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UFC Bantamweight Nick Denis Retires From MMA to Protect Brain Health


(Photo via UFC.com)

For a number of reasons having to do with the sport’s culture, rule set and diversity of techniques, MMA simply is not as dangerous a sport as, say, boxing or American football in terms of brain trauma. That said, it is still quite dangeous and fighteres face a myriad of potential dangers in training and in competition.

Featherweight Eddie Yagin was just ordered to take six months off from MMA to let his brain heal. Many other active fighters conceal or ignore brain trauma and don’t retire or take the rest they need in order to hopefully have some quality of life as they age.

So when UFC bantamweight Nick Denis announced on his tumblr blog this week that he had decided to retire from MMA, it was bittersweet. Bitter because the international community had only begun to see how skilled and talented the twenty nine year-old was after two fights in the globe’s top organization. Sweet because, as he detailed on his blog, he made a thoughtful and proactive decision to protect what is left of his health.

One of hardest things for athletes to do is walk away, no matter their physical condition or age, because it means a forced change of identities. They have to find a new way to define themselves, a new set of activitites to spend their lives doing.

Denis seems at peace with his decision and confident that he will find new things to “obsess” over. We are glad and we hope so.

His written statement announcing his retirement is insightful, moving and inspirational. Read it and then go out and get started pursuing dreams and accomplishments that will make you worthy of a nickname as awesome as the one Nick “The Ninja of Love” Denis has.

“I would like to think that I don’t have an ego. Sometimes though, I think it might just be so big that it can’t be hurt.

I really believe in living life. I always tell people, quite casually, ‘follow your heart.’ I don’t just say it for the sake of having words come out of my mouth, it is something that I truly believe in and do. I couldn’t imagine living my life and ignoring my true feelings and desires, just for the sake of living a ‘rational’ and safe lifestyle. That is why I quit my Ph.D. in biochemistry to move to Montreal, train full-time and make my way to the UFC.

To me, it was the only available option. What other choice did I have? To graduate, get a research job, work in a lab and never really dedicate myself completely to my passion and dream? That just doesn’t make sense. You know, my girlfriend put it perfectly. I will put my own twist on it. Imagine going on a vacation to a far off land that you’ve been planning for all of your life. You get there, and for one reason or another, you don’t get to see or experience something that you really wanted to do. You go back home, and tell yourself ‘next time…’ We all know there is no next time, usually.

Now, imagine if that was the only vacation you ever took your entire life. How horrible would that be? The one trip you have ever taken, and you didn’t get to experience what you wanted to. What a waste. Now, imagine that trip was your life.

Imagine never doing the things you wanted to do. Whether it is a career choice, a random hobby, a personal goal, a trip, whatever. There is always a reason NOT to do something; timing isn’t right, money, risks, doubts, etc. You can rationalize any decision you want, but rationality can’t speak to your dreams and to happiness. You can’t rationalize your way to happiness.

So, with all that rambling, I am trying to say that I follow my heart. In doing so, I accomplished one of my goals. I made it to the UFC, signed a 5 fight contract, made an amazing debut, some said one of the best debuts in the UFC ever, and had a great second fight that I am very proud of, but ended up breaking my orbital bone and ultimately losing by submission with a second left in the round.

I am going to hold those moments close to me, because they will be as far as my dream goes. I have decided to bow out of MMA.

After my first loss, a devastating knockout where Marlon Sandro dribbled my head on the canvas like a basketball, I did lots of research on concussions. As a graduate student at the university of Ottawa, I had access to all peer reviewed scientific journals. No surprise to find that concussions = bad. However, I found something that had never occurred to me.

Sub-concussive trauma. Basically, a blow to the head that doesn’t lead to a concussion. When it happens, you feel fine, and continue on. Maybe you feel like you just had a little brain scramble, nothing big. Those who spar, know what I am talking about. However these add up. They accumulate, from training session to training session, year after year. The research papers found that men who never had an actual concussion, rather only sub-concussive trauma, (they used football/hockey players) when brain scans were administered to them (can’t remember if it was mri or ct), their brain morphology was decayed like that of individuals with later stages of neurodegenerative disorders.

I told myself that if I suffered one more concussion, whether it was in training, in a fight, or just slipped and fell outside on ice, that I was going to be done fighting. Well, over 3 years later, and I haven’t suffered a concussion. I told my best friend Nick, while climbing a never ending mountain in Petra a few months ago, before I made my decision to retire, that I hope one day I will get knocked out again. Funny, I know, but it would give me a sign of a definitive concussion. I would know for sure, decisively, and be able to follow my own rule and retire. But what if I never do get knocked out again? What if for the next decade I keep training hard and competing. I get in ‘wars’ and receive tons and tons of sub-concussive blows. Wouldn’t that be orders of magnitude worse than one concussion?

