Combat Sports and Head Trauma: Will MMA Fighters Share the Fates of Pro Wrestlers?

Pro wrestler Chris Benoit's history of head trauma may have contributed to his death in a murder-suicide.

A sobering report from ESPN today about two pro wrestlers, Chris Benoit and Andrew "Test" Martin,  and the brain trauma they suffered during their careers:

The deaths of Benoit and Martin, who wrestled for World Wrestling Entertainment from 1998 to 2004 and 2006 to '07, were widely ascribed to the culture of professional wrestling, steroids use and personal problems, but the doctor who examined both of their brains said they are bound by a more fundamental trait.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, told ESPN.com on Monday that Martin suffered from brain damage -- a syndrome he has defined as chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- stemming from repeated blows to the head. Martin is the second former wrestler to be linked to CTE; Benoit was the first.

Omalu said he conducted an analysis of Martin's brain tissues back in April and discovered excessive amounts of tau proteins similar to those he found in Benoit -- and now a rising total of 20 dead athletes. This same chemical imbalance is found in a number of former boxers and known as dementia pugilistica or punch-drunk syndrome. The brains of Benoit and Martin, Omalu said, resembled those of Alzheimer's patients more than twice their age.

Cage Side Seats expands on this with a grisly catalog of head injuries in Pro Wrestling, including a couple of MMA veterans:

Brian Johnston: As an MMA fighter turned pro wrestler for New Japan Pro Wrestling, he suffered at many concussions, eventually leading to a stroke.  He made an impressive recovery, though not as miraculous as Bret Hart's.

Yoshihiro Takayama: The top wrestling star in Japan as well as an MMA fighter known for taking extreme punishment to the head in both venues (which paralyzed part of his face and changed his appearance) he suffered a cerebral thrombosis (rare form of a stroke) in a hard hitting match with Kensuke Sasaki in 2004 and had to take 2 years off.  He's been wrestling regularly since his return but isn't the same.

This comes on the heels of major research finding that NFL players are paying a ghastly toll for the risks they take on the field. Zak Woods has compared and contrasted the risks of playing in the NFL with MMA:

The fact of the matter is that professional football players collide with the force of small adult killer whales on every play. The body and brain absorbs damages that no normal human being is suppose to endure and the results are quickly becoming academic. While the NFL and football proponents try to cast these scientific findings as "anomalous" their own commissioned study found that football dramatically increases the risk of dementia.

WKR has long harped on the fact that MMA detractors, who usually cite MMA as being too "violent" as a reason for their opposition, yet they choose to ignore the inherent dangers of football, which equally fits their criteria of a sport being "too violent."

Now mixed martial arts is still a young sport and due to its youth there is virtually no long-term medical data about the long term effects of being a fighter. There still is medical research, like this American study, which had favorable findings towards the risk of brain injuries in MMA.

The overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggests a reduced risk of TBI (traumatic brain injuries) in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.

But our own Luke Thomas has warned that we shouldn't be so sanguine about the risks of the sport:

I am still quite confident we need to see the first two generations of MMA fighters grow their careers and pick up life afterwards to see what happens next. The MMA safety record is noteworthy, but there is no circumventating the enormous tax on the body. Let us hope that what we find out when the fighters retire is that their quality of life does not precipitously decline and their physical capabilities aren't compromised. But candidly, I fear some of us are clinging to wishful thinking about the long term repercussions of a career in MMA because the current body of evidence on MMA's safety record comes from too narrow a data pool to keep up with the changes in the sport. There is still much we don't know and one's concerns about how much this takes out of the body is not idle.

And I haven't even talked about boxing...the source of terms like punch drunk and stumblebum and the sport that likely caused Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's and so many similarly sad stories.

A great deal of MMA grew out of pro-wrestling: the pay per view business model, the way fights are hyped, even some of the techniques used in the matches. But I sincerely hope we can avoid the string of tragedies that have engulfed Pro Wrestling in recent years.

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