No matter how you feel about it, just about everyone in the US has an opinion on mixed martial arts, better known as MMA. The fighting sport has risen to mass popularity on the waves of criticism and unbridled excitement of seeing two grown men or women beat each other to bloody messes inside a cage-like ring.
It is every bit as prominent as wrestling was before the controversy of staged-fights made the WWE and similar professional wrestling leagues slip into their current niche spot in culture. But, while professional wrestling is at least partially staged (though dangerous), MMA is all real. The blood, heavy hits, and complicated maneuvers are all the acts of very skilled fighters.
But, what will become of these men who are being beaten in a bloody spectacle for millions to watch when they grow old? The sport is currently too young to accurately measure, but if we make predictions from similar sports, the future isn’t bright for many MMA fighters. Until recently the neurodegenerative disorder Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was known as “boxer’s dementia” because the strong connection between repeated knocks to the head taken during fights and mental decline later in life.
Yet MMA fighters, who take roughly the same number of heavy punches to the head and face as boxers, laugh at the idea of consequences later in life, even as they tell stories of “slurring their words and battling the effects of brutal sparring sessions.”
It is exactly this disconnect between physical consequences of sports constructed around inflicting severe physical damage on opponents, and the recognition of long-term effects which gained the interest of New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger. Their reporters spent six months following the world of MMA from gyms to live professional fights, watching the men who aim to destroy each other brush off the idea that one day they may actually have to face the consequences in a way they didn’t plan for. For the next week they will be sharing what they saw.
No one in the sport is surprised they may have to deal with sore limbs, arthritis, and other physical problems when they are old. But, none of them prepared for the silent and tragic deterioration of the brain. But, most brain injury experts agree that MMA fighters should expect to see the same fallout similar sports have. If helmets can’t protect NFL players, what could possibly protect professional fighters?