African mixed martial artist Keron Davies’ first professional victory is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Davies was making his Extreme Fighting Championship Africa debut on Feb. 27 and should have celebrated his third round knockout of Booto Guylain, only Guylain never recovered. He suffered swelling and bleeding of the brain before passing away hours later.
Davies didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, he won with repeated elbows to Guylain’s head; an aggressive striking technique common in MMA. Some may say that there are implied risks when one steps into an MMA ring, but the reality of that risk grows with every injury, every concussion, and every death. If Guylain can die from an elbow to the head, anyone can.
Guylain, like every professional fighter, was aware that MMA is one of the most dangerous sports on the planet and MMA promotions do all they can to protect themselves from legal recourse, including pre-fight brain scans and “fine print” stipulations written into contracts. Promotions protect themselves, but is enough being done to protect fighters?
As Scifighting detailed last December, UFC fighters sign liability waivers ensuring inherent risks are acknowledged. These waivers, however, may not hold up in court as former NFL and NHL players diagnosed with head trauma and mental illnesses have come to find out. The UFC hasn’t publically dealt with a lawsuit relating to brain injuries, but fighters are still leaving MMA in fear of suffering similar fates.
UFC lightweight Mac Danzig retired last week after 13 years in MMA. His cardinal reason calling it quits? Repeated brain injuries sustained in training sessions. “Really, the only physical cue for me to step back from competition came last year, when I began to suffer repeated concussions in training, leading up to what would end up being my first ever actual knockout loss, in July. After that, my ability to take hard strikes in training without losing consciousness began to deteriorate rapidly,” Danzig revealed on his Tumblr.
Danzig isn’t the only one. Brian Stann and Nick Denis retired for the same reasons, and T.J. Grant was scratched from a showdown with then-UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson last summer because of a concussion.
The UFC offers health insurance, but former UFC lightweight Jason Volkmann says a $1,500 deductible is required per injury. Given that gym fees, travel expenses, and training staff take a large chunk of one’s earnings, $1,500 is not a fighter-friendly figure. What is unclear is if coverage extends to injuries outside of the ring and if whether one’s family is included.
There isn’t a union in MMA so questioning the current health care plan or even proposing a retirement plan would fall on deaf ears. In essence, joining a promotion like the UFC means putting one’s health in their hands. The probability of injury is high while treatment options are limited.
Without video or first-hand accounts it’s hard to tell whether Guylain’s death could have been prevented were the beating stopped earlier. However, one can picture a frazzled fighter, oblivious to his surroundings, sprawled across a ring. It’s easy to picture because it happens regularly in MMA. It’s only a matter of time before an elbow to the head again results in something worse than a concussion.