The myth that MMA is safer than boxing must be tossed into the dustbin of history. It’s as ridiculous of a claim as the Zuffa myth. You know, the claim that Dana White & Lorenzo Fertitta were the ones who, on their own, instituted the Unified Rules in MMA and were responsible for weight classes in the sport.
One of the biggest sales pitches to critics of MMA is that somehow a sport with smaller gloves is safer than boxing because, hey, people die in the ring in boxing unlike MMA fights. Right? Well, we know about the few deaths in regulated MMA fights and the deaths of fighters in unregulated contests. It’s not the sheer number of deaths that we’ve seen throughout the history of boxing but the evidence we have so far gives a fairly decent indication that MMA isn’t any safer than boxing.
Let’s deal with facts. The Cleveland Clinic (through its Lou Ruvo center in Las Vegas) has an ongoing trial right now for both boxers & MMA fighters to determine what kind of brain damage each kind of fighter is suffering from and how that damage is accumulated. I happened to check out a copy of the six-page findings (so far) and while it comes off as written by doctors who aren’t necessarily skilled with fight knowledge, there are some interesting trends that should be noted.
What the Cleveland Clinic study indicates so far is that both boxers and MMA do suffer brain damage but that the type of brain damage is different. Thanks to smaller gloves and punching on the ground, MMA fighters are suffering damage to the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain. This is the part of your brain that controls your memory, speech, and recognition patterns. It also controls pain. We know that boxers suffer plenty of concussive brain damage and there are a litany of competitors who have slurred speech, cognitive issues, and pugilistica dementia. What the Cleveland Clinic study results so far indicate is that the type of brain damage MMA fighters are suffering from is different but possibly surfacing much faster in terms of symptoms than boxers. In other words, the damage is possibly much more immediate in terms of consequences of slurred speech, of inability to remember things, and difficult dealing with pain.
After Rich Franklin knocked out Chuck Liddell in their Vancouver fight, everyone was pleading with Chuck to retire due to concerns about his chin and permanent brain damage that could lead to slurred speech. As we have more veteran MMA fighters facing retirement prospects, we are about to see the effects of brain damage in MMA fights over the next decade. It’s an assumption, albeit an educated one, that the results will not be pretty.
This past Saturday’s UFC Houston event was an unbelievable night of fights. It was a night where a lot of punishment was dished out and a lot of punishment was received. There were three fighters in particular who took an absolute pounding: Junior dos Santos (at the hands of Cain Velasquez), Diego Sanchez (at the hands of Gil Melendez), and Nate Marquardt (at the hands of Hector Lombard). The damage these men received, in my opinion, took years off of their lives.
My colleague Dave Walsh wrote about JDS vs. Cain III switching from a fight that was entertaining to just downright brutal in nature to watch.
It was a bit difficult to fathom that a guy that was hurt as badly as he was in that fight was allowed to continue. All of the talk of fighter safety and “safest sport in the world” was temporarily thrown out the window in misguided attempts at allowing JDS to retain his pride and to put on an entertaining fight.
There are a lot of regulations within MMA to protect the fighter, but fighters themselves should not be responsible for deciding if fights can continue or not. No fighter, with the future of their careers and legacies on the line, are going to say, “nah, I should just stop now, I think.”
The scary part is that the beating JDS endured was not necessarily the scariest moment of the night. Diego Sanchez, a man who others have joked as always having a screw loose, withstood a barrage of punches from a faster Gil Melendez who was having target practice until he, too, got knocked down towards the end of the fight. Sanchez wanted two more rounds after the fight and everyone was celebrating this slugfest for the warrior spectacle that it was. The problem is that when Diego started talking and his speech started slurring, that jubilation turned into silent concern for a lot of fans on social media.
Forget about fighting Gil Melendez again. Diego Sanchez sounded like a man who should have retired months, if not years ago. Will he be the next to jump on the testosterone bandwagon? More on why I pose that question in a minute.
The saddest knockout, however, was the pummeling Hector Lombard leveled on veteran Nate Marquardt. Lombard drilled him and then just hammered Marquardt with several punches after he hit the mat. You’re supposed to fight until the referee tells you to stop but the punches really were not necessary to seal the win. The Texas officiating was beyond awful but everyone knew that heading into the event because of the well-deserved reputation of Dickie Coles.
Watching Marquardt’s head get punched so hard on the ground reminded me of his June 2011 interview with Ariel Helwani in which he talked about why he started using testosterone. Sluggishness. Memory problems. Marquardt claimed that he had an MRI done to check for brain damage. Helwani brought up the name of James Toney, who is a perfect example of a boxer physically struggling with muscle & weight issues. Before coming out as a testosterone user, Marquardt had failed a drug test in 2005 in Nevada.
The reason I bring up the testosterone issue is because more and more MMA fighters are relying on the magical T. We know that there are four main reasons why MMA fighters turn to testosterone:
1) previous and/or current steroid usage which has damaged their endocrine system
2) damage from weight cutting
3) abuse of pain killers/opiates which lowers testosterone
4) brain damage which decreases the amount of testosterone your body can produce
When the issue of testosterone usage comes up, most people assume MMA fighters are using testosterone because of steroid usage. Hey, let’s use more anabolic steroids because of past or current steroid usage. Double-dipping. There is certainly an element of individuals who are testosterone users in MMA who fall into this category. There’s also an element that falls into the category of brain damage & pain killer abuse. The fact that athletic commissions will approve testosterone usage for fighters because of brain damage, as Ben Rothwell claimed the state of Wisconsin allowed him to do, is insane. What we are discovering very quickly is that testosterone usage amongst fighters is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Let’s deal with the facts. We don’t know why Nate Marquardt turned to testosterone usage. It is not a fact that Marquardt started using testosterone because of previous steroid use. It is not a fact that he abused pain killers or damaged his body through weight cutting. What is a fact is that Marquardt has been fighting since 1999 and has had 47 professional fights. It is a fact that Marquardt has been knocked out and suffered some brutal beatings in his career. It is a fact that his body has endured a lot of punishment. With all of the professional fights and training that goes along with it comes pain & sacrifice. Marquardt has sacrificed his health & well-being in order to be a top MMA fighter.
Guys like Nate Marquardt & Diego Sanchez don’t quit on their own accord. They are the last guys to know when it’s time to hang the gloves up. It is up to the ‘adults’ in the room to tell them when to stop before they reach a point of no return. Many fighters will do anything possible to try to extend their careers and testosterone usage is becoming an increasingly tantalizing option for veterans looking to extend their careers in order to dish out and receive more brain damage. I am a supporter of combat sports and will always enjoy fighting. Three years ago, my former colleague Ivan Trembow walked away from MMA writing because of his concerns about the brain damage MMA fighters suffer from. I am a believer that as long as fighters are educated on the risks of competing and have an exit strategy when it’s time to step away from active fighting, then have at it.
Just understand that, as the recent Cleveland Clinic updated trial results indicate, we are about to see a wave of veteran fighters who will be suffering from the immediate effects of brain damage. The UFC event on Saturday night was both a celebration of the sport and the sounding of an alarm that is about the destroy the myth once and for all that MMA is somehow a safer sport than boxing for the warriors who compete in it.