Fighters not swayed by risk of head trauma in combat sports like boxing and MMA

Adonis Stevenson underwent surgery to reduce bleeding in the brain and his prognosis remains uncertain

The severe traumatic brain injury suffered by Canadian boxer Adonis Stevenson has pushed the subject of head trauma in combat sports back into the spotlight.

There are no easy solutions in either boxing or mixed martial arts, where repeated blows to the head are the norm despite the potential for serious and long-term consequences. The head is a main target in both sports and fighters say they know the risks.

“It’s dangerous but it’s also something that the majority of us love the thrill, love the challenge, love the daring part of it,” said former boxing champion Bernard Hopkins. “That’s what makes us who we are.”

Stevenson remained in stable but critical condition after a knockout loss last Saturday night in Quebec City. He dropped his WBC light heavyweight title to Oleksandr Gvozdyk of Ukraine.

The Montreal fighter underwent surgery to reduce bleeding in the brain and his prognosis remains uncertain. Doctors said that Stevenson is under mechanical ventilation, is sedated and requires specialized neurological monitoring.

The harsh reality of combat sports is that it is violent, often bloody, and at times, downright difficult to watch.

READ MORE: Canadian boxer stable but critical after traumatic brain injury: Doctor

Stevenson was on the receiving end of two nasty flurries of punches late in the 11th round at the Videotron Centre. The final barrage included repeated head shots, with Stevenson’s legs finally buckling after taking a stiff right hand while backed against the corner.

“Knowing that these blows are cumulative in their damaging effect, it just points to the huge risks of sports like mixed martial arts and boxing in general,” said Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgery professor at University of Toronto and a director at the Canadian Concussion Centre.

Fighters do not use head protection at the professional level in MMA or boxing. Both sports have made adjustments over the years by changing things like glove size, fight length and the addition of doctors at ringside.

However, the head has remained unprotected and as a result, injury prevention efforts can only go so far. Hopkins said adding headgear would send his sport into decline.

“This is professional, I think we should keep it authentic as possible,” he said. “Just have the right teaching and training of physicians that can immediately stop the fight when a fight needs to be stopped.”

Chris Nowinski, a founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said changing training techniques might help when it comes to combat sport.

“The No. 1 change would be to not have head blows in sparring,” Nowinski said from Boston. “You can imagine that for some fighters, it could be that 90 per cent of their hits to the head are in sparring and not fights.

“That would be a dramatic change if the culture changed around allowing head impacts in sparring.”

Hopkins, for one, dismissed the suggestion.

“You can’t subtract punches in training or in a fight and not go for the head,” he said during a promotional stop in Toronto. “It doesn’t make sense. It becomes a body-punching match.”

As researchers and medical authorities learn more about concussions, head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the alarm bells ring louder.

Some sports — notably football — have made changes to limit contact at practice while others have instituted concussion protocols.

“I think history shows that if you allow fighting, you’re going to have catastrophic brain injuries,” Nowinski said. “You might be able to do a bit to mitigate it but it’s going to happen eventually no matter what we try to do to prevent it.”

While the entire body can be more of a target in MMA, the head still takes a pounding. And it’s not just with fists — blows can come via elbow, knee or a kick to the head.

In one notable fight at UFC 229 last October, Tony Ferguson landed 114 significant strikes to opponent Anthony Pettis over a bloody two-round fight. According to Fightmetric, Pettis took 66 shots to the head over the 10-minute span before stopping due to a broken hand.

Ferguson, meanwhile, absorbed 32 blows to the head from Pettis’s 45 significant strikes. Both fighters looked like horror movie extras by the end, with their shorts and the mat riddled in blood.

Spectators at the Las Vegas arena lapped it up with broadcaster Joe Anik proudly proclaiming, ‘Mixed martial arts!!” as the second round ended, just seconds after pointing out he’d been sprayed with blood while sitting in his cageside seat.

There is simply a demand for these violent sports. Whether that will change as fighters and the public learn more about the potential dangers remains to be seen.

“As we better understand the long-term effects of these impacts, I think the demand for these sports if they continue as they’re going will diminish because it’s hard to enjoy watching somebody get their brains bashed in,” Nowinski said. ”You might be thinking about how it affects their family in the future.

“But there still is further that we can go to reform the sports so I think we’ll also see them get a little more humane as we go.”

There may be changes down the road but it seems unlikely — at least at the moment — that the culture of boxing or MMA is ready for a revolution.

“We’re in the business of hitting you in the head,” Hopkins said. “My job when I was a fighter was to hit you anywhere that’s legal to win, to break you down and submit you to my will.

“When it’s a good fight, that means that the other guy has the same idea.”

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nelson City Council discussed COVID-19’s effect on the city at its Oct. 13 meeting. Video screen capture: City of Nelson
Nelson City Council discussed COVID-19’s effect on the city at its Oct. 13 meeting. Video screen capture: City of Nelson
Nelson council discusses local business effects of pandemic so far

Report includes results of a summer business survey

LVR Drama student Emerald Lockhart adjusts his costume for a dress rehearsal. Students will perform theatre pieces in Nelson backyards, distanced but not wearing masks. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Live theatre comes to your Nelson backyard

LVR senior drama class will perform short pieces for households

South Nelson Elementary students added several new varieties of plants to the school grounds with the help of KinSeed Ecologies. Photo: Submitted
South Nelson students get digging

The school added several new varieties of plants to its grounds with the help of KinSeed Ecologies

Brittny Anderson. Photo: Submitted
UPDATED: NDP’s Brittny Anderson named provisional winner in Nelson-Creston

The final result won’t be known until November due to mail-in ballots

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts owner, Senator David Braley speaks after the CFL announced Vancouver will host the 2014 Grey Cup championship football game during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
BC Lions owner David Braley dead at 79

Braley had bought the CFL team prior to 1997 season

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

NDP Leader John Horgan speaks with the owner of a barber shop while campaigning in Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Campaigning was restricted by the coronavirus pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s B.C. majority came with historically low voter turnout

Barely half of eligible voters cast ballots in snap election

A Cranbrook mother is receiving praise across the world for her design of a sensory path aimed at helping kids in school when they need a movement break. (Chantal Marra file)
Cranbrook mother receives international praise for sensory paths business

Chantal Marra has sold her sensory path packages to schools across the world

A police pursuit ended with an arrest in Williams Lake on Highway 97 Sunday afternoon. (Facebook video screenshot)
Video catches police pursuit that ends with man kicked, punched in Williams Lake

A video of the arrest is getting widely shared on social media

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Most Read