By George Shunick
If you’re anything like me, chances are you’ve claimed that MMA is safer than boxing whenever some know-it-all claims that MMA is too dangerous to be legalized. (Well, I live in New York, so maybe I get into this argument more than most people.) But the case seems fairly logical; unlike boxers, a significant part of MMA training does not involve striking. Moreover, the type of striking found in MMA targets the full body of the opponent. Boxing only allows punches above the waist and takes place at a closer range, invariably guaranteeing more blows to the head. So it follows that since boxers are struck more in the head throughout months of training and in their fights than MMA fighters are, MMA is a safer sport for the brains of athletes.
Well, common sense and logic help a lot, but ultimately aren’t quite as authoritative as those pesky things called facts. Recently, Sherdog.com conducted an interview with Dr. Charles Bernick, who is in charge of a study of the brain health of professional fighters titled the “Professional Fighters Brain Health Study.” (Creative, isn’t it?) The study is conducted by the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and is designed to last for four years. Its purpose is “to detect subtle changes in brain health that correlate with impaired thinking and functioning. If changes can be detected and interpreted early, there may be a way to reverse or soften trauma-induced brain diseases, like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The study could also point regulators to specific markers in fighters’ brain scans that indicate a problem.”
When pressed if there is a discernible difference between the brain health of boxers and MMA fighters, Dr. Bernick responds:
“We did look at this, because obviously it’s a common question. And so far — and you have to take our results as somewhat preliminary, probably now we have the full data on maybe 150 fighters — there isn’t a huge difference between boxers and MMA guys. If you kind of match them for the number of fights they’ve had, their age, education and number of fights, there’s not a huge difference. There are some minor differences between the two in certain things, but all in all there’s not a huge difference. And it may be the fact that the fight might not be the important part. It actually might be the training… You know, as we’ve talked to fighters, a lot of them say, well, when you train, we may hold back a little, but sometimes, on the other hand, it depends who you train with. You know, you may be going all-out.”
Well, that’s not encouraging. Maybe there is an issue with hard sparring. Then again, maybe there isn’t. Although Dr. Bernick is clear that “there’s no evidence [MMA is] safer,” he’s also clear that “we don’t have any evidence one way or another, to be honest with you.” This is because the four year study is only in its first year, and there is still the majority of the evidence that remains to be collected and analyzed in the coming years which could easily reverse the study’s findings thus far.
Even if the study’s preliminary observations stand, this doesn’t suddenly devalue the argument for legalization. Last time I checked, sports like boxing and football — which are, if not more dangerous, at least as dangerous — are still legal across the country. The most important consequence of this study will hopefully be a better understanding of the exact relationship between cranial impacts and neurological deterioration. Are brains damaged significantly after only a few hard hits? Are numerous sub-concussive blows more damaging than knockouts? Is there demonstrable evidence that practicing MMA leads to brain trauma, as it does in boxing? In answering these questions, this study might compromise a convenient talking point for the MMA community, but it will provide information that could make the sport safer and prevent more fighters from suffering life-altering brain damage.