In the last couple years, and especially in the last few months leading up to my May 5th fight, while sparring I would notice that when I got hit, it would affect me more and more. When I first started sparring I would run through punches unaffected. Not only that, but now training at Tristar, I am literally training with the worlds best. We are all training at the highest level, all for the same reasons. Could I fight in the UFC, against the best fighters in our solar system, literally trained killers, without sparring in training? Not really, so what was I to do? I have made the decision to retire.

Some might judge, but that is fine. Maybe I have already suffered brain injury, maybe I never would have. That is the problem with the brain. You can’t really see the injury, it will take years and decades to manifest itself. When you get rocked in sparring, you shake your head and regain your composure, and within 10 seconds say ‘ok, I’m good let’s keep going.’ But are you actually ok? You are no longer dizzy, true, but do you have any idea what physical trauma your brain has just experienced? I have told this to a few people before.

I make the analogy of my love for MMA as being a drug addict- I know that it isn’t healthy for me, but holy fuck do I love it. I love MMA, and I have loved my experience with the UFC, Sengoku, and every other promotion along the way, but I am a human being first.

I don’t define myself by my work, and nor should you. I am a human being, and I was born with only one brain, and I want to take care of it so that I will recognize the ones I love when I get older.”

To read Denis’ full entry, go visit his personal blog, “Go Love a Ninja”.

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mDino- November 23, 2012 at 10:20 pm
Joey beltran, Roy nelson. Leonard Garcia, and possibly Diego Sanchez should follow in these footsteps while they still can.
Pen Fifteen- November 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm
@Onan
You know who I do remember coming out like a killer in his first UFC fight? Houston Alexander. Denis finished a guy who went 0-2 (and is now 6-3 after dropping his most recent fight). This clearly has his head stuck all the way up his own ass. It's nice that he's decided to make this decision, but for him to act like he's some kind of martyr for doing so is ridiculous. The fact is if everyone ran away scared of sub-concussive brain trauma (which he acts like is some kind of really sophisticated concept), this sport wouldn't exist, nor would most elite-level sports exist if people weren't willing to sacrifice some level of long-term function in pursuit of pushing the boundaries of human physical performance.
Imnotamoose- November 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm
Pffft... Drain Bamage is just a myth.
Onan- November 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm
Glad to see a fighter making a reasoned decision to preserve his health. Life is much longer than the few years a fighter spends in the sport.

@Pen Fifteen - I guess you you don't remember something then it never happened. I remember reading how hyped some were about him finishing his opponent in under 30 seconds with multiple elbow strikes to the head.
Pen Fifteen- November 23, 2012 at 4:29 pm
"I made it to the UFC, signed a 5 fight contract, made an amazing debut, some said one of the best debuts in the UFC ever..." Funny, I don't remember anyone saying that. This guy should have patted himself on the back harder while writing this. I'm sure with that kind of self-opinion, he'll have no problem ensuring gainful employment for himself in a profession where self-doubt and introspection are not prerequisite qualifications.
dipsetkilla316- November 23, 2012 at 3:05 pm
@rampagesconsciences so wat ur saying is only dumb ppl should do mma.
Mr_Misanthropy- November 23, 2012 at 3:01 pm
Remember... that trip is your life.
macreadysshack- November 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm
I think Matt Horwich might actually be getting smarter, 'Phenomenon' style.
lenoz- November 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm
So refreshing to be able to listen to such an intelligent voice talk about the sport we love from an angle we rarely, if ever, consider. The sport's loss is Nick's game, full power to him.

And (withstanding the irony of having just been talking about intelligence) you can't say "a myriad of potential dangers", it's just "a myriad potential dangers". Resist the 'of', took me a while to get my head round that one when I first discovered I was doing it wrong. It's a good one to know so you can look down on other people for making the mistake.
lenoz- November 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm
Nick's *gain* obviously. Oops.
Rampages Conscience- November 23, 2012 at 11:00 am
Not to sound too Darwinian, but guys like Denis should not waste their intellectual capacities for this sport. It should be reserved for the inherently intellectually impaired like Tito, or for those who can never assimilate into normal society like War Machine.
anderson wanderlei paulo thiago alves silva- November 23, 2012 at 10:56 am
Can someone translate this for the Diaz brothers?
KarmaAteMyCat- November 23, 2012 at 10:16 am
Madd respect to Denis. Thanks for the fights you had.
Mr_Misanthropy- November 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm
You leave Mothers Against Drunk Driving out of this!
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