Opinion: MMA and Brain Injuries
By Jesse Heitz
The current issue of Sports Illustrated, there’s an insightful article entitled, “The Other Half of the Story”, which offers a behind the scenes look at professional athletes that have to deal with football induced brain injuries, and the toll it takes on the former players’ loved ones. This article relates well to all contact sports, in which a participant can accumulate a plethora of concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head, irreparably damaging the brain.
With the sport of Mixed Martial Arts being only two decades old, it’s inevitable that this crippling condition, or the boxing variation of Dementia Pugilistica, will feature itself prominently in the years and decades to come. The issue becomes, are we doing enough to ensure that we are taking the necessary steps to prevent the development of this condition in future generations of fighters?
Dementia Pugilistica and its variant Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy are both caused by repeated blows to the head. Both feature a common set of symptoms which can include: dementia, declining mental ability, memory problems, tremors, lack of coordination, speech problems, unsteady gait, explosive behavior, and a general manifestation of Parkinson’s type symptoms.
In football we’ve seen the likes of Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters, Tom McHale, all get diagnosed with CTE. Even more recent examples of possible CTE like symptoms are being exhibited by former Bears great Jim McMahon and our beloved Terry Bradshaw—who is now having short-term memory problems as well.
In hockey, we’ve seen enforcers such as Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert present with CTE symptoms in post-mortem analyses. The former showing visible signs of CTE during his autopsy at just 28 years of age.
Perhaps closer to the hearts of MMA fans are the cases of numerous boxers who have or are currently suffering from Dementia Pugilistica, often becoming what we often term “punch drunk”. Some high-profile examples include Floyd Patterson, Freddie Roach, “Smokin” Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Robinson, and more controversially, Muhammad Ali. It’s thought that the rates of DP in professional boxers may be as high as 20%, with the onset of symptoms taking hold approximately 15 years after the conclusion of one’s fighting career.
This leads us to the inevitable reality that many of our favorite MMA stars might one day develop one of these debilitating and ultimately fatal conditions. Will the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Chuck Liddell, Kazushi Sakuraba, Ken Shamrock, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, etc., one day be stricken after years and years of sustained abuse?
As fans, we love it when fighters put on an entertaining show. The masses scream for a “war”, and many fighters are all too eager to grant our request by battering one another for 15-25 minutes. The big question we’re left with as fight fans is whether or not there are additional steps that can be taken in order to limit the probable occurrence of CTE and DP in fighters through refined training practices, testing, increased length of medical suspensions, or are brain injuries simply an unavoidable consequence of a combat sport such as MMA?