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Cleveland Clinic: Influential politicians, MMA executives align to raise awareness for traumatic brain injuries

At Tuesday's press conference on Capitol Hill, Dr. Charles Bernick, associate director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, announced the Nevada State Athletic Commission will be adopting the "C3" test, which will track brain function in fighters.

Sen. John McCain (center) joined by members of Spike, Bellator and PBC in Washington
Sen. John McCain (center) joined by members of Spike, Bellator and PBC in Washington
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

WASHINGTON--Representatives of Bellator MMA, Spike TV and several of the most popular names in combat sports joined Sen. John McCain and Dr. Charles Bernick, associate director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Tuesday afternoon (April 26, 2016) on Capitol Hill for the announcement of a new measure of fighter safety regulation to be adopted by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC).

McCain, the man who once referred to mixed martial arts (MMA) as "human cockfighting" back in its days of infancy, is a huge believer in the Cleveland Clinic's intrepid research on brain health in combat sports and commended all who are involved with providing financial backing for the studies. Those include: Spike TV, Bellator MMA, UFC, Haymon Boxing and Top Rank.

"We must make sure that young men and women who engage in these sports are not going to put their lives and future in jeopardy," McCain said. "That's what this is all about and that is why I'm so proud of the individuals who are here today."

Spike president Kevin Kay, and Bellator MMA president Scott Coker were on hand to show their continued support and financial commitment to the Cleveland Clinic with the announcement of a two-year renewal, as was Bellator MMA light heavyweight Phil Davis. Retired boxing legend Larry Holmes, NFL great Hershel Walker, and boxers Austin Trout and Paul Malignaggi--who were there as representatives of Premier Boxing Champions--were also in attendance inside the Russell Senate office building for Tuesday's press conference.

Bernick, who said that studies on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) "can't just rely on autopsy studies" any longer, which is a large part of what the Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy have been researching for NFL players with brain-related trauma. According to Bernick, the Cleveland Clinic now has the tools to "detect issues in the brain early and understand what is really going on."

"We've been able to find that there are certain areas of the brain that are vulnerable to injury and that you can track over time," Bernick said.

The associate director of the Cleveland Clinic revealed a new groundbreaking study called the "C3" test (Cleveland Clinic Concussion). The test is an iPad app that looks at brain function, measures processing speed, mental functioning, balance and visual acuity. It is the first required tracking of brain function in any sport. The tests will keep a "Fight Exposure Score," which factors in age, number of fights and fights per year to provide a rough estimate of a fighter's risk of performing lower on certain cognitive tests.

"This measure can actually track brain function over time and from our findings the Nevada Athletic Commission has now instituted that this testing is going to be required by all fighters every time they fight on a yearly basis," Bernick disclosed.

As of now, Bernick said the Cleveland Clinic has over 650 fighters, both active and retired that they are currently studying. And in addition to the C3 test, they are also uncovering even more methods of looking at damage to an athletes brain. With PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans, they can look at specific brain areas that are showing change over time.

"To find out what we need to understand we need to follow athletes when they are exposed, when they are actively fighting and follow them over time whether it's eight years, 10 years, 15 years and to do a study like that we can longer depend on the government," said Bernick. "It's a tremendous expense. And the only way we are really going to do it is by developing partnerships. This is just a tremendous example and again very unique in the sports world where with private and public funding--which is what we have--we are able to conduct this type of research and I think it really should be an example of all sports really."

The hope, according to Bernick is with the NSAC getting behind this study and making the "C3" test a prerequisite for fighters it will have a trickle down effect and "other commissions will accept" it throughout the U.S., which would lead to a nationwide fighter registry to track each of them.

Bellator MMA doesn't currently hold any events in the state of Nevada, but Spike TV president Kevin Kay said he's looking forward to other state athletic commissions following Nevada's lead and adopting the "C3" test.

"Nevada is one of the most important athletic commissions and one of the most respected and I think they sometimes take the lead on something and other commissions will pay attention," said Kay. "I know that the Cleveland Clinic is talking to the athletic commissions in other states. It would be great if everybody adopted this."

Coker added, "This is taking it to a whole other level and so I'm so happy that this type of technology is available because our fighters deserve it."

A challenge for promoters with a study like this is that at some point they are going to have to deal with the loss of a top fighter or box office draw, who through the new testing and research will be deemed unfit to continue. Like the current Spike TV mantra "Fighters First," its president says when that day comes safety has to prevail.

"Nobody wants to have that day come, of course, but I think ultimately you don't want injuries and you don't want brain damage," Kay told after the conclusion of the press conference. "So, I think if that's what it results in is that some top-level fighter makes a decision to not fight anymore because of the study that that is going to be the right decision and we are going to support it."

Trout, who fights for the IBF light middleweight title against Jermall Charlo on May 21st, was appreciative that the "C3" test and the research of the Cleveland Clinic will let him know when to "step away at the right time" so he can "enjoy his kids and grand kids."

Former WBA welterweight and IBF junior middleweight champion, Paul Malignaggi, who commentates for PBC and Showtime Championship Boxing is still an active fighter, says now that he has a front row seat as an analyst he's seen "first hand" the toll that boxing can take on its athletes, whether it's fighters looking a step slower or noticing slurred speech during pre-fight interviews. With the studies of the Cleveland Clinic "Magic Man" thinks the knowledge from tracking each fighter with the "C3" test is really going to help boxing and MMA in a big way.

"A lot of times the fighters are the people that are forgotten the most," said Malignaggi, who also called for random and year-round drug testing in the sport of boxing. "I think this is something that is going to be really big for combat sports and for all sports in general: the ability to monitor the damage you take so that guys don't become their own worst enemy. They can get out of their own way and maybe not take that fight that might've given them more damage or even worse, make them pass away."

Having preventative measures is a "blessing," said Walker, who retired from the NFL in 1997 and briefly competed in MMA, winning his second of two career fights back in 2011. "Bringing awareness to this is the most important thing," he stressed.

"I knock on wood that the things that happened to a lot of  fighters didn't happen to me," Holmes said during his candid speech, which touched on the importance of fighters being smart and not trying to "prove themselves" by how hard of a punch they can take. "Boxing is a great thing," said the International Boxing Hall of Fame member, who was 51 years old in his final fight back in 2002. "It's gotta be managed a little bit better. It has to be taken a bit more seriously."

Davis, who fights Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal at Bellator 153 on May 14th, has the most poignant quote of the day using an oft-used boxing adage. "It's the punch that you don't see that knocks you out and for too long the punch that people do not see or did not investigate was the effects of concussions and CTE. We lost a lot of greats amongst a lot of sports because of that."

With big organizations and promotions getting on board with the Cleveland Clinic to provide the necessary funding for research and the NSAC initiating the "C3" test, combat sports can really take a huge leap into prolonging the lives of its athletes and providing knowledge and safety like no other major sport.

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