The idea that pugilism leads to traumatic brain injury is nothing new. Even by the 1950’s it was well-trodden ground among the boxing faithful. Once known simply as being ‘punchy’ or ‘punch drunk,’ modern science has taken a keener eye towards concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) as a result of sports competition.
Much of the current research into these injuries is centered around the NFL, as fresh data suggests that the number of pro football players suffering from CTE may be staggeringly high. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not still a haunting problem in the combat sports world.
The latest fighter to bring up the issue is UFC flyweight Ian McCall.
‘Uncle Creepy,’ as he’s also known, has been sidelined since a decision loss to John Lineker in 2015. Following that fight, a myriad of issues have kept him out of the cage: first injuries to himself, then opponents who couldn’t make weight or fell ill, and then his own bout of illness, which apparently has yet to be entirely cured. And while all those are setbacks in their own right, his most recent revelation, during an interview with Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, is much more troubling (transcript via MMA Fighting).
“I’m doing brain treatment down in San Diego that’s helping,” McCall said, speaking of his recent layoff from fighting. “Jeff Novitzky set me up with transcranial magnetic stimulation, it really does help my brain so that’s a plus. I saw a lot of bad signs, still seeing a lot of bad signs just with CTE-type stuff, TBI stuff, so it scared me. I went down there and I’m trying to fix it. Fix the depression and all the stuff that comes with that, we’ll see. I’ve got another month left.”
McCall made it clear in the interview that he’s not blaming the UFC for his troubles, nor even entirely his MMA career, telling Helwani, “Picking this sport as a profession ... overdosing on drugs when I was down and out. There’s a lot wrong with my brain, it’s not just the punching.” But, even while looking for lessons in the murder-suicide perpetrated by pro-wrestling icon Chris Benoit - whom postmortem tests showed to be suffering from severe brain trauma, likely from his years in the ring - McCall isn’t necessarily ready to declare himself retired.
“My whole career is a regret … I don’t hold any ill will toward the sport, it’s a weird place that people at the end of their career kind of go over. And no one talks about it, people fight it. I’m not gonna fight it,” McCall said. “People make Chris Benoit out to be - I always thought he was a f*cking monster for what he did. And then being with (my wife) Alicia and being around wrestlers and the stories you hear about Chris and how good of a person he was and how amazing of a father he was, all of this stuff, and it’s the TBI or drugs - I’m not saying he was on drugs - or steroids or whatever.
“That stuff drives people crazy and for me to think that through hurting my brain I could hurt someone else, like the people I love? Sorry. Not gonna happen. I’m not going to ever, ever let that happen. So I’m at least going to hop on it now and try and fix it before it gets worse and if I can fight again then cool. If I don’t fight again then sure, my whole career is a regret, but whatever, I had a lot of fun.”
Hopefully for McCall his time in treatment helps to stave off the effects of his past. But, even if he can get himself feeling back to normal, it may be time to look at other options beyond fighting. Or risk becoming another in a long history of cautionary tales.