including a mako and a bull shark, the same type of requiem shark who took an arm and a leg from him during a routine military exercise.
In an exclusive interview with Looper to discuss this year’s Shark Week (featuring famous faces like Mike Tyson and Will Smith), the ex-Australian Navy diver remembered Rousey’s determination, attention to detail, and resilience during her popular Shark Week performance.
“Ronda is obviously a world champion,” de Gelder said of the UFC Hall of Famer and WWE star. “She picked up information; she processed it. She did everything we asked to keep her safe. And even though I was absolutely terrified of that last dive, where she’s about to feed the bull shark, I had to rely on the fact that I’d given her all the information I had. She was just such an elite athlete that she knows how to do it, she knows how to maintain her safety.”
Ronda Rousey’s husband: “If my wife doesn’t come back on this boat, ain’t none of y’all coming back on this boat.”
Former UFC heavyweight fighter Travis Browne stands six feet, six inches tall and weighs nearly 250 pounds — making him sufficiently intimidating on his own. He also happens to be Rousey’s husband, and had a few choice words for de Gelder and his crew amid filming for Ronda Rousey Uncaged. As de Gelder told us, Browne said, “If my wife doesn’t come back on this boat, ain’t none of y’all [coming back] on this boat.”
De Gelder recalled with a laugh, “It all panned out, thank God, because I really didn’t want Travis Browne killing me when I got back on the boat.”
Instead, de Gelder became fast friends with the mixed martial arts power duo, who were wed in 2017. “I love those guys, just the loveliest couple, who have remained friends to this day. They were just so in love. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other; they were canoodling the whole time. It was really sweet to see,” he told Looper. “They’re just very lovely people.”
How Ronda Rousey’s attitude toward shark safety can benefit everyone
Not only did Rousey and Browne walk away from the 2018 Shark Week experience with new friends, but de Gelder himself also got to breathe a sigh of relief — for both the UFC champion and the apex predators he’s come to love.
“I didn’t want her losing a hand and I didn’t want the sharks getting bad PR,” he said. “It all came together and worked out perfectly.”
Since losing two limbs to a nine-foot bull shark, de Gelder has learned everything he can about nature’s underwater regulators, and has become a fierce shark advocate. He’s a regular face on the Discovery Channel, a pro dive instructor, and a vegan who works against poachers, supports the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and works tirelessly to educate the public about sharks. For Shark Week 2020, he even trained boxing icon Mike Tyson to overcome the fear of sharks.
“You’d be surprised, or you might not be surprised, how many people’s worst fear is sharks,” he explained. “And we’re talking people that don’t even live near the water. Everyone has this ingrained fear. And it’s understandable. Trust me, it really hurts getting eaten alive. But the occurrence is so rare. You’re far more likely to die in your car on the way to the beach. You’re more likely to slip on a bar of soap and die.”
The deeper meaning of Shark Week
Yes, sharks have attacked humans, but as de Gelder explained, it’s most often a case of mistaken identity.
“If you go to the bottom of the ocean, and you look up and you see something swimming on the surface, it’s black — you’ve got a silhouette. Sharks are no different. They pick up on the flashing in the water from possibly a surfer. They’ll go up and investigate. You’ve got people that out spearfishing, carrying a bunch of dead and semi-dead shark food. We don’t often think, ‘These guys probably weren’t doing the exact right thing,'” said de Gelder. “You don’t go to Africa and not worry about lions and not take precautions.
We know that there are dangerous animals in the ocean, not just sharks. We have to take responsibility for our actions and take every precaution we can if we want to stay safe.”
When it comes to de Gelder’s Shark Week endeavors, education is even more important than entertainment.
“What I like to do in these shows is break down some of that fear. If I can overcome my greatest fear of sharks, demonstrate that these things are not trying to kill us, build some curiosity, and some respect instead of fear, that is basically everything that I’m trying to do,” he shared. “I get to work with all of these scientists and shark experts. I get to learn from them and bring out all of the knowledge in these people to provide to the audience.
I’m just a conduit to information and overcoming fear. And I love that. It really does make my life much richer.”
Shark Week 2020 is airing on the Discovery Channel right now, and will conclude on Sunday, August 16.