UFC, MMA, and CTE
Americans have a nearly unquenchable bloodthirst. We as a people are entertained by violence – be it football, hockey, or boxing, there is an undeniable draw towards such organized savagery.
With that undeniable draw also comes undeniable consequences for the participants – irreparable brain damage chief among them.
We’re only just beginning to learn the consequences that career football players face, namely chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repetitive head trauma. The NFL was founded in 1920, but the harmful effects of CTE on football players only started coming to light within the last few years. Many only heard about it following the New York Times piece, “111 N.F.L. Brains. All But One Had C.T.E.”
We also know effects boxing has on fighters, with the most prominent example being legendary fighter Muhammad Ali’s 32-year-battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Enter the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the biggest organization for mixed martial arts fighting in the world. MMA and UFC have grown in popularity significantly over the last decade – the no-holds-barred fights are notorious for fast paced action, brutal takedowns, and nearly boundless use of any tactic at the fighter’s disposal.
It stands to reason that UFC fighting, a sport that sees fighters repeatedly punched or kicked in the skull, would be just a widely known for its harmful neurological consequences. But largely, it is isn’t. It’s just too new.
While reports of CTE among football players are widely publicized, little has been reported about MMA fighters. There are articles claiming the UFC fights are less dangerous than boxing, but that isn’t the be-all and end-all. After all, UFC fights allow for elbowing and kicking, two things that boxing explicitly prohibits.
Studies take time, and so UFC’s relative infancy compared to football works in its favor. The damage sustained from repeated head and body blows over a career that lasts an average of 10-years really adds up.
“No matter how you’re getting hit, you’re going to have damage,” said Charles Bernick, lead investigator in a study on fighters’ brains for NJ.com. “I don’t think MMA people are immune to it. Whether you look at them separately or together (with boxers), you still get these findings.”
According to the Star Ledger, some fighters even report slurred speech for up to 36-hours after a fight. The damage is happening, it just doesn’t have a name or a face yet – there is no Muhammad Ali to point to for MMA.
The name mixed martial arts refers to the convergence of various fighting styles. “MMA involves different art forms from everything else,” said Lance Castaldo, 36, owner of the UFC gym in East Rutherford. “It’s a little bit of boxing, a little bit of Jiu-Jitsu, a little bit of Muay Thai, kickboxing – taking all those kinds of different art forms that you have and putting it together. The good thing about it is it’s a level playing field for everyone.”
Castaldo, who has owned the gym for two years, was drawn to MMA for the sheer technicality and intensity of it. “It was not just hitting, there was actually an artform behind it. You’ve got to think as well, and you’re getting a great workout,” said Castaldo.
The broad nature of MMA allows for a variety of techniques with very few restrictions for amateur fighters and even fewer restrictions for professional fighters. Diego Rivera, 23, is a student at Union County College and an amateur fighter. “[In amateur fighting] You can’t hit them in the head with elbows or knees, but you can hit to the body with elbows or knees,” said Rivera. “[In professional fighting] You can do anything you want, obviously there’s no biting or anything. But elbows to the head, knees to the head, that’s all legal.”
Rivera mentioned a recent example whereby professional fighter Evangelista Santos was kneed in the head by his opponent, Michael Page, fracturing his skull. According to MMAFighting.com, Santos underwent a 7-hour surgery for the 2016 injury and announced his retirement the following year. A knee to the head is no anomaly in the UFC.
A study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that repeated blows to the skull result in slower brain processing speeds and lower brain volumes. The study, which included 131 MMA fighters and 93 boxers, tested the fighters’ brain MRI results set against their fighting records and found a relationship between repeated head trauma and cognition.
That MMA is less dangerous than boxing is a frequent defense of the sport. “Ninety percent of boxing is head shots,” said Castaldo. “You’re just going straight [for the] head. Again, you’re using the entire body, you’re not just focused on that one place. It’s a violent sport like anything else. Like boxing, like football, that risk for injury is always going to be high and up there.”
But, it is precisely because fighters use the entire body that MMA’s danger cannot be underestimated or glossed over. “It’s really damaging to the body,” said Dr. Beau Hightower, director of sports medicine for a prominent UFC fighting team and featured a Bleacher Report article. “I would liken it to being in several car wrecks. When fighters get up the next day, they oftentimes can’t walk for a few steps, and then they’re hobbling around.”
According to an MMA Mania article, MMA fighter Gary Goodridge was diagnosed with early onset CTE and Pugilistic Dementia in 2012. Goodridge, 46, fought from 1996 until his retirement in 2007. The fighter now lives with slurred speech a steady prescription painkiller diet.
Becoming a professional UFC fighter isn’t as hard as one would assume. “You can literally just go as you are and register as a pro fighter and they’ll give it to you as long as you meet the requirements of the physical, they’ll give it to you,” said Rivera. “That’s the crazy part, anyone can be a pro.”
The toll on fighters’ bodies and brains is substantial, but for UFC fans and fighters, it all comes with the territory. “To be number one you’ve got to be in the UFC and do what you’ve got to do – if you get injured, you get injured,” said Rivera.
Boxing is the old guard of popular fighting sports and MMA has taken its position as the new vanguard – blazing a new path with knees to the head and brain damage in its wake. The UFC’s extreme popularity has elevated it to an almost untouchable level. Fans are numb to the violence of it all. But that cannot go on forever. Someday more fighters like Goodridge and Santos will come to represent the dark downside of the sport. Someday its past will catch up with it – but even then, will the fans care?