The blows to his head came so quickly that Mirsad Bektic had no idea what hit him. He shuffled his feet, a sign that he was dazed from the two illegal knee kicks to the head. Minutes before that, he experienced double vision when mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Chas Skelly scraped him near his eye.
Despite Bektic’s wobbling, the referee continued the fight. He was given five minutes to recover — just enough time to pull together an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight victory.
He called the night a dream come true. Then, he took a CT scan two days later to make sure the purple lump on his left cheekbone was his only parting gift.
Bektic avoided a concussion this time, but the odds suggest this 23-year-old fighter will experience at least one head injury during his career. The odds are less certain if he will become the next professional athlete to suffer from the highly publicized degenerative brain disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
There is no cure for CTE, but a groundbreaking study by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas on the neurodegenerative disease could prompt fight organizations to make sweeping changes in the future.
“Not everybody is going to have long-term consequences,” said Dr. Charles Bernick, a neurologist and principal investigator of the professional brain health study. “So what you want to find out is who is at risk, what are the risk factors, can you identify those that are going to progress over time before they start progressing and then how do you translate that into safety for the sport?”
CTE is caused by repeated concussions or exposure to a single traumatic event such as a car accident or military explosion. The condition leaves its victims with dementia-like symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, aggression and depression. It has been linked to former National Football League (NFL) players’ suicides.So far, the MMA community managed to avoid the headlines about rampant CTE victims that have haunted the NFL and National Hockey League. But it’s not because MMA is safer. Simply put, there isn’t enough research available yet to prove whether the sport is more or less dangerous than other high-profile professional contact sports.
Spending time to prove how dangerous one sport is compared to the other, however, is about as useful as proving that water is wet. All contact sports pose a threat to long-term health.
Bernick aims to answer next-level questions, such as whether early detection is possible and whether certain individuals are more inclined to experience CTE due to genetics.
He started the research in 2011 and received a $600,000 contribution from the UFC, Bellator MMA, Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank Boxing earlier this year to continue the study.
“Never in the history of the world did anybody think getting punched in the face was good for you, you know what I mean? Obviously we know it’s dangerous to get hit in the head,” UFC President Dana White said. “The reason we’re putting so much money behind it is there’s some people out there that believe, for instance, if you look at the lineage of a family, there’s people who have cancer in their family, Alzheimer’s. . . Now they’re starting to believe there’s people in their family genes that are more susceptible to brain damage. They might be able to test for that gene and if you have it, you should probably stay away from contact sports.”
To date, there are 410 boxers and MMA fighters enrolled in the study. About 30 of the 410 are female and 25 are retired fighters.
Researchers measure changes in the fighters’ brain volume, scarring and blood flow up to three times a year over a minimum period of four to five years with advanced MRI scans.
Those results are compared to a control group of 100 individuals of the same age and education who have not experienced any head injuries.
This is the only research on brain trauma so far that measures active fighters. Boston University, the industry leader on neurodegenerative-disease studies, largely focuses on the brains of deceased and retired athletes for research.
It’s too early into the research for hard-line conclusions, but Bernick said if authorities limit the number of bouts per year and cut back on sparring time it could prove helpful.
MMA fighters compete in an average of two to three bouts a year and the UFC already has one of the most stringent concussion policies in professional sports. If a fighter is knocked out, he or she is suspended from contact drills for 60 days and from bouts for 90 days. But several UFC fighters said they would support the recommendation of decreased sparring time for improved safety.
“I think you’re gonna to start to see a trend of fighters starting to cut back on their sparring, I know I have. I’ll save the hard blows for the cage, that way I can save my head,” UFC heavyweight Travis Browne said. “I want to be able to raise my kids after this, you know?”
But cutting back on sparring isn’t difficult for most MMA fighters anyway since it’s just one component of their training, which also includes jiu jitsu, muay thai, kickboxing and wrestling.
If there is a test in the future that could identify genetic markers for CTE, it would answer some important questions and possibly raise a new set of complex issues for athletes.
Should athletic commissions and fight organizations allow someone with a predisposition to CTE to compete?
Should fighters have the right to decline to learn whether they are predisposed to CTE?
If fighters learn they are predisposed to CTE, would it stop their desire to compete?“Yeah, I would want to know,” Bektic said. “Because I would be more conscious about things that I did.” MCT