Scary report: UFC / MMA fighters 'on course to develop brain diseases similar to boxers, pro wrestlers and football players'

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

A recent The Star-Ledger article has shed fresh light on the concussion issue in mixed martial arts (MMA). What are the health risks and what can be done to protect the safety of fighters without stripping the sport of its combat sports identity? Read more about it below.

If you think about it objectively, getting hit in the head is probably never a good thing.

Fall down and crack the back of your skull on an icy sidewalk? Rest assured your girlfriend will be heading to Web MD on her iPhone to check for signs of a concussion, giving you all sorts of well meaning -- albeit irritating -- advice quicker than you can say, "It was my own damn fault for shot-gunning that last High Life tallboy."

But, for some reason, the mixed martial arts (MMA) community seldom thinks twice when we see a fighter lose consciousness because of the concussive force generated by a knee to the forehead. Instead of being concerned for the concussed fighter's well-being, our usual reaction is to laud his opponent's skill at inducing head trauma.

And even rewarding them in the case of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) with "Knockout of the Night" bonus checks that tally $50,000 or more.

It makes a crazy kind of sense for those of us who love the sport. Repeated exposure to the sight of people getting punched in the temple, kneed in the jaw and elbowed in the face creates a normative standard whereby acts that would shock us if we saw them performed on the street are viewed as just part of the fight game when we watch them in a "controlled" cage.

After all, these are highly trained, willing participants in an government-sanctioned athletic contest. It's not like the average fighter isn't aware of the possibility of suffering a debilitating, life-altering injury in the ring or cage.

The problem in combat sports, though, is it usually isn't a matter of a single blow that does the damage. Instead, the slow accumulation of punishment often ends up wracking irreparable neurological harm -- one jolt to the cranium at a time -- in training and on fight night.

With a sport as young as MMA there haven't been enough long-term studies done to help us understand the aggregate effects of the 10-plus years an average fighter spends absorbing blows to the head. What's more, while we tend to think of devastating knockouts suffered in a fight as potentially detrimental to a fighter's well-being, all the blows fighters endure in sparring over the course of a career may be even more damaging in the grand scheme of things.

NFL fans are already aware of the hot button issue of football players suffering from the degenerative neurological disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Earlier this month news broke that Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett has been diagnosed with the disorder. Three-time MVP Brett Farve has also recently discussed his own issues with concussions, stating that he doesn't remember an entire season his daughter played youth soccer. What's more, signs of CTE were found in an autopsy of 10-time All Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide on May 2, 2012.

The issue of CTE as a potential hazard facing MMA fighters has gone largely unreported in the mainstream media, but that may change soon thanks to a groundbreaking editorial piece that focuses on the effects of head trauma on fighters that is running on NJ.com.

Check out this alarming excerpt:

Most within the MMA community are quick to dismiss critics and any suggestion of long-term risks, but a growing chorus of medical experts believes fighters are on course to develop brain diseases similar to boxers, pro wrestlers and football players.

"No matter how you're getting hit, you're going to have damage," says Charles Bernick, the principal investigator of a groundbreaking study in Las Vegas focused on examining the brains of boxers and MMA fighters. "I don't think MMA people are immune to it. Whether you look at them separately or together (with boxers), you still get these findings."

Adds Vincent McInerney of St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson: "I'm stunned -- stunned -- that they've been allowed to do this. This is absolutely barbaric. It's like bare-knuckles fighting again. And they're using elbows and knees. This is crazy beyond belief."

Bernick and McInerney are among the nationally recognized experts on head trauma and brain injuries interviewed by The Star-Ledger during a six-month investigation of MMA. Several marveled that there has been so little discussion about the sport's long-term risks, given the NFL's landmark legal settlement with former players earlier this year.

The Star-Ledger's reporting found several fighters with frightening tales about brain trauma. One fighter, for example, says he slurs his speech for up to 36 hours after sparring sessions. He also was found wandering a department store, oblivious to how he got there. Others tell stories of being dizzy for months after a fight and unable to remember people they've met a few days earlier.

Diego Sanchez, who was lauded and rewarded for his insane war with Gilbert Melendez as recently as UFC 166, was clearly feeling the effects of competition, slurring his words terribly in his post-fight speech. And just two fights later, in the main event, Junior dos Santos admitted that he was unable to remember more than two rounds of his Heavyweight match against Cain Velasquez.

