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The Risk of Brain Trauma in MMA: How it Could Affect the UFC


The extensive UFC legal team ensures that their fighters agree in writing that MMA is an, “inherently and abnormally dangerous activity,” which gives rise to many health risks including “irreversible neurological trauma.”

This waiver is included in the “fine print,” of every contract, but even express language such as this can fall subject to legal arguments of validity. Many courts are hard-pressed to enforce liability waivers if there is an act of negligence involved, the fine print is hidden, or the signing party was not made fully aware of the potential risks involved.

Recent litigation has surfaced in two other contact sports regarding lack of informed consent, which could be a potential cause for concern in MMA.

Last month the National Football League (NFL) paid out  $765 million in a lawsuit which alleged that the organization hid evidence supporting the high risks associated with repetitive brain trauma. The litigation was filed in January of 2012 and encompassed over 4000, plaintiffs, many of whom sustained repeated head injuries during their careers and are now suffering from mental illness.

NFL Brain Damage, Trauma, Lawsuit

Just days after the NFL verdict, 10 players from the National Hockey League (NHL) filed similar litigation regarding lack of knowledge and informed consent dealing with the same topic. The language of the complaint states:

“. . . Unbeknownst to Plantiffs, scientific evidence has linked brain injuries to long-term neurological problems for decades. While every blow to the head is dangerous, Plantiffs did not know, and were not told by the NHL how dangerous this repeated brain trauma is. The NHL has known or should have known of the growing body of scientific evidence . . .  Eighty-five years ago, pathologist Harrison Martland published his seminal study in the Journal of the American Medical Association linking sub-concussive blows suffered by boxers to injuries ranging from mild concussions to degenerative brain disease.”

The study referred to in the claim was conducted in 1928 and described the clinical spectrum of abnormalities found in almost 50 percent of boxers if they “kept at the game long enough.” This was the first main-stream study to link sub-concussive blows and mild concussions to degenerative brain disease.

The document then goes on to list a number of similar reports and their findings.  Some of these findings supported evidence that this type of trauma could lead to dementia and even Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

There were also a number of studies that were conducted exclusively on hockey players. Likewise, MMA has done similar research.

Early in 2013 a study was reported on nearly 100 boxers and MMA fighters who enrolled in the ongoing  “Professional Fighter Brain Health Study,” conducted by Dr. Charles Bernick, a degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) researcher.

Amongst other things the research showed the following;

  • Fighters with longer fighting histories have worse cognitive outcomes, as measured by memory and processing tests, and suffer from an interruption of nerve fibers in the brain.
  • Fighters with longer fighting histories have less self-control, as measured by impulsivity scales.
  • “The Ledge Effect” – Fighters can sustain a certain amount of trauma without cognitive decline, and then they reach a point where further fighting is associated with more rapid cognitive decline.

The argument has been made that MMA is safer than other combat sports such as boxing or Muay Thai. Competitors can tap out to avoid damage and they are not granted a standing eight count. There are also more avenues available to secure victory then administering punches to the head. Referees are often quick to stop bouts when they deem one party to be incapable of intelligently defending themselves, and fighters who have been concussed are typically issued a period of medical suspension. Some states require this even at the amateur level.

Despite this, earlier this year UFC Bantamweight Nick Denis called it quits, deciding the risks were too great:

“Some might judge, but that is fine. Maybe I have already suffered brain injury, maybe I never would have. That is the problem with the brain. You can’t really see the injury, it will take years and decades to manifest itself. When you get rocked in sparring, you shake your head and regain your composure, and within 10 seconds say ‘ok, I’m good let’s keep going.’ But are you actually ok? You are no longer dizzy, true, but do you have any idea what physical trauma your brain has just experienced? I have told this to a few people before. I make the analogy of my love for MMA as being a drug addict- I know that it isn’t healthy for me, but holy f*** do I love it. I love MMA, and I have loved my experience with the UFC, Sengoku, and every other promotion along the way, but I am a human being first. I don’t define myself by my work, and nor should you. I am a human being, and I was born with only one brain, and I want to take care of it so that I will recognize the ones I love when I get older.”

Middleweight UFC Fighter Brian Stann followed suit this summer, announcing his retirement for the same reason.

In a recent interview with The Opie & Anthony Show,  UFC announcer Joe Rogan conveyed his concern that welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre should also consider hanging up his gloves:

“That fight [with Hendricks], he had some serious memory loss. I think he’s taken too many shots. An interesting statistic is that Georges has taken more punches and kicks in the last three fights than any of his fights, ever. In fact, 50 percent of the shots he’s taken his entire career were in the last three fights. I think he should get out. I know the UFC probably doesn’t want to hear me say that. I know that could be a huge rematch.”

It is no surprise that research still shows that the longer a fighter remains in the game, the more likely they are to have brain damage. This finding has not changed since that first report in 1928. Whether or not the NHL case will hold water is yet to be determined, but regardless of the results, there is obviously a need for full awareness and informed consent before any fighter enters the competitive arena.