Jordan Parsons, a young mixed martial artist competing under the Bellator banner, passed away in a sudden, tragic hit-and-run earlier this year. It was as sudden as it was shocking.
What isn’t quite as shocking, however, was what has been revealed since. Parsons, just 25 years old at the time of his death, was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, per the Boston Globe. Commonly known to the world of professional sports as CTE, Parsons becomes the first MMA fighter to be diagnosed with the brain disease — joining a number of former NFL, NHL and pro wrestlers on the growing list.
“These findings confirm that the danger of exposure to CTE is not limited to just football, hockey, and wrestling,’’ Dr. Bennet Omalu told the Globe. “Mixed martial arts is also a dangerous sport, and it’s time for everyone to embrace the truth.’’
Omalu is right. Mixed martial arts is indeed a dangerous sport. Though, it didn’t take the results of Parsons’ brain scan, or the educated opinion of a medical professional to point that out.
Brain trauma has long been an accepted aspect of combat sports. For as long as we’ve known about the dangers of constant blows to the head, people have been wise enough to assume that MMA was not immune to the consequences. These are people who make a living by striking each other in the head with unforgiving force.
Of course, MMA is not the only sport dealing with the troubling aftermath of a career inside the cage, on the ice or on the field.
The NFL has long taken steps to reduce the severity and amount of head injuries that occur on the gridiron. Quality of helmets has improved to better absorb impact. The league has adjusted the rulebook to better protect its players from taking a blow to the head without penalizing the offending player both on the field and in his pocketbook. The league has also limited the amount of full-contact practices a team can have on a weekly basis to place the brunt of the damage on our television screens and not on the practice field. Beyond that, the NFL now operates with a concussion protocol that will allow a nonpartisan doctor to pluck any player — whether it be Tom Brady or Billy Nobody — from the game until symptoms of a concussion are no longer present.
Society certainly demands more, but one cannot turn a blind eye to the strides that have taken place within the NFL’s front office.
Only, mixed martial arts is not the NFL. Not even a little bit.
While fighters often wear padded helmets to protect themselves during soft sparring sessions, it’s unlikely that any major MMA promotion would adopt headgear to keep the fighters safe from the very harm that lines their pocketbooks on a fight to fight basis.
Yes, there are rules that are put in place to protect a fighter’s head — such as not allowing a knee or kick to a downed opponent’s head, shots to the back of the head, and 12-6 downward elbows. But do you know what’s still allowed? Flying knees, spinning backfists, elbows that come in at slightly different angles, kicks to the head, knees to the head and punches to the head.
Perhaps the greatest culprit is the sport’s everlasting tie to hard sparring; the mentality that participating in dozens and dozens of relatively controlled, but still remarkably taxing fights is the best way to ensure one will be ready for the cage come fight night. As a person who makes a living by talking about fighting and not actually joining in, it’d be difficult to even consider attempting to convince any given fighter that a great deal of sparring often results in more harm than it does good. But we have seen plenty of today’s most successful fighters continue their rises after making the decision that a dense schedule of sparring won’t make it onto their agenda these days. Donald Cerrone and Alistair Overeem are two of the most famous cases.
Beyond that, there’s really no conceivable way that the UFC or the Nevada State Athletic Commission could successfully impose a sport-wide or company-wide ban or limit on hard sparring. While random drug testing has helped rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs, the sporadic nature of the randomized visits is what makes it a feasible plan. Sporadic visits to certain gyms across the country won’t prevent fighters from going 100 mph inside the cage while training, nor will it allow those conducting the visits to get a grasp on how many sparring sessions have actually taken place before said visit.
And with the UFC refusing to officially employ any of its fighters (who remain independent contractors), there’s no practical method of imposing a cap on hard sparring without causing an uproar in the existent-as-ever portion of the MMA community that still believes the best way to prepare for a fight is, you know, fighting a whole bunch of times.
The NFL’s no-nonsense concussion protocol may be the biggest step in protecting a player from his own pride, preventing him from continuing in a game from the very moment he shows signs of a possible concussion. Even on paper, however, this wouldn’t work inside the cage.
Football is a game; mixed martial arts is a sport. This isn’t about carrying a ball inside of an endzone as much as it is removing one’s opponent from his or her senses. Either that, or forcing them to beg for mercy from the pain of a limb that’s a few inches from being broken or strikes that are individually bringing a person closer to developing CTE. MMA is inherently viewed upon as an art, treated with as much care and respect as is demanded from a society that once (and some still) viewed it too barbaric for the mainstream.
What’s more, think of the greatest comebacks in the history of mixed martial arts.
Fedor Emelianenko picking himself from a horrific slam to secure a first-round submission against Kevin Randleman.
Frankie Edgar rising from the ashes of a first-round beating (twice) to secure a five-round draw at UFC 125 and a fifth-round knockout at UFC 136 against Gray Maynard.
Brock Lesnar surviving a near TKO finish in Round 1 to issue a second-round submission against Shane Carwin at UFC 116.
Michael Bisping recovering from what was basically a knockout at the end of Round 3 to secure a unanimous decision against Anderson Silva at UFC Fight Night 84. He did it again against Dan Henderson in Rounds 1 and 2 when absorbing otherwise fight-ending right hands at UFC 204.
What do all these fighters have in common? They overcame adversity and found a way to win. With an intermediate concussion protocol similar to the NFL’s imposed inside the cage or ring, none of these comeback stories find their ways into mixed martial arts lore.
CTE and brain trauma are as much an unfortunate consequence of mixed martial arts as are pokes to the eye, kicks to the groin and controversial decisions from the judges. Surely they could all be improved, but not without compromising the nature of the entertainment that we choose to enjoy.
MMA celebrates the violence, more so than any other sport in mainstream America.