Combat Sports Execs Commit to Brain Injury Research, Solutions Remain Elusive

Scott HarrisMMA Lead WriterFebruary 4, 2014

John McCain spoke Tuesday at a news conference on fighter brain health research.
John McCain spoke Tuesday at a news conference on fighter brain health research.Laszlo Beliczay/Associated Press

A formidable group of power players from politics, MMA and boxing came together on Capitol Hill Tuesday to announce new financial support for brain injury research in combat athletes, even as doctors confirmed that actionable science is still years away.

"We all know that it is a problem, and we all know this much needed," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a news conference Tuesday attended by Bleacher Report. "Because if we don't do this, I'm afraid that support for these incredible, entertaining sports will wane on the part of the American people."

Leaders from the UFC, Top Rank Boxing, Golden Boy Promotions and Viacom (owner of Bellator MMA and the Glory World Series kickboxing organization) announced Tuesday they would jointly commit $600,000 to the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, an ongoing research project conducted by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

"It was a very easy decision to say that we were all in, in respect to our athletes participating in the  studies, as well as monetary funding they would need to be able to carry out these studies," said UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.

But for all the talk of progress and collaboration Tuesday from McCain, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and fight executives, new, concrete safety measures in the cage or gym are not part of the current discussion. This appears to be the case even as public awareness of brain injuries and their dangers increases, in large part because of several high-profile NFL player suicides widely attributed to brain damage. A massive financial settlement between the NFL and 4,000 former players is still pending

Meanwhile, fighters, football players and other athletes continue to sustain concussions and other head trauma. NFL statistics released last week show that players sustained 228 concussions in the 2013-14 season, although that figure does represent a 13 percent decrease from the previous season. 

This larger context is part of the reason why Fighters Brain Health Study officials believe their eventual findings may hold ramifications for communities far outside combat sports. Initiated in 2011, the study tracks brain health and deterioration among approximately 400 active and retired boxers and MMA fighters over the course of several years, and compares them with a control group.

As is the case with most medical research projects, the fighters study will take time to complete. Dr. Charles Bernick, the study's principal investigator, said definitive findings and recommendations are as many as five years away. In the interim, tools currently in use to assess and track concussions and other head traumas—in combat sports and sports leagues like the NHL—are not fully adequate, Bernick said.

"There's nothing out there now that's ready for prime time," Bernick said. "But as we see more fighters, maybe there could be a tool for recognizing [significant head trauma] more quickly."

As for combat sports, Bernick hypothesized that a risk factor score, based on genetics, number of fights, number of knockouts and even number of rounds sparred, could eventually be devised. 

Many fight fans and observers relish pointing out that the notion of fighters suffering brain injuries is a common-sense assumption. And while big knockouts clearly cause head trauma, the knowledge needed to understand the extent of that damage and track it from one fight or training camp to the next is entirely nonexistent.

There is even less known about the effects of less-severe head injuries suffered in training and elsewhere—known as sub-concussive trauma—that early science suggests can play a considerable role in the development of serious brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Chris Weidman knocked out Anderson Silva at UFC 162.
Chris Weidman knocked out Anderson Silva at UFC 162.Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

"Most head injury does not produce brain injury. But some head injuries produce a brain injury that starts a process that ends up in something that looks like Alzheimer's Disease," said Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, medical director at the Ruvo center. "We do not understand which head injuries lead to which brain injuries and result in this chronic and disabling process."

Of course, political intervention could begin to loom if science isn't eventually converted into practice. The Muhammed Ali Boxing Reform Act, passed in 1999, increased federal oversight of sanctioning organizations in the boxing realm. 

McCain indicated Tuesday that lawmakers could strengthen existing laws or create new ones to better ensure fighter safety, though he said he would prefer to leave fighter safety to individual athletic commissions.

"I do," McCain said when asked if he thought MMA could benefit from federal legislation. "But you want to be very careful not to encroach on the states' abilities to do this regulation...If we want national, I'm not sure [standards of safety] would be as high."

Cleveland Clinic officials placed the cost of the study, before the $600,000 contribution, at $2 million, including grants from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.

Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Scott on Twitter