Thursday, November 15, 2012

Are todays MMA athletes the punch-drunk fighters of tomorrow?

All it took was one punch.

There were few out there, whether fans, critics or media aficionado’s that placed their faith behind Cung Le this past Saturday morning to defeat former UFC titlist Rich Franklin. Seconds into the fight it seemed the former Strikeforce champion looked flat as Franklin began to put his combinations together, hitting the slower Sanshou expert.

Right when it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Vietnamese fighter, a perfectly timed right-hook sent Franklin crushing down to the floor. He was unconscious before his head abruptly cracked against the Octagon’s canvas.

The Chinese crowd, whom we had barely heard a peep from during the decision-heavy event became unglued. It was a thing of beauty as the aging fighter without a clean bill of health landed the perfect shot that suddenly and violently ended the night for Franklin.

I had watched fighting for hours, it was 90 minutes before I had to clock in for my other job and the effects of my energy drinks and No-Doz mixture were wearing off but Le’s five-ounce glove gave me a second shot of adrenaline.

The mood became sombre literally seconds later when the camera panned in on a fallen Franklin. He lay, spread eagled on the floor as a crew of people surround him. The knockout didn’t bother me, I am an unapologetic lover of violence and when you sign up for the hurt business these things happen. What did bother me was the vacant look in the eyes of Franklin.

He gazes upright as those around him speak to him, he doesn’t say a word, he just stares, as if the light were on but nobody was home.

Perhaps it’s because I have watched Franklin competing inside an eight-sided cage seemingly for a lifetime and I have an affinity for the former 185-pound king but that look captured on the screen for just a few seconds stuck with me.

Knowing of the hectic day that was ahead I could have lay down and closed my eyes for a moment but I just kept thinking about head trauma, will the MMA fighters that we watch gracefully float around the Octagon today be punch-drunk elderly men with broken down bodies and fractured minds of the future?
The honest answer is that we just do not know yet.

The sport dubbed ‘the sweet science’ has produced some of the greatest in-ring technicians of all-time, for the entertainment of packed arenas for centuries but the ugly truth is for every George Foreman who walks away from the twenty-by-twenty fighting circle with his mind intact there are dozens of Meldrick Taylor’s who struggle to form coherent sentences in their later years.

Meldrick Taylor was blessed with two of the fastest hands in boxing and the foot speed to match. Collecting an Olympic gold medal at just 17-years-of-age Taylor had 47 professional fights in his career and despite only being knocked out on four separate occasions it’s widely believed that he has dementia pugilistica (DP).

DP is a common form of dementia found among combat sports athletes, those suffering from the disease on the surface are slow, incoherent and have slurred speech, hence why it has been referred to as punch-drunk.
The fact that Taylor was only put down for the count on four occasions in almost 18 years speaks to how much of a toll on the fighters mind, body and soul that putting in the yards in the gym does.

We’ve seen in mixed martial arts in recent years that hard sparring has been cut down in gyms and this is probably a large reason for that. While most relish hearing the tales of full-speed sparring sessions at Chute Boxe or Wednesday night sparring from hell at the Miletich gym that is a sure-fire way to shorten a career.
Taylor’s close friend and fellow Olympic gold medallist Pernell Whitaker is the golden example of this. Whitaker awed fans, press and opponents alike with his defensive wizardry that saw him avoid his opponents’ offensive foray and catch them with counters.

A fighter like the late Joe Frazier had armies of fans for his courage and determination as in most fights he took three punches for every one he threw. Hearing Frazier punch-drunk after seeing his fights was saddening, but not exactly surprising.

Whitaker on the other hand ducked and dived out of danger so often and only sustained one knockout in his career that I was bewildered and blown away. While he was only floored for the ten second count once, he had been boxing since his teens and over time your brain deteriorates just like any other part of your body will wear and tear.

The only MMA fighter to suffer from DP at this point has been Gary Goodridge. Goodridge was a professional-arm-wrestler-turned-kickboxer-turned-MMA-fighter. Serving as the ultimate gatekeeper Goodridge would be knocked out 24 time in his 48 fights between MMA and kickboxing and on the wrong end of some of the most heinous acts inside a fighting circle, especially at the tail end of his career when he became a punching bag for hire.

I conducted an interview with the Canadian super-heavyweight years prior before he met up with former Strikeforce and DREAM light-heavyweight kingpin Gegard Mousasi at DREAM’s annual New Year’s Eve mega-card and it was a sad state of affairs as he was showing real signs of dementia at that point.
It was sort of heartbreaking, hearing a man that was a dual-sport star between MMA and kickboxing deteriorated to great lengths as he struggled to remember his past as he deals with the same drug regimen of an Alzheimer’s patient.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a similar disease linked to brain trauma that’s diagnosed post-mortem, while DP is linked with combat sports CTE is found more commonly among other athletes, in particular football and professional wrestling.

It should come as no surprise that footballers suffer from forms of brain damage. As large men force their weight around, crashing into each other with as much force as possible it’s a real dangerous situation you enter when you sign on the dotted line to join up.

Earlier this year Samoan linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide from a gunshot wound to the chest at age 43. Seau was a passionate and aggressive football player, the legendary number 55 gave it all on the field and ultimately that might have been part of his decline.

CTE is linked closely to depression that creates a far greater demon to overcome and Seau, similar to two-time Superbowl champion Dave Duerson eventually gave up the fight.

In 2007, professional wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and seven-year-old son before taking his own life. Later studies revealed his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient and he suffered from CTE as a result from massive brain damage in all four lobes.

For over two decades Benoit travelled the globe, collected almost every accolade imaginable and was widely regarded as one of the best to lace up a pair of boots. Years of dangerous stunts, flying headbutts, unprotected chairshots and a laundry list of other stunts damaged his brain beyond repair and it pushed him to do unthinkable actions.

While head injuries are less common in MMA they still remain a factor and it might be in the UFC’s best interest to step up and take precautions to minimize the cases of CTE and DP being regarded as symptoms of competing in the sport at the highest level.

Having fighters have mandatory annual CAT scans to determine any damage to the brain and if major signs of damage to the lobes are visible they need to attempt to force the fighters hand to hang up their gloves or cut ties with them completely.

While this task should fall in the hands of athletic commissioners we cannot get them to cough up the dough for random drug testing so CAT scans are probably out of the question.

The UFC have implemented fighter insurance to look after the fighters that they currently employ and that is fantastic but these fighters are laying it all on the line for them to build a global empire, the UFC can do their best to allow them to have a long and fulfilling life in their post-UFC career in return.

Brain trauma is a serious stigma of combat sports in general, not just MMA but if the UFC has a public image of trying to combat the issue and keep their fighters safe it’s just another leg up on the competition and another step in making this sport perceived as more than just a niche sport for Vin Diesel doppelgangers.

There is something magical about a punch or kick landing flush on the jaw and sending an opponent crashing to the canvas as a building erupts and thousands of fans jump out of their seat in their living room.

I can name you hundreds of beautiful acts of violence coming from an opponent’s glove and I hope to have hundreds more to speak of in the future but if we have a generation of fighters like Whitaker and Taylor this sport will not become globally accepted as a mainstream entity.
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