Last night, 60 Minutes aired a segment (embedded above) examining the long-term effects of concussions in football. It wasn’t pretty. I’ll admit while watching it, my immediate reaction was, “wow, and America thinks MMA is dangerous?” But after taking a second look, I can’t help but wonder how closely these risks in football parallel with MMA. After all, a knockout is a concussion. The video below from National Geographic’s Fight Science gives us an excellent look at the science behind a one-punch knockout. Put simply, the brain literally hits the inside of the skull, which is essentially brain trauma.
The scary thing is it’s not just the big hits — the fight ending ones in MMA — that you have to worry about. It’s all the little hits as well. From an excellent piece written by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker focusing on concussions in the NFL:
This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.
A major talking point in the effort to legitimize and legalize MMA has focused on the safety of the sport compared to boxing. It’s argued — with scientific studies to back it up — that boxing is more dangerous due to the higher volume of punishment boxers take over the course of their careers with the larger gloves. This is essentially what Cantu is describing above. I’m not at all trying to say boxing is safer, but mixed martial artists still take repetitive damage not only in competition, but also in training where they use the bigger gloves while sparring. Maybe not to the same degree, but they still take it. It’s not just limited to striking either. Mike Swick pulled out of UFC 103 because he suffered a concussion from getting foot swept and landing on the back of his head. How many similar instances occur in training that no one ever hears about?
I’ve never been a fan of people saying fighter X or fighter Y needs to retire, but after watching that segment and reading Gladwell’s piece, maybe some of our favorites like Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva and Big Nog, just to name a few, should hang it up. As the 60 Minutes piece revealed, C.T.E., the disease that causes dementia among others, can go undetected for decades before any symptoms begin to surface. That’s scary. They may feel fine now, but what will their quality of life be in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s?
Unfortunately, there aren’t similar studies been conducted specifically for the sport of mixed martial arts (that I’m aware of at least) nor has MMA been around long enough to determine if there are any patterns of these diseases in its former participants, so it’s impossible to know if the fighters we love today will be suffering tomorrow much like the football stars of yesterday are now. I’d like to think they won’t, but logic seems to indicate otherwise. To what degree is the unfortunate, but more realistic question.
Update: Jake Rossen wrote a piece for Sherdog on this subject. Definitely worth checking out.
J.R. Minkel, a Scientific American contributor, recently wrote an article for Real Fighter exploring the brain matter of combat athletes — not the abuse suffered, but the neural pathways created or damaged by both their choice of profession and daily intake of it. He quoted a sports psychologist from the University of Florida as having taken an informal poll of prizefighters and grapplers. Out of the 400 who responded to his petition to take an online questionnaire, nearly a quarter exhibited symptoms of depression.
No one seems overly concerned with repeated concussions, a charming trait shared by the NFL and the growing number of athletes who are living post-career lives in misery as a result. Athletes who have suffered head injury on multiple occasions don’t need to have their tantrums to compete indulged: They need to talk to someone about how to adapt to a life without an audience.
My pride in observing this sport comes from its near-spotless safety record. It’s often a viscerally disgusting event — hematomas, blood, screaming — but it’s not taking lives, a fact I’ve been happy to spew whenever debate crops up. Now I realize that’s wrong: it’s happening, but in a way so subversive that it’s going unnoticed.