And that's just one recent night.

Nonetheless, while Dr. McInerney's cries of barbarism smack of uninformed sensationalism, Dr. Bernick makes a very salient point. If CTE is prevalent in sports like football and boxing -- where athletes suffer repeated blows to the head -- there's no reason to assume many MMA fighters' brains won't eventually fall victim to the same fate.

Former Pride FC star Gary Goodridge has already been diagnosed with early onset CTE/pugilistic dementia, and the NJ.com article recounts a chilling look at the memory issues with which 30-year-old local fighter George Sullivan already struggles.

Sullivan, too, has his horror stories. After training sessions, he says, "Sometimes I come home (and) I can't talk. I'm not going to lie. It's called being 'punch drunk.' You stutter your words.

"I've had it last as long as a day and a half. You're thinking the word, but you just stutter it. You have that slur to you and you're kind of like hazed. It literally feels like being drunk, only without the nauseous feeling."

Sullivan, who says he has had his nose broken twice while sparring, comes home two or three times during each fight camp having trouble speaking, according to Rusher, his fiancee.

"He'll want to say something but his mouth isn't moving as fast as his brain might be," Rusher says. "He looks, like, disoriented, like his head is floating."

During one savage sparring session with a bigger fighter, Sullivan says, his head was rammed through the drywall at Kurt Pellegrino's Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Belmar, the gym where he now does most of his training. Later that day, Sullivan says, a friend found him wandering through Target with deodorant in his hands.

"I don't even remember it," Sullivan says. "I was brain dead."

The 17-fight veteran Sullivan's account of his issues with memory is scary stuff. Unless one views MMA fighters as nothing more than meat puppets whose sole purpose is to shed blood for our entertainment, the idea of a 30-year-old, seven-year veteran of the sport already showing signs of significant brain damage is enough to give serious pause.

That's because he's clearly not alone.

Earlier this year Ultimate Fighting Championship Lightweight (UFC) T.J. Grant was forced to pull out of an upcoming title shot because of lingering effects from a concussion he suffered in training. Grant is still dealing with the effects of a concussion, and as a result of his extended layoff, has seen the division move on without him as he turned down two opportunities to compete for a world title.

Grant's story is illustrative of the motivation many fighters have for concealing concussions suffered in training. Because Grant put his health first, he finds himself in the unfortunate situation of losing the title shot -- twice -- he had spent years working toward.

UFC has been supportive, but if it were any other fighter -- an up-and-comer who wasn't thinking health and family first -- rest assured he would have been cleared to compete if willing. And, unfortunately, forward-thinking fighters like Grant appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

As more research on the effects of concussions comes in over the next few years, it's likely we will see significant changes to how fighters like Grant and Sullivan prepare for upcoming bouts and perhaps even to the unified rules of MMA.

However, expect whatever changes that come to be met with plenty of resistance. Part of the reason comments like Dr. McInerney's are so counterproductive is they set up an "us vs. them" mentality among those in the MMA community and medical professionals who are concerned about the risk of long term head trauma endemic to the sport.

It would be hypocritical for me to suggest there is anything morally wrong about participating in (or enjoying) a sport that puts its participants at risk for injury later in life. After all, as the cliche goes, life itself is a contact sport. For many born fighters -- assuming they are actually fortunate enough to make a living in the sport -- suffering from the effects of brain damage may be a valid trade off to avoid a life spent toiling away chained to a plastic desk under soul-crushing florescent lights.

However, turning a blind eye to the potential repercussions of repeated head trauma suffered by mixed martial artists seems equally hypocritical. As members of a common species, shouldn't we be concerned when we see our fellow man put at risk for long-term suffering? Isn't fighter safety supposed to be the paramount concern of the rules governing the sport in the first place? Are there ways we can make the sport safer, while still retaining the violence that makes it so engaging?

These may be difficult questions to ask ourselves, but if we want to prove detractors like Dr. McInerney who characterize the sport as barbarically wrong, we owe to to ourselves -- and to the fighters who entertain us -- to keep asking them until UFC or some other authority takes action.

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