Should Fighters Be Limited in Number of Significant Strikes They Can Sustain?

Brian OswaldMMA Editor September 10, 2013

Jun 15, 2013; Winnipeg, MB, Canada; Roy Nelson (left) fights Stipe Miocic during their Heavyweight bout at UFC 161 at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

At UFC 161 in June, Roy Nelson was transformed into a human pinata at the hands of Stipe Miocic. A pinata that was more than willing to bend, but ultimately unwilling to break.

By the time the mugging had concluded, Nelson had broken the most double-edged record being kept: most significant strikes absorbed without being knocked out. Sure there is some manly bragging rights to be had with such a dubious honor, but it's unlikely his brain will be high-fiving him in five to 10 years.

Fightland's Dr. Michael Kelly put forth an fascinating piece on Nelson's granite chin following the fight. The primer of the article gets us started.

The 106 significant strikes Miocic landed on the Las Vegas native were enough to make one doubt Nelson's destructibility, but 437 strikes over 10 fights makes us wonder about his mortality, even his sanity. It also made us wonder how it's even possible. How can one man take that much punishment from that many power punchers and never go unconscious?

The good doctor went on to mention a few things that may account for one having a granite chin. It's heady stuff and worth burning up a few brain cells on. But the knock out punch if you will was the talk surrounding accumulation of punches and what that means for a fighter like Roy Nelson.

What we know is the fighters like Roy Nelson who can take a punch have the highest risk for developing chronic traumatic brain injury later in life. And that was from looking at autopsies of brains of fighters who had dementia pugilistica at the same time as chronic traumatic brain injury, the fighters who had the most damage were the ones who were able to take the most punishment. 

So the accumulation of punches is more significant than, say, going into a ring and losing 10 fights in a row by one punch knockout. It’s not the going unconscious that’s the problem; it’s the repetitive force and the repetitive micro-trauma to the brain. So with a guy like Roy Nelson, when this guy takes 430 significant strikes over 10 fights, and he doesn’t get knocked out, it would be better if he’d actually get KO'd than take that many blows.

Perhaps this writer is bordering on the naive...but the question all of that begs is whether or not, after accumulating a certain amount of signification strikes to the head, a fighter should be forced to call it quits.

Thanks to to FightMetric, significant strikes are being tracked. The ambiguous part of the equation is, at what point—more specifically at what punch—should a fighter be forced to stop taking one more.

Our very own Scott Harris published an important piece, 'A Sense of Urgency': MMA Races to Learn More About Brain Injuries, in which his intro says it all, "You know nothing about brain injuries in MMA. Then again, you probably know everything."

Within that article, neurologist Dr. Charles Bernick, associate medical director at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and one of the nation’s leading experts on brain injury and disease, summed up the current state of play as he sees it.

There really is no objective way to decide when a person should stop fighting or not be licensed to fight. When do you decide not to fight or grant a license? It all depends. We have no objective way to make these decisions. We’re making progress in our research, but we don’t know enough to make firm recommendations. There are a lot of questions we just don’t know the answers to.

So should fighters be limited in the number of significant strikes they can sustain?

As doctors get answers to their long list of questions, the answer to the above question will most likely be yes. Perhaps one day they will be able to zero in on an objective amount of consequential blows, or at least a range, that leads people within the MMA community to collectively say "he's had enough."

While boxing and MMA as a whole, under the watch of state athletic commissions, could never tie things off, the UFC can look to draw a line in the sand. Like Dana White has with convincing fighters like Chuck Liddell, who'd been knocked out one too many times, to turn over their four-ounce gloves. If knockouts are the spade, then significant strikes are the club.

And while it may be convenient to rag on Roy Nelson, he's not the first one who's been clubbed. He certainly won't be the last. There is no reason we should have to write and read any more sad-state stories like that of Gary Goodridge (much of his damage came in the form of his kickboxing career). But we will.

"I should not fight again," Goodridge told Ben Fowkles after his late-notice bout with Gegard Mousasi at FEG's Dynamite!! New Year's Eve show in Japan in 2009. "I know I shouldn't."

But he did. And who is going to stop him—or anyone—from taking it on the chin or the side of head one time too many? Some would argue ethically it is not anyone's place to step in. But they're wrong. Right?

Whether it's 500 or 5,000, for the integrity of the sport and more importantly the sanity of its fighters, the days of an endless buffet of repetitive shots to the head should probably be numbered.