The costs of a combat sports career are continuous, and run on long after an athlete’s time in the sport is finished. The hours spent training, the days and weeks away from family, to say nothing of the pain and injury suffered trading blows both in and out of the cage. The hope, of course, is that by the time it’s all said and done a fighter will have made enough money to make the burdens all worthwhile, especially those that may never go away.
The threat of long-term brain damage has lingered over professional boxers for decades and decades. But, in modern MMA’s short history, the potential for CTE and other neurological conditions are only starting to reveal themselves. Fighters like Gary Goodridge, Ian McCall, and Jordan Parsons - who was diagnosed after his death in 2016 - have all lent credence to the idea that MMA is likely no safer than any other contact sport.
The most recent fighter to speak up about his own struggles with degenerative mental health is former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion and UFC title contender Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral. Sobral retired from MMA in 2013, with a 37-12 record stretching all the way back to 1997 and the Brazilian Vale Tudo tournament circuit. He competed for Rings, the UFC, Jungle Fight, Affliction, Strikeforce, and One Championship among others—before ending his career with back to back TKO losses in Bellator.
”What happened to me was something that came in homeopathic doses,” Sobral said in an interview with Portal do Vale Tudo (transcript via MMA Fighting). “Today a fighter learns how to fight, he learns how to make money, but he doesn’t learn too much about how to manage his life. I didn’t learn how to manage my life. I made several mistakes about money, about what I could have done with my career. I paid a price for being where I am.
”Today I can’t walk a straight line, I lost sight of my left eye, which is a big price (to pay). I have no balance today, my balance is almost zero. When I’m fighting, when I’m in a jiu-jitsu tournament or in training, it feels that my balance is normal again, but it’s complicated on a daily basis. But the guys that start fighting have to know that the price to pay will come one day. For everyone. People only talk about the good things today, what they have accomplished, what happened, but what about what you’ve lost? What happened to you?”
Sobral admitted that at this point, he wouldn’t want his children to compete in MMA. He also added that - while it’s still only possible to diagnose after a person has passed away - he feels relatively certain that he’s suffering from CTE.
“You start doing things you are not prepared to do, but you have to go,” Sobral said. “You have to fight in pain, fight while injured. You get knocked out in the gym, and you’re still fighting the week after. You have to fight. You can’t say, ‘I won’t fight’. It’s one blow after the other. And I’m [paying the price] now, right? I don’t know if I’ll be able to see my grandkids, enjoy my grandkids in a normal way, because I’m starting to slowly feel the effects.”
“I already have [chronic] traumatic encephalopathy, actually. People barely talk about it,” he continued. “You can do a research, [professional fighters] have peaks of depression, we have seizures, you don’t listen that well. I don’t have speaking issues yet, but I lost the eye sight of my left eye, I have osteoarthritis on my entire body. My knee. I have 13 surgeries through my entire body. So, there’s a price (to pay). It’s not in there for free. I don’t even think it’s about glory, because it’s not for enough time.”
It’s a sobering reality that many athletes who participate not just in combat sports, but in just about every full-contact sport for years on end eventually have to face. That the pursuit of glory may come with higher costs than it ever will rewards.