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Is Intense Sparring Really to Blame for the Recent Rash of UFC Injuries?


(The gold don’t come for free.)

By Elias Cepeda

Can you remember a time when the UFC has had more major injuries suffered by fighters in significant upcoming bouts at any other point than it has this spring? The heck if we can. So you can’t blame UFC President Dana White for being a little desperate to find answers as he and his matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby scramble to find replacement after replacement for televised bouts.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the fighters who have pulled out of scheduled fights due to injury since last month:

- Chad Griggs from his fight with Phil Davis
- Yoshihiro Akiyama from his fight with Alves, and then Alves himself.
- Brian Stann from a fight with debuting Hector Lombard.
- Michael Bisping from his fight with Tim Boetsch.
- Thiago Silva from a scheduled bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
- Jon Fitch from his bout against Aaron Simpson.
- Vitor Belfort from his rematch with Wanderlei Silva.
- Jose Aldo from his title defense against Erik Koch.

White recently seemed to put the blame for such injuries on fighters sparring too hard against one another in training camp: “You have so many talented guys out there now all in the same camp, going at it like they’re fighting for the title. These guys need to tone it down in training a bit and stop hurting each other,” he said.

White’s anxiety over the recent rash of injuries is understandable but is he correct in diagnosing the cause? Are the majority of these injuries simply the result of training partners going too hard on each other? Or does Dana imploring fighters to “stop hurting each other,” make about as much sense as him telling fans who don’t have Fuel TV and have trouble watching UFC events to “figure that shit out”?

There is no actual way to know for certain, and White was speculating, no matter how certain his tone. That said, it is an interesting subject to speculate on. As disruptive as these recent injuries have been to the UFC, we have no idea yet if we’re even looking at a trend. For there to be any issue to speak of, we’d have to see a pattern like this sustained over a longer period of time than just a couple of months; an eerie couple of months does not a pattern make.

But assuming that we see more months like we’ve had lately occurring regularly over the next couple of years, what could the cause be? If the conditions remain similar to what they are today, there could be lots of reasons.

First of all, we have to remember that each injury has its own individual story, involving the health history, training regimen, and genetics of its owner.

Bisping, for example, hurt his knee. Knee joints accumulate a lot of damage over years just from the unique twisting that Jiu Jitsu puts on them, to say nothing of the nasty impact running puts on them. Vitor Belfort broke his hand. Maybe it was because he was punching a sparring partner too hard, but maybe it was unavoidable because there are so many annoyingly small bones in the hands. Vitor has been working the heavy bag for twenty years now and hands get more and more brittle as time goes on. Just ask Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Unless we’re talking about brain damage, this writer has observed more fighters getting injured from strength and conditioning workouts and drilling than from sparring.

But hey, one can still push it too hard in conditioning or drilling. Some months ago Nick Diaz opined that Georges St. Pierre likely snapped his ACL because of the explosive strength and conditioning he does, as opposed to Diaz’ endurance-focused work.

Some have thrown out the idea that usage of banned performance enhancing drugs by fighters has contributed to recent injuries. I’m no doctor but a lot of those arguments go like this, in essence — steroids can help muscles grow larger and stronger, but they don’t do the same for tendons and ligaments. As a result, tendons and ligaments can snap more easily and often once they have big muscles tugging at them.

Anyone who has been around gyms for a long time, or even followed big-time sports like Olympic-level track and field and professional football, are familiar with cases where this intuitive argument has seemed to be supported. So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this is true.

Even if it is, we’d have to assume that more mixed martial arts fighters are using steroids than ever before. After being around the sport since 1999 and covering it for a living since 2005, I feel safe saying that this isn’t the case.

I’m not saying that a lot of fighters don’t use steroids; I’m just saying that they always have. I’m also not saying that to provoke moral outrage in readers, because it doesn’t really provoke any in me after all these years. It is just my broad assessment, take it or leave it.

Another issue to take into consideration is if fighters are not really experiencing more serious injuries than they had before, but rather that they are just reporting them more often now than before since the UFC has begun providing medical coverage for injuries sustained in training. It used to be that the UFC just provided health coverage, including covering costs of surgeries, for injuries suffered in their Octagon on fight night.

