Tyrone Mims, the latest casualty of our sport

(Our resident big shot writer Matthew Polly is back with a fun and fluffy article about the dangers of MMA and the future ramifications of the sport growing and changing so quickly. You can read more of his Fightlinker writings here, or check out his book Tapped Out on Amazon.com. Available in October in paperback, son!)

There is a meme developing in the mainstream media that is potentially even more dangerous to the future of mixed martial arts (MMA) than Ben Fowlkes’ hobbyhorse, testosterone replacement therapy.

In an August 3rd column titled “Football’s problem with danger on the field isn’t going away,” Washington Post baseball partisan and bow-tie-wearing-American George Will opined about how the growing brain damage scandal in football will doom the NFL. With barely hidden glee, he predicts profits will dry up as the league is entangled in a never-ending series of lawsuits and so will the talent pool as helicopter parents, who are afraid to let their toddlers ride a bicycle without a helmet, refuse to allow their boys to switch from flag to full-contact football. To drive his point home, Will compared football to mixed martial arts, which he lovingly called “degenerate prize fighting or prize fighting for degenerates.”

In a more agonized tone, New York Magazine’s Will Leitch recently asked the question: Is it immoral to be a football fan? “Every time there’s a big hit on the field, I can’t keep my human side—the part that wonders what that’ll mean for the player when he’s 45—quiet anymore.” He goes on to wonder if fan disquiet will eventually gut football to the point that it shrinks into a niche sport like—wait for it—“ultimate fighting.”

Ten years ago, MMA promoters could only dream of their sport being compared to football. They were still trying to break the John McCain “human cockfighting” curse. But today it’s a potential nightmare. It’s not going to take America’s sharkish trial lawyers long to smell the blood in the cage and complete the equations football = ultimate fighting and NFL = UFC. As Lietch unhelpfully pointed out, ultimate fighting “is awfully lucrative for a ‘niche’ sport.”

In the early aughts when UFC president Dana White was lobbying to re-legalize MMA, he could point to the sport’s spotless safety record: no major injuries or deaths. That’s no longer true. Last week amateur fighter Tyrone Mims died, bringing the total, depending on how you count it, to slightly less than ten. Not perfect but given how shady and incompetent some of the bush league, unsanctioned promotions are it is a remarkably small number for a combat sport that will be celebrating its 20th birthday next year. All in all MMA is still safer than, say, the Detroit marathon. But that’s what we all thought about football before the brain trauma scandal hit like Junior Seau.

Scientists still do not know much yet about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head. It can’t be studied until after a patient dies, which is why apparently some ex-football players are committing suicide by shooting themselves in the chest instead of the head. But certainly the fact that the damage begins, in the cases of football and boxing, during the teenage years while the brain is still forming is a significant factor. A possible reason why MMA hasn’t seen anything similar to the punch drunkenness of boxing or the dementia of football may simply be due to the sport’s relative youth. The first and second generations of MMA stars were almost exclusively American collegiate wrestlers and Brazilian grapplers. In other words, they didn’t start taking blows to the head, at least in an athletic context, until their brains had already matured (a term I use, in the cases of Mayhem Miller and Rampage Jackson, loosely).

But as MMA has become a more established and bigger money sport, there has inevitably been pressure for younger and younger athletes to take it up. Here is a clip of an HDNet sponsored kiddie tournament with MMA legends Bas Rutten and Randy Couture serving as referees from 2008. As much as I love those guys, we have to think seriously about allowing anyone under the age of eighteen to compete in MMA. Dana White has done a remarkable job of forcibly retiring older fighters who have suffered too many brutal knockouts, even if, as in the case of Chuck Liddell, it took more than one try. Still it may be difficult if not impossible to know when enough is enough if the next gen of MMA fighters begins their professional careers with a significant number of concussions already under their skulls.

In Thailand, Muay Thai fighters begin their careers at puberty and by the age of sixteen some of them have a hundred pro fights on their records, but their careers are usually over before they are 25. The same is true of san shou kickboxers in China. I have trained in gyms and dojos all over the world and I can say with some confidence that the maximum length of a fight career is about ten years. After that the chin is gone and there is no getting it back once that happens.

If MMA doesn’t want to become a youth sport like Muay Thai and san shou and also wants to avoid having its board shorts sued off like football, then the answer is obvious. Encourage kids to sign up for wrestling and jiu-jitsu while strongly discouraging them from anything that involves blows to the head until they are 18. That’s easier said than done but it will be very important to have the attempt on the record the day the knock on the door comes from the law firm representing the widow of the first dementia-suffering ex-UFC fighter who has just shot himself in the chest.