Can the UFC Help MMA Become the Safest Contact Sport in the World?

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Can the UFC Help MMA Become the Safest Contact Sport in the World?
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UFC president Dana White is a tireless promoter of mixed martial arts. You’d be hard pressed to find a commissioner or president of any major sport league who goes to bat for their sport as hard or as often as White does.

As UFC head honcho White plays many different roles; from being the face of the organization to being an outspoken proponent of everything mixed martial arts. When he recently proclaimed MMA as being “the safest sport in the world,” many saw that as nothing more than White sticking up for the sport he makes a living sticking up for.

Many were quick to dismiss White’s statement, snarkily bringing non-contact sports into the equation and ignoring the fact that prior to making what they saw as a hyperbolic proclamation, White was comparing brain injuries in football to those suffered in MMA. 

I’m not trying to put words into White’s mouth, but I have to believe that he was referring to contact sports when he made his statement about the safety of MMA.

To be specific, White was addressing the New Media Expo in Las Vegas and discussing concussions in the NFL and how the NFL and MMA differ in post–concussion care protocol (h/t to MMAMania):

Concussion is a huge dilemma right now for the NFL. Here's the difference between the UFC and the NFL as far as concussions are concerned. First of all, if you get a concussion, if you get knocked out or you get hurt whatsoever in the UFC, three months suspension. You are on suspension for three months and you cannot come back until a doctor clears you. You can't have any contact whatsoever. In the NFL, you're not going to lose Tom Brady for three months, man. You lose Tom Brady for three months and your whole season is wiped out. So, the UFC, listen, we don't hide from it, it's a contact sport and that's what these guys do, (is) much safer.

White is correct, there’s no doubt that NFL players are rushed back onto the field far too soon after they suffer concussions.  How many times have we heard about a player getting a “minor concussion” on Sunday only to see that same player trot out on the field the following week, miraculously healed from serious trauma to his brain in less than seven days? One time is too many, yet we see it again and again.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL probably has the best policy in sports right now. A concussed player can only return to play after they are symptom-free at rest and under exertion. They are also tested and cannot return to the ice until their neurological tests equal or exceed the baseline established prior to the season. 

Dana White and the UFC have a clear opportunity here to be leaders and take what the NHL is doing and move it to the next step.  There’s huge financial risk in taking this step, but the payoff may be one step closer to being accepted as a mainstream sport and at the very least making the claim of being a safe sport, very much true.

I would say that the three months off for a concussion is a good start, but it’s a pretty generic amount of time that only takes the fact that a fighter has been concussed into account. 

What about the fighter that had his “bell rung” multiple times during the fight, but never went down?  What about the fighter that stood in the pocket and absorbed a huge number of strikes to the head but never went down, what’s the suspension for them?  Or how about the cumulative damage that occurs over the course of training camps during “hard sparring?”  What’s the protocol for those situations? 

That’s the grey area where the UFC can step up and show other sports and mainstream fans that what White said is true, that MMA is the safest contact sport out there.

Every fighter should receive a baseline test prior to signing a contract with the UFC, when they are symptom free from any previous brain trauma.  They should then be tested after every fight to see where they stand in relation to that baseline. 

If they are below, they should be suspended and then checked again in a set number of days, weeks or months and they should not be allowed to have any contact until they reach that baseline. 

Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, this will be a costly endeavor for the organization, but that cost is nothing compared to what could be coming down the line in the future in lawsuits, something that the NFL is currently dealing with

The downside, if you can call making sure fighters are safe and healthy a downside, is that fighters may be out of commission for prolonged periods of time due to suspensions, which will have a profound effect on their long-term earning power. 

In a sport where a fighter has a limited amount of time to earn a living, that’s not an inconsequential issue and there’s no easy answer other than to make it clear that long-term health should always outweigh short-term financial gain for both the fighter and the organization they are competing for. 

That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for both sides; fighters are going to want to ply their craft and earn a living and the UFC may end up with a superstar on the shelf for a long time as they wait to get back to their baseline test levels, but in the long term it’s the right thing to do, for both sides.

White added the following in his talk with the New Media Expo:

In the 20-year history of the UFC, it will be 20 years in November, there has never been a death or a serious injury. Never been a death or serious injury in 20 years because we go above and beyond when it comes to the safety of these guys.

White can be proud of the fact that there’s never been a serious injury or death in the UFC, but in another 20 years, when the pioneers of the sport are getting up there in age, will he be able to make the same claim? 

I honestly hope he or whoever is in charge of the UFC at that time will still be able to say that they have remained free of serious injury, but with more and more fighters and more and more fights, the time is now to get in front of the potential problem of long-term brain trauma.

The issue of brain injuries is not going away for any sport and it’s going to take someone pretty brave to step up and say that the health of the athlete always comes first.  The UFC could be that someone. 

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