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After Grisly Skull Fracture, Bellator Should Say No to Return of Cyborg Santos

Evangelista Santos
Evangelista SantosEd Mulholland/Getty Images
Scott HarrisFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2016

In the MMA world Monday, the august figure balancing the scales between integrity and lucre looked less like a blindfolded woman and more like Scott Coker.

The same day, Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, a 38-year-old Brazilian veteran whose career dates back to the Vale Tudo era, indicated he aims to return to the Bellator MMA promotion by December following an injury he suffered in July after a Michael Page flying-knee knockout at Bellator 158.

As Santos (21-18) told Guilherme Cruz of MMA Fighting

I had a great recovery. This time off was super important for me. I was so busy doing other stuff that I didn’t even notice how fast his month has passed. It was really uncomfortable three or four days after the surgery, but after that I pretty much rested and studied. I plan on coming back to training next week and fighting in December. ... I will listen to what the doctors have to say. I have an appointment with the doctor next week to find out if he really clears me to train again, but I’m feeling super fine.

Reasonable enough, right? A tough guy doing what he does. 

Oh, wait. There's just one more thing. The injury was a skull fracture. And not just "any" skull fracture. Page literally beat Santos' head in, leaving him with a depressed, frontal-sinus fracture easily seen without any of those fancy digital scans. (Although one of those was published, clearly showing a spidery dent across the forehead.) There was an operation, administered after a protracted and purportedly life-threatening period of brain swelling.

According to the Instagram post from Santos' ex-wife, renowned women's featherweight Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino, "the doctor said this very easily could have been life-threatening."

UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan called it "the worst MMA injury I've ever seen."

And he wants to return to training six weeks later, then come back to live action in December? Bellator, helmed by Coker, could stand to pump the brakes on this.

Fair or not, Bellator has recently earned a reputation as an outfit with low regard for athlete health. This is an opportunity to rectify that. Bellator needs to protect Santos from himself, ignore the interest his return will surely generate and publicly rule him out for December, if not longer. It also makes sense to maximize transparency around the details of his pre- and post-operative treatment and condition.

Doctors and officials had to wait several days for brain swelling—which can cause brain damage and even death, particularly in cases of depressed fractures like Santos' that drive bone fragments into the brain—to subside before they could perform surgery July 27.

A December return would equal a five-month stint on the shelf. As odd as it may seem, that does fall within the average healing-time window stipulated for depressed skull fractures, assuming no loss of brain function, in which case it's much longer.

With that in mind, it's not all that unreasonable to conclude that this return timeline is not unrealistic. At the same time, it seems equally not unrealistic to conclude that a career in cage fighting lends itself to a recovery process that reaches beyond the bare minimum.

For the sake of argument, though, let's presume for now that he'll return in December. He could get a rematch with Page. He could get a blockbuster with the division's newest signee—former UFC contender Rory MacDonald. The Bellator braintrust may be tempted to acquiesce to the siren call of the dollar bills, which will most likely be stronger for a relatively quick Santos return, on account of the rubbernecking. 

They should resist that siren song. Just three months ago, Bellator expressed support for fighter brain injury health when Coker and company showed up in Washington to donate an undisclosed sum to the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, an ongoing study investigating brain trauma in combat sports athletes.

Scott Coker speaks in Washington last winter.
Scott Coker speaks in Washington last winter.Paul Morigi/Getty Images

"This cause deserves to be noticed," Coker said at the event. "The technology that we have today wasn't available even five years ago. The fighters deserve to know. They deserve to have the truth."

A broken skull is not good for brain health. How would Coker's quotes appear in the context of allowing Cyborg to return so quickly? More importantly, how might such a return affect Santos' brain health?

Speaking of truth, there are cases when Bellator's truth has come under question, as has its commitment to fighter health and safety. The organization has staged several "freakshow" or "legends" fights that coincided with malfeasance and tragedy.

No one implicated Bellator in the death this spring of Kimbo Slice, but Slice failed a drug test for steroids at Bellator 149, which ended up being his final fight. Slice's opponent that night, Dhafir Harris, aka Dada 5000, nearly died in the cage. Afterward, Bellator and the Harris family appeared to downplay (or simply not know about) the gravity of Harris' condition.

There was also the matter of their booking of Royce Gracie, 49, and Ken Shamrock, 52 on the same card. Shamrock, it turned out, also failed a drug test for PEDs at the event.

Dada 5000
Dada 5000Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

To keep pace with the massive UFC, the argument goes, Bellator must get creative by using these "legends" fights and other eyeball-grabbing options at their disposal.

That's fine. It's canny business—and they're not the only ones to do it, UFC included. But there have to be limits.

Just do the right thing and make a public statement that Santos won't be booked until—and only until—there are solid assurances he's good to go. Say that Santos' pride, while respectable, isn't enough to get him into the cage, and reassure him that a fight is waiting for him if he's proven healthy. You could even share those medical assurances with the public, along with other details (assuming physicians and patient agree) about his condition and ongoing course of treatment. That could go a long way toward reassuring untrained mouth-breathers like me.

A few questions they could answer: Why is this public recovery time sufficient? Did he suffer any brain damage? Can he pass a concussion protocol? Will there be a second opinion? Would Bellator pay for such a thing? Could the doctors at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which runs the fighter brain health study to which Bellator just donated, take a look at him?

Specific courses of action can vary. But if the only one who ends up walking their talk here is Santos, that might lead to more than a PR problem.


Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more stuff like this, follow Scott on Twitter

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