One fight separated TJ Grant from the UFC Lightweight Championship. A seven year career dwindled down to five rounds with Benson Henderson, the top ranked lightweight at the time. It is an opportunity few receive and many would trade their careers for, often downplaying injuries and personal issues for what may be their sole shot at glory. After all, only six UFC fighters have ever held the title.
Grant, however, is not pressured by history or his peers. Amid criticism from fans and fighters, he bowed out of his fight with Henderson and a subsequent bout with current lightweight champion Anthony Pettis to recover from a concussion suffered during training. While he was not medically cleared to compete, Grant is at peace with the decision.
The NFL is in court with former athletes over the role football played in their digressing mental health; as a result, brain injuries, and more specifically concussions, have come to the topical forefront of combat sports. In a series of articles highlighting the abuse fighters endure, the New Jersey Star-Ledger concluded that while it is too early to predict long-term health risks, the potential for brain disease is on par with athletes in other contact sports.
Generally, a concussion occurs after a blow to the head. Damage may not be physical but symptoms include dizziness, headaches, loss of consciousness and erratic mood changes. If one is a victim on multiple occasions they may suffer memory loss and have difficulty concentrating, among various brain disorders. Pre-fight brain scans, which are not mandatory in every state, do not always detect damage and can leave early signs of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease untreated.
In an interview with the Star-Ledger, UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein says that the UFC teaches their fighters, but do not consider concussions as serious of an issue as the NFL or boxing. “When you compared mixed martial arts to other sports like American football and in particular boxing, there’s a Johns Hopkins study that compares boxing and MMA and clearly boxing is the much more dangerous sport than MMA. The reason for that is sort of obvious. Our guys are not just punching each other in the head. That’s not necessarily what they do in training. They’re training in all sorts of martial arts and they’re wrestling and all sorts of things,” said Epstein.
In 2001, athletic commissions across North America adopted the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts which outlines what a fighter can and can’t do in the ring. Padded gloves were deemed mandatory while maneuvers like rabbit punches and head-butts were eliminated. The rules were set up to synchronize different MMA styles but, more importantly, brought some security to athletes.
Few additions have been made since to protect a fighter’s head. Often forgotten are the blows taken during training sessions and the numerous fights one has before transitions from amateur to professional. For fighters like Grant, the journey towards a championship goes hand-in-hand with a heightened risk of permanent brain damage.
“Let me just say a blanket statement: We’re always concerned about anybody getting hurt. I don’t want this to be, ‘We have no concern about it.’ Of course we do. We’re concerned about everybody. We don’t want anybody getting hurt,” said Epstein.
“It’s not necessarily about taking head trauma, but make sure you’re not doing things that are going to have you blow a knee out or blow your ankle out or do something like that where you’re not going to be able to fight.”