Combat sports leaders hope foresight with CTE research will help avoid NFL-type situation

LAS VEGAS – Researchers have discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of more than 90 percent of NFL players they have examined, covering every position but kicker.

The New York Times reported last week that newly elected Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler had Stage 3 CTE, while another long-time NFL quarterback, Earl Morrall, had late Stage 4 CTE when he died at 79 in 2014.

CTE can only be diagnosed by examining the brain after death.

So far, no fighter has ever been diagnosed with CTE. And while a five-year-old study shows evidence suggesting that boxers may be more susceptible to brain damage from the same amount of fights than mixed martial arts fighters, the evidence showing that being kicked and punched in the head for a living can lead to long-term damage in the brain is undeniable.

“We try to make the sport as safe as possible, but there’s a level of danger to it,” former UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin, now a company executive, said on Friday at a news conference to announce that the UFC had donated $1 million over five years to further fund the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study being led by Dr. Charles Bernick.

Forrest Griffin looks on during a 2015 UFC event. (AP)
Forrest Griffin looks on during a 2015 UFC event. (AP)

“Let’s not hide from that,” Griffin said. “Let’s look and see what can be done to make it safer.”

The study began in 2011 and has been funded by the UFC, Top Rank, Golden Boy Promotions and Bellator. It has studied 540 fighters, including 298 boxers, 202 MMA fighters and 40 from other martial arts sports. The study also includes 82 lay people to use as a control, so it includes 622 persons overall who are being tracked over time.

The study is being led by Bernick, the associate medical director at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. Research has found that changes caused by trauma can be tracked in as little as a year.

“We’ve been able to create a formula based on fights, the number of times they fight per year and age to determine who is most likely to have impairment,” Bernick said. “As you might imagine, boxers generally have more findings over the same amount of exposure.”

But Bernick stressed that he is not saying that MMA is safer than boxing or that either are safer than football.

The study is still in its early stages and researchers aren’t sure why some athletes are more vulnerable than others. Education, he said, seems to be a deterrent, and is based on a concept he referred to as “cognitive reserve.”

In Alzheimer’s Disease, for instance, patients with greater levels of education seem to be more protected, Bernick said. Education creates more connections in the brain and thus someone who has greater education would have more connections and a reserve built up. They then would have more to lose before they began to show symptoms.

“With those [fighters] with more education, even though they show the same MRI findings, they do better on the cognitive tests with the same image on the brain,” Bernick said. “It may be they have a higher reserve, or they started out with a higher number, and it just takes longer [for them to become impaired].”

The Ruvo Center is also conducting a study on football players and is planning to request a grant from the National Institute of Health to compare the impairment in football players and fighters and see how the risks of each sport compare.

“My own sense of it, frankly, is that a lot of it is exposure,” Bernick said. “So, if you’re a football player and you’re not leading with your head and you’re in a position where you’re not going hit [in the head] a lot, it’s probably not too bad. It’s the same with a fighter. If you’re more of a boxer and careful about keeping your head out of the way, you may be fine.”

But he stressed despite the movie, “Concussion,” that details the discovery of CTE in retired football players and the ongoing problems they face, he’s not saying one sport is safer than another.

Getting hit in the head involves the risk of long-term damage to one’s brain health. Why and how these changes occur is what the studying is seeking to determine.

An overhead view of the ring as Manny Pacquiao (L) punches Timothy Bradley during their 2012 fight. (AP)
An overhead view of the ring as Manny Pacquiao (L) punches Timothy Bradley during their 2012 fight. (AP)

“We’re not saying [MMA] is safer than boxing,” Bernick said. “We’re not saying it’s safer than anything. But I think any time you get hit, there’s a risk, whether it’s soccer or whatever. We’re just saying that given the same amount of fights, or exposure, the MMA guys have less findings.

“That’s what we’re saying. I’m not saying one sport is safer than another.”

But the UFC’s donation will help doctors study the problem for at least another five years, which is huge, Bernick said. No research group has been able to track a group of athletes over 10 years, like Bernick’s study is doing.

Dr. Jeff Davidson, the UFC’s chief independent medical director, said he’s using information he gets from Bernick’s research to help him in his job.

He has the authority, given to him by UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White, to prevent a fighter from competing if he feels they’re not medically ready, even if a state athletic commission has approved them.

UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold said he was diagnosed with one concussion, in 2006, and said he has made it to a point to try to avoid head trauma.

He said part of that is sparring sensibly and not trying to hit teammates in the head so often. He said he chides his friend and teammate, UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, for being too aggressive sometimes in sparring.

The less blows in practice, the better Rockhold likes it.

“You have to take this seriously,” he said, “because you can see what’s happened. There are risks and it’s on us to manage those appropriately.”