Long time readers of the site are surely aware of my concerns over the longterm health of fighters and the damage that their brains are put through over their careers. It's a difficult position to be in given that I deeply love the sports of MMA and boxing and hate to seem as though I'm overly focused on the dangers. But, I still want the men I respect and whose careers have provided me with endless entertainment to live a happy and healthy life when they decide to hang up the gloves.
So that concern makes reading a recent article on Gary Goodridge at TheStar.com absolutely heartbreaking. Goodridge is a perfect example of a fighter who fought for years longer than he should have and is now suffering the effects:
His drug regimen is suited to an Alzheimer's patient, and that's no accident. After 85 combined kickboxing and MMA bouts, many of them poorly regulated, Goodridge at times feels much older than 45.
"My brain," he says, "doesn't remember much these days."
Mixed martial artists aren't immune, and as the sport's first generation of stars hits middle age the issue becomes even more acute. A recent study by the National Athletic Trainers Association found MMA fighters suffer concussions at more than twice the rate of hockey players.
UFC Canada president Tom Wright says later this year the UFC will enter into a three-year Cleveland Clinic study that will track brain trauma in boxers and MMA fighters.
Reading that Goodridge stumbles over words, often repeats himself and that his brain "doesn't remember much" is a story we've seen for so many years with boxers, football players and hockey players. A sad song, but one to which we know all the words.
Goodridge wasn't done any favors by also spending time in the kickboxing ring. The combination of professional bouts in MMA and kickboxing as well as the shots taken in training can add up in a big way. More from the article:
Goodridge fought until last December because he needed the cash and because small-time promoters needed a big name, even if it meant ignoring glaring signs of cognitive decline. Friends say his speech, memory and co-ordination have deteriorated steadily since at least 2006. Twice weekly, Goodridge attends Brain Injury Services in Barrie, where staff administer tests and memory drills meant to preserve cognitive function as his brain atrophies.
From 2006 until his retirement this past December, Gary went 4-22-1 with twelve of those losses coming by KO or TKO. His is a rare case of a former star who spends that long in the twilight of his career losing and losing badly. But we do see men like Andrei Arlovski who have gone 5-6 with four brutal stoppage losses since 2006 or Jens Pulver who, while not losing a ton of bouts by KO, clearly are slowing and taking a lot of damage while going 5-8 during that same period of time.
I spoke to Dr. Sherry Wulkan, lead ringside physician in New Jersey, earlier this year and she had some very simple ideas of things that can be done to monitor fighters for damage that is piling up:
It is my feeling that periodic reviews of fight footage to assess reaction time, in conjunction with records of speech pattern, may be simple, inexpensive adjuncts to the formal medical testing currently utilized in the long term assessment of fighter safety. Fighters with consistent sequential losses by knock out or "wars" could be earmarked by Commissioners and all relevant information/testing could be sent to individual Commission neurologists and to the ABC Medical Committee for an objective third party position as to level of fitness to compete.
Of course, as the Goodridge article states, men like him often spend those sad few years of their careers fighting on cards that are poorly regulated, if regulated at all. Rarely would you see a fighter in this position fighting on a card sanctioned by a major athletic commission, because it'd be hard, even without cognitive tests as described by Dr. Wulkan, for a commission to grant a license to someone in that position. But, trying to protect athletes whose lives are at great danger if they continue fighting, even in unsanctioned competition, is a windmill worth tilting at.
I find myself writing this article on the same day that the results of the Dave Duerson study are released. Duerson was a long time safety in the NFL, gaining his greatest fame as a four time Pro Bowl player with the Bears and winning two Super Bowl rings. This past February, after his last few years and months were filled with growing health problems and what some friends have described as paranoia, Duerson shot himself in the chest. This act was an attempt to preserve his brain so that it could be studied and the data could be added to the growing information in the ongoing attempt to understand chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Predictably, the study did back up what Duerson already knew, his brain showed all the classic signs of damage one would expect from repeated concussions.
The toll that we've seen brain injuries take on athletes of all different types over the past few years is sobering and stories like Duerson's are heartbreaking. But we live in an era where there is actual concern and research being done. Injuries to the brain are always going to be a part of combat sports, and sports in general. But, if men like Gary Goodridge come forward at the end of their careers to talk about it, and to help be a part of studies on the effects of the sport, we can get the information we need to do everything in our power to see careers ended at the right time and before damage progresses too far.
The legacy of Gary Goodridge was always never going to be the guy who closed out his career rarely finding success. To those who long have enjoyed his exploits in the cage and ring he would be remembered as "Big Daddy." The intimidating force in early UFC and PRIDE competitions. We can now remember him as one of the first mixed martial artists to be open and honest about the toll that fighting can take. That's a legacy he can be proud of.