Last year, however, they began covering their athletes for treatment of injuries suffered in training as well. Given the choice of fighting through torn ligaments to get a pay day and then be able to get surgery to repair them, and being able to repair a serious injury without having to fight with it, perhaps more fighters are choosing the latter.

Now for White’s hypothesis — that fighters are being injured simply because they are going after one another too hard in practice. No one can be everywhere and witness every camp of every fighter, but I just don’t see that theory holding up.

Top gyms from coast to coast and everywhere in between all have different trainers and styles, but what we have seen in the last ten years or so is a marked elevation in the sophistication of training methods, in every way, at the camps that produce the most elite fighters. Even back in the day, gyms like Miletich Fighting Systems and Chute Boxe had reputations for being brutal environments precisely because their habits of sparring hard almost every day were so rare in the MMA world.

Nowadays, such philosophies and practices are even rarer in top gyms. At the mega-gyms and teams across the country that White was talking about, there is more “timing” or “touch” sparring  — where fighters move and mix things up lightly, with an emphasis on working on one’s timing, sense of range, and mastering and executing techniques smoothly, if softly — happening every day with actual hard sparring taking place only a few days a week, even for those training for fights.

And when hard sparring is done, it is rarely done with small MMA gloves. Most sparring work is done with large boxing or kickboxing gloves, head gear, shin guards, and often times much more — think elbow, knee pads, etc. Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things the past decade or so, I called up a handful of UFC-level fighters and trainers from across the country while writing this story and asked them how they approached training.

All of the ones I spoke with said they are keenly aware of the risks involved in fighting and training and so they try to mitigate it by using more timing sparring type work than hard sparring. The fighters I spoke with who originally came from those hard knocks schools like MFS are proud of the intense training they used to do but also made a point to tell me that they now realize it was “crazy,” and said that they don’t train that way any longer.

There are occupational hazards to a job where you and your opponent are trying to knock each other out and break each other’s limbs, and there is a fine line all athletes walk between pushing their bodies to be able to “peak” on game night and pushing them just a tad too far and hurting themselves. For the most part, however, elite fighters and trainers are smart enough to do all they can to manage risk as best as they can and strike the right balance.

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tjbaron- June 16, 2012 at 7:35 pm
To elaborate on the "mental pressure" aspect: Maybe fighters aren't sparring or training too hard, but with any pressure in the back of their minds, maybe fighters have started to train improperly without realizing it.
tjbaron- June 16, 2012 at 7:31 pm
I think fighters are starting to put a lot more mental pressure on themselves. The UFC has exploded in popularity, still is, and the pressure has become greater. I mean c'mon, they're on FOX now. But this is just a guess.
linzhanda- June 15, 2012 at 1:07 pm
http://tinyurl.com/top2biz
Sloppyspray- June 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm
You left out one possibility: Fighters are ducking each other! Sign on to fight the guy b/c you don't want to look like a pussy (and get outed by D.W. a la Shogun), but then get an injury before the fight.
El Guapo- June 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm
SOMEBODY's gonna get fucked harder than he's ever been fucked before.
Hint: He looks like a Latino BG and recently beat up a flabby, Bob Sapp-esque(heart wise)Dada 5000 looking dude.
NOBODY corrects Dana and gets away with it! Just you watch.
The_Dead_Cow- June 14, 2012 at 12:46 pm
Good read Elias. I think you make a good point when talking about the UFC's health plan and policies with reguards to fighters pulling out of fights.
danomite- June 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm
I know why all these guys are getting injured now. It's called 'people don't understand how the laws of probability work'.
The_Dead_Cow- June 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm
There are "laws" that govern probability?
Texascrazyhorse- June 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm
"Another issue to take into consideration is if fighters are not really experiencing more serious injuries than they had before, but rather that they are just reporting them more often now than before since the UFC has begun providing medical coverage for injuries sustained in training."

I think you hit it on the head with that one. Its not that there are more injuries now, in fact I would probably go out on a limb and say that their are the same or fewer now than before due to the difference in training.

I'm not saying that their arent a few big gyms that have all out days, but I highly doubt your seeing people getting KO'd on a weekly basis like it was back in the old days.
Fried Taco- June 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm
So you're saying no one trains with TUFGuy anymore? I bet he feels lonely.
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