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Weight cutting and head trauma present serious safety threats to mixed martial artists

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How safe is MMA? Recent articles point out the serious risks to fighters from head trauma and improper weight cutting.


During the long, hard battle to get MMA legalized and regulated there were a few canards we fans and promoters repeated over and over again: "MMA is safer than boxing, even safer than competitive cheerleading," "no one's ever died in a regulated MMA bout," "the ability to tap out with honor and no standing 8 count should prevent mixed martial artists from becoming 'punch drunk' like old boxers," etc. etc.

The second claim died with Sam Vasquez in 2007. The others sputter along, dredged up now and again when we're debating the regulation of MMA in New York state or in some foreign land. As for the rest, the sport is mature and established enough that we can admit it's very dangerous and start looking at what we can do to improve fighter safety.

Scott Harris has a very insightful piece about current research into head trauma in MMA. Here's a taste but you should really read the whole thing:

"I would say there is a sense of urgency," said neurologist Dr. Charles Bernick, associate medical director at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and one of the nation's leading experts on brain injury and disease. "We're making progress in our research, but we don't know enough to make firm recommendations. There are a lot of questions we just don't know the answers to."

In the meantime, there are few commonly accepted methods of evaluating the extent or risk of brain injury in an MMA fighter. Bernick is hoping his research will help to change that.

"There really is no objective way to decide when a person should stop fighting or not be licensed to fight," Bernick said. "When do you decide not to fight or grant a license? It all depends. We have no objective way to make these decisions."

The piece goes on to discuss the pending class-action suit against the NFL and all-in-all presents a powerful wake-up call to the UFC and other leaders of the sport to start taking pro-active steps to protect fighters before the tragedies and ensuing lawsuits start piling up.

On another health related front, attorney Erik Magraken in his argues that if there isn't some serious reform of current weight-cutting practices, MMA could easily endure a tragedy comparable to the three deaths in three days in 1997 that transformed NCAA wrestling:

MMA, as with all weight-restricted sports, comes with a risk that athletes will subject themselves to rapid weight loss techniques in order to make their fighting weight. These ‘brutal weight cuts' are well documented at MMA's highest level. This in turn leads to many MMA athletes fighting in a dehydrated state. This comes with increased risk of fighter injury including increased risk of traumatic brain injury. With this in mind it is worth examining the justification for weight classes in the first place and discuss whether fights following rapid weight loss should be tolerated.

As MMA has grown in popularity so has legislative oversight of the sport. These two developments go hand in hand with a proper legal framework helping legitimize the sport in turn creating a foundation on which the sport can grow. One of the first regulatory developments which has helped legitimize MMA in the public's eye was the introduction of weight classes. At their core, weight classes exist for fighter safety. The risk of injury grows with weight discrepancy among athletes.

Appreciating that fighter safety is the core reason behind weight classes, rapid weight loss is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed. Failing to address this issue undermines the entire foundation underlying weight classes.

Studies show that rapid weight cutting (ie- more than 5% of body weight) lead to increased participant injury risk in combat sports. As noted by Dr. Benjamin, a simple solution to address this issue is to require certain weight metrics from 30 days out from a fight.

MMA stars Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson immediately spring to mind whenever the subject of risky weight cuts is raised. Cormier wrecked his kidneys trying and failing to make weight for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Rumble Johnson infamously flunked out of the UFC following a series of unsuccessful attempts to make first the 170 pound Welterweight and then the 185 pound Middleweight limit. He now fights at Light Heavyweight although his most recent win was at Heavyweight.