Jon Fitch, Evans Show Fighter Safety Still a Huge Concern in MMA

Jon Fitch announced his potential retirement at WSOF 34 after his MRI showed something wrong with his brain – so why aren’t more people in the MMA world talking about it?

It should have been a celebration. In the co-main event of WSOF 34 on New Year’s Eve, Jon Fitch defended his welterweight title against an active, dangerous Jake Shields. It was a battle of two of the best welterweights outside of the UFC. Only it ended on a somber note when Fitch announced it may be his last fight — because something was wrong with his brain.

The post-fight interview was stunning — both for its unexpected nature, and the blatant honesty of it. “I got a funny reading on my brain MRI before this fight. There’s a good chance that this is my last fight” Fitch said. He then added that “I have to talk to some doctors and some neurologists and people” and mentioned other nagging injuries including a bulging disc.

For years, MMA fans have had a head-in-the-sand approach to traumatic brain injuries, CTE, dementia pugilistica and all the related health issues that come with a long career in fighting. When Gary Goodridge was diagnosed with the early onset of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in 2012, they pointed to his long career in kickboxing. MMA was a safe sport, they argued. There’s no standing eight-count like boxing. Fights are stopped quicker. The fact that not every fight involves repeated blows to the head, since grappling is involved, makes it safer.

Then along came Jordan Parsons. The late Bellator fighter was tragically killed earlier this year in a hit-and-run incident in Florida. Just 25, he had 13 fights as a pro. Three more on the amateur scene. He’d been in the sport roughly a decade. Just one loss was by knockout. When Dr. Bennet Omalu — the same doctor portrayed by Will Smith in the film Concussion — announced that Parsons suffered from CTE, it was in retrospect a watershed moment.

Parsons’ diagnosis was made by Dr. Julia K. Kofler, a neuropathologist who discovered the same condition in late pro wrestlers Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney, of ECW and WWE fame. Rotten and Mahoney were known for their hardcore style that involved multiple chair shots to the head, pretty much on a nightly basis. CTE, under those circumstances, felt a lot less than surprising (though no less concerning), but in a 25-year-old kid? Relatively young in the sport?

The only thing less shocking than the news itself is the number of people who were not surprised. Of course, MMA is a combat sport. It’s dangerous. It can have life-changing consequences. You cannot look at Dan Henderson, for example, and not see a man who has been through multiple wars. The damage shows.

However, there was always some solace in the fact that the MMA world didn’t see many of the problems boxers, and pro wrestlers, did. Or at least, we thought it didn’t. Let’s not forget, this is a young sport. Most of the first generation of what we see as the “original” mixed martial artists are still alive, after all. Barely into their twilight years. Some in better shape than others. It doesn’t help that any number of old school fighters want to go out on their shield. Yet for the sake of this story, that’s beside the point.

What the point is, is that, unlike in the NFL and boxing, MMA has a chance here to do things right. It may take a little convincing, however.

When Rashad Evans was announced in a fight against Tim Kennedy at UFC 205, fans were excited. The former champ was dropping down to middleweight. Would he be reinvigorated at a new weight class? How would he fare against Kennedy, since both had been out of the game for some time?

The fight never happened. The New York State Athletic Commission pulled Evans from the card due to an abnormality on his MRI. Evans protested.  He argued it was an existing condition that he’d dealt with for years. The UFC, apparently, listened and re-booked Evans for UFC 206 in Toronto the next month.

It was deja vu all over again when the Ontario Athletic Commission pulled him from the card for the exact same MRI issue the NYSAC had grounded him for. And rightfully so.

With all due respect to Evans, brain issues are not a matter to take lightly. Existing or not. When CTE is showing up in a 25-year-old kid, it’s a wake-up call. Without knowing the details behind what exactly the abnormality with Evans was, it’s hard to judge. Clearly, however, the commissions wanted to play it safe. What’s shocking is how quickly people overlooked it. “Oh, he’s always had that, it’s fine.” Is it?

In light of Fitch’s revelation, maybe it’s not so fine. In fact, maybe it’s time to revisit the entire subject. In the US, the Nevada State Athletic Commission and California State Athletic Commission have initiated serious concussion management systems. Overseas, where commissions are scarce, promotions more or less have to police themselves. Earlier this year, BAMMA took it upon themselves to require mandatory MRA/MRIs for fighters.

