One problem faced by both boxing and MMA is the two sports’ inability from saving its fighters from themselves when they reach the twilight of their careers.
Years of strenuous training camps and head trauma have left many fighters “punch drunk”—the common, perhaps insensitive, term for combatants suffering from dementia pugilistica (DP): a condition caused by repeated concussive blows in contact sport.
Even with the years of research put into concussions and brain injury—as well as medical professionals calling for a stop to combat sports since the mid-1900s—fighters not knowing when to quit their respective sports for the sake of their own health remains a huge problem in both MMA and boxing.
Plenty of boxing and MMA’s elder statesmen suffer from punch-drunk symptoms. The likes of James Toney, Evander Holyfield, Gary Goodridge and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira are men who fans and pundits use as examples of fighters displaying various indicators of suffering from fight-related brain injury—one obvious trait being their slurred speech.
In 2012, for example, the director of a Toronto brain injury clinic reportedly examined Goodridge, testing his cognitive abilities, balance and sense of smell. All were impaired. While CTE currently can only be definitively diagnosed after death via microscopic examination of brain tissue, the Canadian doctor nevertheless concluded that Goodridge suffers from dementia and that "it seems clear [he] has CTE and has had the disease for some time."
The Canadian UFC, Pride FC and K-1 veteran was still fighting professionally well into his forties, still in his uncompromisingly aggressive style, receiving 11 knockout losses in a career that spanned 14 years and 47 fights. In the above interview, Goodridge is clearly displaying the effects of a career fraught with concussion.
Talking to Inside MMA, Goodridge said: "I truly honestly believe that if it wasn't for the pills that I'm taking, my life would have been done a long time ago. I would have taken my life, absolutely. Mental disability is a huge thing. It's got me crippled."
Luckily for Carl Froch, he was able to make the decision for himself to quit combat sports before being forced to through injury. The Nottingham native finished his career on a high: a spectacular knockout win over rival George Groves at Wembley Stadium—packed out with over 80,000 in attendance—retiring as the WBA and IBF super-middleweight world champion.
Instead of retiring due to being too hurt to talk or unable to think straight, Froch hung up the gloves because he had nothing else to prove—sadly a rare instance even in the modern era of fight sports.
He may not compete in the ring any longer, but “The Cobra” still often makes the boxing headlines in the UK and beyond for his views on the state of the sport. This week, he spoke out against boxing regulators and implored them to impose age restrictions on professional boxing—much like what is in place for amateur boxing—to help prevent sport-related brain injury further.
Speaking to British newspaper the Daily Mail, Froch said: “I don't know whether they can bring different rules in on the licensing to stop people from coming back into the sport that have been retired a long time or past a certain age. There is an age limit of 35 on amateur boxing. They should consider putting an age limit on professional boxing.”
Froch’s views come after Roy Jones Jr. made headlines for all the wrong reasons back in December, having been knocked out by the unspectacular Welshman Enzo Maccarinelli.
At 47-years-old, the newly-made Russian citizen has no business being in the ring from a health and wellbeing viewpoint after receiving his fifth KO loss. But, who is there to help save Jones Jr. from himself?
The individual aspect to combat sports doesn’t help. If Jones were a soccer player with his equivalent in-ring skills diminishing by the year as age takes its grip, no team in the world would touch him. But, as a self-employed man whose only true means to make a living is through fighting, Jones Jr. is always going to take up the opportunity to fight/crush supposed “cans” across the world for big bucks.
The kind of promoters taking on the likes of Jones Jr. are also trying to make as much money as possible, so there is a clear conflict of interests there: they can’t truly have a boxer’s best interests at heart. UFC Hall of Famers Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Big Nog were in the unique position of having a very public fight promoter—in this case UFC president Dana White—make it known he wanted these fighters to retire from competition. With their contracts tied with the UFC and the organisation refusing to let them fight any more, those three fighters all duly retired as White had requested.
The free agency and self-contracting aspect to boxing is healthy for the fighter’s pocket. But, from a health standpoint, it can prove detrimental as the lure of a big payday can cloud the judgement of any man—especially a prizefighter—and there are often dire consequences as a result.
To put it simply, if a diminishing boxer’s only source of income is earned through fighting, they will continue to do so.
This is a sentiment echoed by Froch: "They are forced into a situation where they feel like they need to box, or have to box to put food on the table, which is a shame. Boxing is not like any other sport, you have to weigh up the risk and reward. Things like playing football, tennis, you might be three sets to love down, but boxing you're going to the hospital on a stretcher and you know potentially you are going to get an injury you can't walk away from.”
Froch has previously said he would be open to a return to in-ring action. But, it appears those days are rightfully behind him. Referring to Jones Jr., Froch continued: "A three-month training camp writes you off, I wake up and I literally can't get out of bed. I'll have to phone my physio, he will come over and lie me on my side and crack my back in place and I'll stand up and be straight into the ice bath, go for a sports massage, then a steady walk and then I'm like an old carthorse, all my bearings are greased up and then I can go for a training session. I boxed till my late 30s, so 47, that's impossible really to be at your best and if you aren't at your best you shouldn't be boxing."
People often refer to Bernard Hopkins as a reason why such a rule shouldn’t be enforced with B-Hop still performing at a high level even in his 50s. There is also the case that in terms of logistics, it would be hard imposing such a rule over a sport as globalised as boxing in the first place with governing bodies varying by countries and regions. But, it’s something definitely worth considering if you spare any thought for a boxer’s wellbeing.
Fight sports are often seen as just a source of entertainment to the casual fan, but there is a human element that is easily forgotten. With the ever-increasing media and medical scrutiny placed on the NFL for its stars suffering from the effects from years of head trauma, it’s time some measures are put in place to help prolong the health of combat sports and, more importantly, its competitors in the future.
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