Brain Injury and the UFC: The Importance of Fight Stoppage

Meg May@@MMAMeg Contributor IMay 30, 2012

Fighter is fine. (Photo credit: MMAMania)
Fighter is fine. (Photo credit: MMAMania)

The reason you enjoy the UFC, as a fighter or a fan, is due to the wonderment of the grape jelly-like substance suspended inside your skull, harmoniously floating around, minding its safe business. 

All is peaceful in this world until a punch to the jaw displaces your brain, stretching embedded blood vessels, killing blood supply and resulting in a black out. There you lay, oblivious physically, as your brain acts as the corner man screaming for a referee stoppage.  In the UFC, this request will be not only obliged, but taken very seriously.  

Whenever I watch a UFC bout, I’m verbally analyzing and commentating on the impact to every fighter's cerebrum. I look at every angle to score cranial impact - magnitude of temple shots, gauging accelerations, number of unanswered assaults, eye movements, and double checking the ref's glove inspection pre-fight. 

Yes, it sounds morbid, but having spent a fair amount of time in emergency medicine, I can’t help but be obsessed with a human’s number one organ - the brain. Recent studies in sports medicine support my concern, and make a good case for supporting the UFCs stoppage policy. 

Approximately 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually in the United States, with the likelihood of serious consequences increasing with each subsequent head injury. Players with a history of previous concussions are more likely to have future concussions, and previous concussions may be associated with slower recovery of neurological function.

The high profile suicide death of Junior Seau, and subsequent debate about whether or not he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)  brought on by multiple career concussions, continues to shine a negative light on combat sports. 

Sadly, anomalies happen in MMA too, as this week in South Dakota, an unregulated MMA fight cost one fighter his life. Dustin Jensen had a seizure post fight. Though he was rushed to the hospital immediately, he died there after attempts to relieve pressure on his brain were unsuccessful.

There were no medical personnel on staff at this fight, and it is unknown whether he received the necessary pre-fight clearances or not.

Its quite easy to hurt your brain in a fight - it can't block, run or duck. To put this into perspective, let's look at a common measurement known as peak punch force. Peak punch forces in karate range from 1666 to 6860 N. A force of 3200 N (mid range) is all that is needed to break a brick. Remember the vintage Anderson Silva knock out kick?

The UFC has never lost a fighter inside the octagon, and wants to keep it this way.  Fighter safety remains paramount to the UFC, which has taken a leadership position via governance, attention and public humiliation for bad calls.

The UFC errs on the side of caution and frowns heavily on poorly called fights where a fighter’s life is in danger.  And the stats prove it. Just this past weekend, at UFC 146, nine fights out of the 12 were referee stoppage induced.

Furthermore, unlike boxing, where fighters have 10 seconds to recover, UFC matches are ended on a "technical knockout" when a fighter can't defend himself.

And there is good reason to stop a fight or have a fighter sit it out as numerous studies of professional boxers have shown that repeated brain injury can lead to chronic encephalopathy, or dementia pugilistica. Stoppage can be both art and science, as there is a level of objectivity left to the referee in making the call, but there is plenty of room to move within the UFC guidelines to remain safe. The official stoppage definitions from the UFC  include ref stoppage, medical stoppage by a ring side doctor and corner stoppage  by those on your team who hopefully love your brain as much as you do.