That said, there are gaps. The alphabet soup of athletic commissions in the U.S. means there’s no set standard, and fighters in smaller promotions are likely to suffer. The smaller the promotion, the less likely they’re operating in the “big” territories like Nevada. When New York announced a brain injury insurance policy for MMA promoters after the sport was legalized in the state, many smaller players balked. Not surprising, the premiums weren’t cheap. Yet that’s after-the-fact anyway.

What needs to be looked at is prevention.

With that in mind, Ireland’s John Kavanagh — head coach of Conor McGregor and SBG Ireland — is requiring all his fighters to undergo pre-emptive brain scans. It’s a step in the right direction. The question is why every fighter competing at the professional level isn’t required to do the same at this point. Yes, it will cost money, but is the price any less worth it than the cost of USADA? Think of it this way: some fighters will cheat, but virtually all will be hit in the head at some point.

Right now, fighters pay the costs of these tests, and that’s something to look at moving forward.

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Kavanagh’s fighters will be utilizing SAFE MMA Ireland, which offers brain scans at roughly $156 a pop in US funds. If there are 24 fighters on a card, that’s still under four-grand. Now, let’s make something abundantly clear: an MRI cannot be used to diagnose CTE. Hence the “early onset” in the Goodridge case. An autopsy is required for a proper diagnosis, which is why Parsons’ tragic death may have a silver lining. However, an MRI can pick up abnormalities that could allow fighters to choose whether or not to continue their careers, something Jon Fitch is now facing.

They can pick up other conditions as well. In 2011, the Ontario Athletic Commission, which has traditionally come under fire for supposed strictness, had a mandated MRI for UFC fighter Brian Foster turn up a brain hemorrhage. His Coach, Marc Fiore, had at the time been a critic of the additional testing, considering it more money out of the fighter’s pocket. After the potentially life-saving discovery, he reconsidered. “I’m glad we got the MRI and the first thing now is his health.”

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Also consider that some athletic commissions require a one time MRI, while many require fighters 36 and up to undergo additional testing that includes an MRA/MRI. This is the case with the NSAC, where an MRI and/or MRA of the brain is a one-time requirement for fighters between the ages of 18 and 37, who have been active over the past 36 months and have not fought more than 425 rounds as a professional.

That’s right: the most powerful commission on the planet skips testing a fighter’s brain after the first time unless they’re “old” or have been through a ridiculous amount of rounds.

That’s not to say the NSAC has done nothing. They paired up in 2016 with the Cleveland Clinic (supported by both the UFC and Bellator MMA), and require fighters to utilize an IPad app, C3, which records information about motor skills, balance, mental skills and other factors. The clinic has had a study ongoing since 2011 utilizing the app with more than 600 fighters involved, active and retired. Only again, the question is — is it enough? And will other commissions follow suit? Why shouldn’t the promotion be pushing for better testing, rather than releasing a statement like this, as it did with Rashad Evans:

The UFC organization takes the health and safety of all athletes competing under the UFC banner very seriously and has encouraged Evans to take all the appropriate time to consult with his physicians and properly evaluate his medical status prior to scheduling any future bouts.

Before he schedules any future bouts? When did Rashad Evans start booking fights? The UFC has a responsibility to its fighters to go all in on this issue. As does Bellator, as does ONE Championship, and the WSOF. The “fighters are independent contractors” excuse will only fly for so long.

There’s an argument to be made that having a fighter pass an MRI for every single fight is daunting, and there may be some truth to that. So why not annually, at the very least? In all jurisdictions, mandated by the promotion, not the commission, just as the UFC eventually turned to USADA.

Prevention doesn’t stop at a brain scan, either. Smart training needs to be factored in as well. Easing back on sparring, protecting the fighters whenever possible. Fighters consent to violence and a certain amount of damage each time they step in the ring or cage, but minimizing it, at this point, is critical. Unless you want to see an NFL-style lawsuit situation play out in MMA, which would frankly be bad for all involved.

Let’s go back to where we came in: WSOF 34. After Fitch made his announcement, Justin Gaethje, and Luiz Firmino put on a three round war in the main event that was stopped after Firmino’s eye had swollen shut between rounds. It was an exciting fight, one of the best over a solid few days of MMA (Rizin, UFC 207, WSOF 34). Gaethje improved to 17-0 as a professional but took an insane amount of damage from Firmino getting there. Yet if he were to fight in Las Vegas six months from now, he wouldn’t need an MRI to compete. That’s downright scary.

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