Brain Injury and MMA: A Word to the Wise

Andrew H@@MMAZeitgeistContributor IIIApril 22, 2012

No dedicated combat sports fan is unaware of the dangers associated with professional fighting, yet all of us enjoy a clean knockout. The problem, of course, is that while a knockout manifests itself as a moment-long event on our television screens, one well-placed punch or kick can change a fighter’s mental condition forever.

Whether we call it “Punch Drunk Syndrome,” CTBI-B, boxer’s dementia or chronic boxer’s encephalopathy, the reality is this: the specter of brain injury looms over each and every striking sport, even ours.

Yes, MMA fighters probably take considerably fewer punches than boxers over the course of their careers. Likewise, a fighter’s ability to grapple probably makes MMA safer than K-1 and Thai Boxing — that doesn’t mean, however, that spent MMA fighters can continue to fight indefinitely, racking up a string of concussions on the path to accepting their own age.

This much we know, and are happy to accept. Few true fans, for instance, are clamouring to see Chuck Liddell have his toes stiffened in 2012.

Yet several recent UFC events have raised new questions regarding the way we measure a fighter’s age. Brendan Schaub is 29, and has suffered three fairly decisive knockouts throughout the course of his 11-fight career. More alarmingly, Stephan Struve, who is 24, has taken the same amount of cerebral damage since joining the UFC.

Should the UFC operate an “X-knockouts-and-done” policy, regardless of a fighter’s age in years? I am inclined to think so, particularly in the case of heavy/light-heavyweight athletes. The 265- and 205-lb fighters take significantly more head trauma per punch than competitors fighting in lighter divisions, resulting in a considerably greater likelihood of “dementia pugilistica.”

We would do well to remember that body size and strength are not indicators of brain durability.

While enthusiastic fans may wish to see if a competitor “still has it in them,” cutting a few careers short may do more than simply preserving the mental acuity of individual fighters — ultimately, the future of MMA may rest upon exercising extreme caution over fighter safety. It may not seem apparent in 2012, but a slew of babbling, incoherent former champions will do nothing for the sport’s image in 2032.

Mixed Martial Arts is a fine sport, and the UFC’s employees are a group of consenting adults engaged in what is quickly becoming the world’s most regulated activity. This being said, standards cannot be allowed to slip.

With news of Matt Hughes hunting for yet another embarrassing fight, the sport’s biggest promotion should cement its unofficial strategy for the prevention of brain injury into a legally-binding policy.

As always, we should look to the bigger picture: the future standing of our sport versus the unpleasant flogging of a dead horse for the sake of mild fan interest.