By the time you read this, UFC 152 will be over. The night’s winners will celebrate with family, friends and hangers-on and the losers will try to figure out what went wrong. Fans in Toronto will travel, hoarse-voiced, to nearby bars or back to their hotels while fans at home will turn off their televisions and proceed with their evenings. UFC President Dana White will exhale deeply and might even get a few hours of sleep in before shifting his focus to the Sept. 29 card in England.
Chances are also good that a few of the night’s combatants will take a side-trip to the hospital before wrapping up their fight weekends. Some of these men will need a few stitches to help a cut heal more effectively. Other, less fortunate fighters-turned-patients will need to have a broken nose or broken hand examined and treated.
And then there are those fighters for whom the damage done to their bodies on Saturday might not become apparent until years down the road. Perhaps these fighters were separated from consciousness in an explosive fashion and suffered the sort of traumatic brain injury that comes with that. Maybe, however, they were not stopped, but rather fought in a three- or five-round war. In either case, these fighters will have absorbed any number of significant blows to their heads, and had their brains bounced around their skulls in the process.
As a person who has followed MMA for several years, I now find myself at a bit of a mental and emotional crossroads concerning the sport I’ve grown to love so much. On one hand, I love a good Octagon war as much as the next guy. Having the chance to see two professional fighters give absolutely everything they have in pursuit of a championship or witnessing a highlight-reel knockout are two of the strongest appeals of MMA, and the potential for both is one of the main reasons we so happily pay $45 or $55 once a month to maybe see it happen.
On the other hand, though, I’m growing ever more concerned that the fighters we’ve gotten to know over the years (well … as much as anyone can get to know anyone else through published interviews and the occasional behind-the-scenes video) will soon end up living much more difficult lives due to their chosen profession.
This week, I read this article in Sports Illustrated. I’d seen stories like this before—details of how contact-sport athletes are decreasingly able to perform basic cognitive and physical functions as they reach middle age—but for some reason, this one really got my wheels turning, particularly when it came to MMA.
MMA is still a relatively new sport. Where football and boxing, the two sports most commonly highlighted as causing sport-related brain degeneration in their participants, have been around for several decades, and therefore have the critical mass of former players to prove such causation, even MMA’s most well-known veteran fighters (Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, etc.) have only recently decided to hang up the gloves.
Five or ten years from now, will we begin to see some of the best fighters from the last decade show signs of early-onset dementia? Instead of seeing Randy Couture in movies with Sylvester Stallone, will we see him on Inside Sports with Bryant Gumbel, barely able to describe the condition MMA has left his body in?
It’s hard to say who will be affected, and how severely, since every fighter’s body and brain will react differently to undergoing the sorts of stresses that come with being a professional mixed martial artist. As we’ve seen among retired NFL players and boxers, some go on to live very successful lives and really show no serious signs of having slammed various parts of their bodies onto other men for years at a time. Others develop degenerative brain conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and soon find themselves unable to provide even basic needs for themselves.
Realistically, though, it’s probably only a matter of time before we see one or more of our favorite former fighters as a shell of their former selves. And when that happens, fans are going to have to ask themselves some very difficult questions … questions I’m asking myself now.
Is a fan’s love for MMA (or football, or boxing) in general inherently in conflict with one’s ability to care about specific athletes as people? That is, can people truly say they “care” about fighters when they’re literally paying money to see them damage their own bodies? This to say nothing of the endless minor (and occasionally significant) trauma fighters’ bodies experience in training. Most fighters train at least twice a day, six days a week. That’s 24 weekly hours of being punched, kicked, stretched and slammed. That sort of damage adds up.
The counter-argument to this is that fighters are choosing their professions, and therefore fans should be able to enjoy watching them do battle without guilt. The best fighters make more money after a few years in the cage than most fans will earn after a lifetime in an office complex, and thus are adequately compensated for any physical ailments they might suffer after retirement.
Perhaps it was easier to be a fan of contact sports back when no one was paying attention to the long-term damage undergone by its participants, and the medical disadvantages of such sports have only really become a topic of conversation in the last few years. (Remember when ESPN used to do the “Jacked Up” segment on its football shows that literally celebrated the sorts of hits that leave former NFL players unable to remember the events of the previous day?) Today, however, there’s no excuse for fans not to at least wonder about what will become of their favorite contact-sport athletes when they reach their 50′s.
Fighters themselves must sometimes wonder these things about themselves and their fellow mixed martial artists during private moments of reflection. They are in an even worse position than the fans, though, since they’re the ones whose livelihoods depend on their ability to effectively take a beating. The science is out there, and fighters aren’t stupid. They know very well that they’re risking long-term quality of life for glory in the cage today. The fact remains, though, that for every pro fighter who is considering walking away from the sport to preserve his body for the long haul, there are several dozen hungry prospects who will happily take his place, even despite the well publicized risks of professional combat.
The best way to respond to these sorts of questions would be for the UFC to continue to make the sorts of proactive steps it has already undertaken in the interest of fighter health. The UFC’s fighter healthcare coverage was a major step in ensuring the UFC’s moneymakers would not go broke paying medical bills. Perhaps Dana White and company should look into a similar program for retired athletes who have fought a certain number of times for the promotion. Doing this before the sports universe begins to see increasing numbers of retired MMA fighters with CTE, major joint/ligament damage and other conditions that could be attributed to their time spent in the cage would be even better, not only from a preparation standpoint but from a public relations one as well.
Even knowing that my favorite fighters might one day end up paying dearly for their dedication to entertaining my fellow MMA fans and me, I honestly don’t see myself taking time away from the sport anytime soon. Just like I’ve continued to enjoy football and boxing, the downsides of MMA will always be outweighed by the sheer excitement created by a great night of fights.
I can only hope that folks with the power and resources to assist fighters as they reach retirement and beyond will remember the people on whose backs their billions of dollars have been made, and return the favor when the time comes.
Photo: Charles Oliveira lays on the canvas after being knocked out by Cub Swanson at UFC 152 (James Law/Heavy MMA)