The true fan of mixed martial arts lives in a perpetual state of anxiety.
Missed weight, failed drug tests, nagging injuries, new injuries, last-minute panic attacks: they could all could pop up at any moment to derail a fight and dash our hopes. Scrolling through Twitter before a fight you’re looking forward to is like walking through a minefield of potential heartbreak.
This whole last week has been a plague of fear and disappointment. First it was the slow, steady, agonizing realization that the New York legislature would once again not be legalizing MMA. Then three days ago, word starting coming in that UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo had injured himself during training and was out of his July 11 fight with Conor McGregor at UFC 189. Everywhere you turned on the Internet you saw broken hearts and angry protestations and desperate pleas and painful resignation.
And rumor, always rumor.
At first the rumor was that Aldo had broken a rib, which sounded dire. Surely no one can fight with a broken rib. I once bruised a rib playing basketball and every sneeze for a week after was a small death.
Even then, though, there was still hope, for Aldo and for us. According to our resident Fight Doctor, Michael Kelly, if the break were just a hairline fracture, a crack that goes around and runs parallel to the rib but doesn’t cause any separation, it wouldn’t necessarily disqualify Aldo from fighting. There are breaks, you see, and then there are breaks.
If what the champion had was an unstable fracture, however, where there’s a clear break of the rib and the part that is broken off is being held by soft tissue, then the concern becomes the proximity of the broken bone to the organs — the liver, the lungs, the kidneys. In that situation, a second blow from an opponent could cause the bone to lacerate one of those organs, putting the victim at risk of death.
And what if Aldo had a pre-existing liver condition even he didn’t know about? Or an enlarged liver from a previous illness? That would increase his risk of fighting. And fighters are not necessarily known for acknowledging pre-existing medical conditions or confessing them to doctors who have the power to keep them from fights and paydays. Pride and money often overwhelm fighters’ better instincts.
“Pre-fight decisions about injuries are always very difficult for doctors because there are so many variables,” Kelly says. “Fighter safety is the primary endpoint but sometimes things aren’t clear cut. Sometime the athlete won’t give you their whole history, and then it slowly unfolds, like a story over time. More details come out. The story evolves and that changes things.”
Almost immediately upon reading the rumors you could hear the great gears of the UFC marketing machine grinding and wailing. According to UFC president Dana White, the company had likely spent more money promoting the Aldo-McGregor fight than any other event in its 20-year history. White sent the fighters on a long tour to pique interest — 10 cities in five countries: Rio, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Toronto, London, and Dublin.
A lot of extra miles on soon-to-be-haggard-and-beaten bodies.
It’s hard without x-rays to determine what rib pain means: It could mean a break, a bone contusion, cartilage damage, nerve damage, or damage to the intercostal muscles, which run between the ribs and aid in the mechanics of breathing. So, 24 hours after the first rumors starting appearing on Twitter, it wasn’t entirely surprising when doctors announced that Aldo wasn’t suffering from a broken bone after all but just rib bruising and damage to the surrounding cartilage. And while intercostal muscle strains and cartilage damage can be painful and prevent proper breathing, they don’t necessarily, medically or morally, require that a fight be cancelled.
God was in his heaven, the lark was on the wing, and all was right with the world. The fight was back on.
This can’t be healthy. This emotional roller coaster we keep jumping on as MMA fans. Depression followed by mania, mania followed by despondency. Over and over, every time a new event is announced.
Watching the shift in responses in Twitter from Tuesday to Wednesday was like witnessing the rise and fall of a junkie or a gambling addict: collapse and euphoria, despair and redemption, agony and ecstasy. How long until we collapse again?
“Glued to the phone, STRESSED
Let’s all go back to our happy places now”
“Two-and-a-half to three weeks out is right at the height of a fighter’s heaviest training,” says Sven Bean, the COO of regional fight promotion Resurrection Fighting Alliance “That’s the time when you’re collectively crossing your fingers, as promoters and fighters and coaches. And that’s right when Aldo got hurt.
“Injuries are part of the sport. It’s always in the back of your head, and one little thing can make everything go away. MMA is inherently a risky proposition, a high-risk venture. It’s 100% a high-risk venture. Whether you’re a lower-level promotion, a developmental organization like RFA, or the UFC, it’s all high-risk. Trying to keep two guys healthy during an eight-week training camp during which they’re doing nothing but beating up their own bodies is hard and stressful.”
This doesn’t happen to fans of other sports. The Super Bowl will always go on. So will the NBA playoffs, no matter how many stars get injured during the course of the season. Think of how rarely a big boxing match gets cancelled at the last minute.
Dr. Michael Kelly: “Determining a medical decision in the lead-up to a fight is a more agonizing decision than stopping a fight because in the ring or the cage it’s much clearer whether a fighter can continue. There are things in medicine that aren’t black and white.
“I don’t pay much attention to how big a particular fight is or how much money is at stake. Most good athletic commissions will back the doctor. People do get irritated, though. Sometimes the commission will insulate you but sometimes word of one of your medical decisions gets out and then you get phone calls and pressure and pleading from the fighters or their coaches or even their families, pulling at the heart strings: ‘Please, how am I going to feed my family?’ It happens all the time.
“I’ve been doing for 10 years, and I’ve struggled with a number of decisions about whether it was safe for a person or their opponent to fight. Sometimes it can be hard to even find the medical criteria to determine if someone should fight. What if a fighter has a prosthetic eye or a rare genetic disorder or some previous childhood trauma? How do you make determinations in those cases? As diverse as human beings are that’s how diverse fighters are with their medical histories. With MMA, there’s no clear path.”
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.