For the past two days, the MMA world has been dominated by news of the cancellation of UFC 151, and discussion of the whole Jon Jones fiasco. It's a complex chain of events that has led us to Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, yet one very important link in that chain has not been much discussed. I'm talking about the link that truly set everything in motion - the injury to Dan Henderson.
We now know that Hendo sustained this injury three weeks ago during training - a detail that rightfully calls quite a lot into question. Why did he wait so long? Could the UFC 151 cancellation have been avoided had he spoken up sooner? And just how much of this did his long-time teammate Chael Sonnen know? But there's another big question to be asked - one that has serious ramifications for the future of the UFC.
Why did this injury happen in the first place?
This is an especially relevant question in 2012, as the UFC has seen card after card radically changed due to injury. The result has been record low numbers on PPV, and now this first ever UFC cancellation. And the blame for all of that largely falls on injuries. Hendo, Dominick Cruz, Georges St. Pierre, Vitor Belfort, Jose Aldo... so many UFC main eventers have spent time in 2012 sidelined due to injury that it's fair to call it an epidemic. We've come to the point where we almost come to accept it as just a part of the game. But again, you have to ask, why are these injuries happening, and, more importantly, how can we fix this problem?
The answer: MMA training camps need to seriously reevaluate their methods. Quite simply, the rate of fighters getting injured in camps is ridiculous, and shows an inherent flaw in the training system, where everyone is confusing training hard with training smart. It's tempting to write this off as a problem in any combat sport training, but that's not true. Neither boxing nor kickboxing see this pattern of injury in training - how many major recent boxing fights have been cancelled due to injury? This is a uniquely MMA-centric problem.
The trouble is, it's a problem that may be impossible to fix. This idea of going full speed in training is built into the very fabric of MMA. Let's not forget that the sport was founded by a family who went into rival gyms and beat up the competition. Many of the earliest MMA training camps took a great deal of pride in their notoriously brutal training, with Brazil's Chute Boxe and Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den being two notable examples. For Chute Boxe, they came up in Brazil under the long shadow of the Gracie family and their reputation as tough guys. For his part, Shamrock came up in pro wrestling - another place where brutal, injury-laden training is a long tradition.
These early camps have passed that mentality down, and it is now the norm in MMA training. But can you get rid of it? Like weight cutting in wrestling, if it's seen as giving an advantage, it is here to stay - once one team realizes there is an advantage in cutting weight, then all are forced to follow suit or be left behind. The same is true here.
The two big issues behind this mentality are that it hurts the overall MMA product, and it hurts the fighters. When fight after fight is cancelled or changed, fans get frustrated and begin to tune out. Right now, MMA is trying to grow, and losing fans obviously doesn't help that. On a more personal level, it also hurts the fighters, who lose out on paydays, and may have their careers shortened by injury. As more MMA stars retire and get older, we'll see what other long-term health ramifications of this hard training come up. You're already starting to see it in a fighter like Chute Boxe's Ninja Rua, who retired due to reported brain damage. With the damage sustained in fights compounded by damage sustained in training, how many other will follow in his unfortunate footsteps?
MMA training camps need to wake up. They need to realize that, if your fighters keep coming up injured in training, then you are doing something wrong. For the future of the sport, for the future of the fighters, it's time to get rid of the old mentality regarding training. It's time to train smart.