Brain injuries have become a major discussion point in the sports world over the past few years. The NFL has been one of the leading reasons for this as the damage done by concussions in the sport has come much more into focus and other studies have looked into the effect of brain trauma in hockey, soccer, boxing and many other sports.
UFC president Dana White spoke about concussions and what he feels is the relative safety of mixed martial arts during the New Media Expo (transcription via MMA Mania):
"Concussion is a huge dilemma right now for the NFL. Here's the difference between the UFC and the NFL as far as concussions are concerned. First of all, if you get a concussion, if you get knocked out or you get hurt whatsoever in the UFC, three months suspension. You are on suspension for three months and you cannot come back until you are cleared by a doctor. You can't have any contact whatsoever. In the NFL, you're not going to lose Tom Brady for three months, man. You lose Tom Brady for three months and your whole season is wiped out. So, the UFC, listen, we don't hide from it, it's a contact sport and that's what these guys do, (is) much safer. In the 20-year history of the UFC, it will be 20-years in November, there has never been a death or a serious injury. Never been a death or serious injury in 20 years because we go above and beyond when it comes to the safety of these guys. When you know you have two healthy athletes getting ready to compete, they get the proper medical attention before and after, it's the safest sport in the world, fact."
There is obviously a lot to cover here:
- The idea that MMA is the safest sport in the world is crazy. Let's get that out of the way first. Tennis, golf, track and field, swimming, baseball...etc. Are all "safer" sports in that they lack head trauma all together and -- beyond things like dehydration or freak incidents -- present little risk of death.
- We've seen plenty of fighters say that they don't avoid contact in training during medical "no-contact" suspensions and many of us have seen it ourselves. There's also the idea that concussions can take place in training and a fighter can get cleared and fight just a few days later assuming he doesn't show outward signs -- not a guarantee of health -- during his exam.
- While it's easy to agree that the NFL has a bigger "concussion problem" that does not then make a sport where you are regularly hit in the head "safe." This is especially true as medical science gets a better idea about the damage done by sub-concussive blows to the head.
Assuming that safety is a top priority, I would love to see the UFC commission a long-term brain study of their fighters. Meaning regular brain scans throughout the year for multiple years. I know that can be difficult when the UFC doesn't always have guys under contract for 2-3 years. But it's the only way to actually be able to talk with any sort of facts about the safety of the sport. Right now it's based on two things: 1) no one has died in a UFC event. 2) it doesn't seem like too many guys are suffering long term effects...you know, via the eyeball test.
It also can't be stressed enough that the first generation of fighters is just getting out of the game over the past few years. We have an incredibly small sample size to look at in terms of aging fighters right now. And we probably need a few more "generations" of fighters to retire and grow old to get a true feel for the impact of the sport on them as they age, guys who have had to compete with other high level athletes, not guys who were the best of a sport that was still very much in the developmental stages.
This is not to say that MMA isn't regulated well. From a safety standpoint there isn't a ton that can be done beyond what they do now without a better understanding of the effects of the sport on the human brain.
I love football, MMA and boxing and with being a fan of those sports comes the acknowledgement that brutal things happen in the sport. I'm okay with it, but bragging about safety should come with a responsibility to fully study the effects of your sport.