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Andrei Arlovski and the MMA Concussion Debate - Part 1

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As Andrei Arlovski lay on the floor of the Strikeforce cage unconscious, eyes and mouth agape, my heart was beating with the adrenaline of an exciting first round and a shocking KO. At the same time, worst case scenarios spun through my head. This was the seventh fight in Arlovski's career in which he'd been beaten by KO or TKO. And these were not cases of pitter-pat punches where the ref was forced to jump in, these were shockingly violent and seemed to get worse every time.

The moment that I saw Arlovski was breathing and had been brought back to the real world my immediate thought was "Okay, time to hang 'em up." It's not that I don't want to see Andrei fight anymore but that I don't want to see him unable to live a productive life after MMA.

We've spent so much time as fans of MMA defending accusations of our sport being unsafe and barbaric that we've began to ignore the fact that MMA is dangerous. When people involved with the sport make public statements that it's time for a fighter to move on it's usually met with cries of "who are you? If he wants to keep fighting, let him!" If only things were that simple.

Currently Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy can only be diagnosed by studying brain tissue under a microscope making it pretty much impossible to diagnose the condition in a living athlete. From an article on in the wake of 26 year old NFL receiver Chris Henry's death and subsequent CTE diagnosis:

How is chronic traumatic encephalopathy diagnosed?

Unfortunately, at this time, there are no specific markers or tests to detect CTE in a living athlete. Currently, CTE is diagnosed through studying brain tissue under a microscope after death.

Hopefully with the current research underway at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, there will be ways to diagnose CTE in living athletes early in the future.


There does appear to be some light at the end of the diagnosis tunnel. From The Medical News:

In a study of ex-pro athletes, researchers found that a specialized imaging technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) may help diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder caused by repetitive head trauma that currently can only be definitively diagnosed at autopsy. Results of the study were presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).


Studies have shown that individuals who suffer repetitive brain trauma are more likely to experience ongoing problems, from permanent brain damage to long-term disability.


In Dr. Lin's study, conducted in collaboration with the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), five retired professional male athletes from football, wrestling and boxing with suspected CTE and five age- and size-matched controls between the ages of 32 and 55 were examined with MRS. In MRS, sometimes referred to as "virtual biopsy," a powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to extract information about chemical compounds within the body, using a clinical MR scanner.

The results revealed that compared with the brains of the control patients, the brains of the former athletes with suspected CTE had increased levels of choline, a cell membrane nutrient that signals the presence of damaged tissue, and glutamate/glutamine, or Glx. MRS also revealed altered levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), aspartate, and glutamate in the brains of former athletes.

The reasoning behind wanting to see Arlovski's career end is not personal but rather that I don't want to see MMA suffer the same issue as pro wrestling, football and boxing where athletes are used up, broken and left with nothing but a poor quality of life.

Unfortunately, right now we have to trust that the decision makers at the promotion, commission and fighter level make the right decision. Instead of holding out to give his brain at the very least a long layoff from competition it sounds as though everyone wants Arlovski to get back in there soon. From a video with Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou:

"He still wants to fight. His manager came up to us immediately after the fight and said, 'He’s not done, he wants to get right back in there as soon as possible.' We’ll see, I think the fire’s still there."

"He’s been fighting really tough guys lately, all his recent losses are against top-level competition, so we’ll have to have some more discussions with him and see what happens."

I don't want to simply state my opinion and have that be it. I've talked in depth in several articles in the past about concussions in the sport and the worries that I have. But I want to go deeper, so over the next few days I'll be bringing you quotes and opinions from experts. In the end it comes down to if Arlovski wants to continue on, if the doctors are willing to clear him and if the commission is willing to grant him a license. It's not unheard of for the commission to step in and shoot down a fight despite medical clearances. But it's unfair to simply focus on Arlovski, he isn't the only fighter at risk. So we'll talk to some of the people who make these decisions and bring you, the Bloody Elbow reader, more information.

Stay tuned.