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MMA isn't safe: Concussions, brain injuries and what can be done about them

Like most people tapped into social media, I get a lot of my breaking news from Twitter. A tweet from CNN or a retweet from another news source usually fills me in on the latest big -- and sometimes inconsequential; looking at you, any headline with the word ‘Kardashian' in it -- story.

Yesterday, the story was Junior Seau's apparent suicide, unfortunately.

When it comes to someone taking their own life, it usually goes one of two ways. Either the signs were there -- depression, financial or personal turmoil -- or the act comes completely out of left field. In Seau's case, it was the latter.

While purely speculation at this point, yesterday's tragedy brings up memories of Dave Duerson's suicide from February 2011. A member of the vaunted 1985 Chicago Bears squad, the former safety also took his life with a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest.

But unlike Seau, he implored his family before his death to donate his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine almost as if he knew something wasn't right upstairs. They've concluded concussions led to Duerson suffering from a neurodegenerative disease.

Football is a tough -- and dangerous -- sport. Any sport, really, has its share of dangers but a game like football, in which men are constantly crashing into each other with as much force as they can muster trumps just about all the others.

Except for maybe mixed martial arts (MMA).

Proponents can trump the safety measures in the sport all they want, be it the lack of a standing eight count or the mandatory medical suspensions following a knockout. But the fact remains, these men and women are punching, elbowing and kneeing each other in the head and body. And they're doing it as many times as they can to win the fight.

That is the exact opposite of safe.

I'm not calling for a boycott of the sport, obviously. I love it. I spend a large chunk of my time -- perhaps too much -- watching, analyzing, writing and talking about MMA. It's a huge part of my life. And there are some of you who know an equally large amount of time is devoted to professional wrestling. The difference between the two is obvious on the surface but on a personal level, the two are separated by innocence.

In 2007, Chris Benoit murdered his wife and seven-year-old son before taking his own life. Later studies revealed his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient and he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result from massive brain damage in all four lobes.

Since then, I've been able to enjoy pro wrestling but there's a small pang of guilt knowing I am supporting a business which helped produce such an unspeakable tragedy. And the amount of damage some of these MMA fighters I cheer on can't be all too dissimilar from what Benoit's body and brain went through.

Beyond head injuries, broken bones from submissions wear down on a body. Bones aren't meant to be broken and when they are, it's a shock and trauma to the system. Champions like Tim Sylvia, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mauricio Rua know this all too well. While snapped limbs are the exception rather than the rule, it's always in the realm of possibility.

Imagine a job where violently losing consciousness or have your arm broken in to are not only credible occurances but to be expected depending on who your co-worker is on a certain day. MMA isn't safe, it's the most dangerous sport on the planet.

The simple fact is, a fighter's mind and body are forever and irreversibly changed. It goes beyond what we see inside the cage. Fighters get rocked in practice while preparing for a bout, sit out a few minutes and then hop back in, not wanting to lose precious training time.

Wanderlei Silva has gone on record he spars at full speed and force and has been knocked out more times than any MMA fan has seen inside a ring or cage. That sort of damage takes its toll. You see it in the eyes, seemingly always glassed over, of ex-boxers and fighters and hear it when their mumbled words leave their mouths. Punch drunk isn't just a throwaway term for over the hill fighters, it's often the result of traumatic brain injuries.

When a fighter's journey ends, they are wholly different from the person they were when it began. That doesn't mean it has to be for the worse.

One solution could be mandatory yearly CAT scans to determine any damage and keep track, if any, of its progress. Another would be to encourage and offer psychiatric help to any fighters who might feel they need it. Beyond this, the brass at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) need to be proactive in their support for further research into CTE and other brain trauma issues. They need to be the gold standard in this fledgling industry if they hope to avoid the stigma which is has seeped into boxing and beginning to do so in football.

UFC President Dana White has said plenty of times he has forbidden his young sons from strapping on a helmet and heading onto a football field while championing the safety of the sport he represents.

But MMA isn't all that much safer.

There's an exhilaration from watching two fighters stand opposite one another, everyone knowing only one can leave the cage as the winner. It's beautiful but violent art. And the sooner we accept this, the sooner we stop comparing and contrasting MMA to other sports, the sooner we can actually take steps to help avoid tragedies like Seau's, Duerson's and especially Benoit's.

If I'm lucky enough to still be covering this sport I love so much in 10 or 15 years, I don't want to write this story about Chuck Liddell, Jens Pulver, Rory MacDonald, Alexander Gustafsson or anyone else I've enjoyed fight over the years.

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