Some of the biggest names in politics, fight game show support for brain trauma study

Yahoo Sports
Some of the biggest names in politics, fight game show support for brain trauma study
Some of the biggest names in politics, fight game show support for brain trauma study

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was part of the crowd at the old Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas on July 12, 1965, when the great Sugar Ray Robinson fought Ferd Hernandez.

Reid is now one of the most powerful men in the country, but has always been a boxing fan. He was also a member of the Nevada Athletic Commission who judged hundreds of fights.

From his seat near the ring, Reid kept score as Robinson, who would retire four months later, struggled with Hernandez.

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"Ah, he looked good, and he was still dancing, but he'd fought too long," Reid said. "He lost to a man by the name of Ferd Hernandez. I judged the fight. I, with the other judges, gave the fight to Sugar Ray Robinson's opponent. We all know that [Robinson] wound up really sick.

"This handsome man, who was one of the greatest fighters of all-time, didn't know where he was when he died. He had 150, 200 fights and they'd taken their toll."

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Dr. Charles Bernick of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas is in the midst of a study of professional fighters with the hope of identifying causation of brain trauma and either preventing it or alerting contestants to its risk.

It's a critical study, not only because it can help scores of boxers and mixed martial arts fighters, but because it can aid soldiers at war and athletes in various sports.

Reid and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attended a news conference in the Capitol building Tuesday to announce funding for the project and to provide an update on its findings.

Representatives of boxing promoters Top Rank and Golden Boy and of MMA promoters UFC and Bellator attended the news conference and spoke briefly. The promoters donated $600,000 total to the study.

As PBS' ground-breaking documentary "League of Denial" illustrated about brain injuries in the NFL, athletes in all manner of sports face significant long-term consequences from head trauma.

It seems trivial to hear complaints about early stoppages in fights, such as what occurred after referee Herb Dean stopped the bantamweight title fight between Renan Barao and Urijah Faber at UFC 169 on Saturday, given the dramatic consequences of a too-late stoppage.

Following the news conference, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told Yahoo Sports his company is fully committed to fighter safety and that extends to what happens during a significant match.

"Look, at the end of the day, a fight could never be stopped too soon," Fertitta said. "These referees who are in there, they're using their best judgment and they're looking at these athletes and having to make split-second decisions. That's why they are there, to protect the fighters. If they think that enough is enough and that the fighter can take no more punishment, then so be it."

Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, the medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, said the goal ultimately is to discover how and why the injuries occur.

Armed with that information, doctors could theoretically prevent it from occurring again or at least warn when specific athletes are at increased risk.

Athletic commission-mandated tests are done now with that in mind, and some injuries have been found, Fertitta said. But there is not nearly a good enough understanding of the cause and thus not enough is able to be done now.

Already, Bernick said 400 fighters are enrolled, with about 375 of them active and 25 of them retired. The goal is to get about 625 fighters involved.

"Most head injury does not produce brain injury," Cummings said. "But some head injuries produce a brain injury that starts a process that ends up in something that looks like Alzheimer's disease. We do not understand which head injuries lead to which brain injuries and result in this chronic disabling process. … We're using the most advanced technology … such as computerized testing and advanced brain imaging to try to understand this process.

"We're understanding two basic things. We want to know what is the very first change that occurs, and can we detect that in an athlete so that we could tell that athlete that they're in the beginning of the process. And second, are there predictors, are there risk factors, vulnerabilities, so we would know which athletes to monitor."

Mikey Garcia, the WBO junior lightweight champion who recently defended his title in New York, attended the news conference and made brief remarks supporting the study.

Garcia told Yahoo Sports after the session ended that he hasn't taken part in the fighter studies yet, but is eager to do so.

He said it is an extremely useful tool, and said if doctors were able to warn the fighters about abnormalities with more certainty, it would make decisions about whether to continue to fight simpler.

"If they told me they saw something on my brain, there is no question: I would retire and I would retire right away," Garcia said. "I love boxing and I love what I do, but I wouldn't put my health at risk of getting these long-term effects and damage. I want to enjoy my life and my family and my kids. I wouldn't take a chance and that's why this is so important, so we have the information we need."

Light heavyweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins, representing Golden Boy, correctly pointed out that damage usually does not occur in a fight, but generally starts in the gym. Fighters spar unregulated, often after having taken a battering the day or a few days before, and keep coming back.

The legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali suffers from the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease, believed to be caused, at least in part, by taking too many punches during his career.

One of the most colorful and charismatic athletes ever, Ali is now essentially muted as a result of his Parkinson's.

McCain, a longtime boxing fan, praised the study because he knows the impact repeated, long-term brain trauma can have on athletes not just in boxing but also in football, soccer and hockey.

He praised Garcia, Hopkins, UFC fighters Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira and Bellator's Michael Chandler for appearing at the Capitol in support of Bernick's work.

"These athletes are here in support of their fellow athletes because they've seen the result of blows to the head," McCain said. "We all know that it is a problem. We all know that this study that is going to be conducted by one of the premier institutions in America, the Cleveland Clinic, is much needed. Because if we don't do this, then I'm afraid that support for these incredible, entertaining sports will wane on the part of the American people. So this study is much called for, particularly in boxing and MMA.

"I'm a dear friend, and I dare to say so is Harry [Reid], of one of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Muhammad Ali. I think all of us would agree that his present condition is at least partially, to some degree, [due] to the sustained blows to the head that this great, great, wonderful athlete sustained. His is just one of the stories and we owe it to the athletes who put it on the line in the most difficult and challenging of sports [to do this study]."

The project might be the greatest thing that ever happened to fighting sports.

If his work lessens the long-term debilitating impact of a fight career on the athletes, Bernick will be remembered as one of the great heroes in combat sports history.

It was a generous gesture for Top Rank, Golden Boy, UFC and Bellator to donate money to the cause and support its on-going efforts.

It is, though, the least that can be done considering the potential consequences. And given that it could ultimately help soldiers who have been seriously injured at war, there could be no more noble cause to undertake than this.

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