Article by Gary Wood

It’ll be about a year ago now that I had a small disagreement with an old friend about allowing children to box competitively. “I come from a village with a reputable boxing club; if my child wanted to box I wouldn’t have a problem with it” I said. My friend disagreed with me and spoke about the growing number of studies in relation to combat sports and brain damage. I didn’t really think much about it, yet over the next few weeks my friend sent research links and video clips in relation to the topic.

I’ll admit I was rather skeptical at first, but the more I read the more alarmed I became. The first person I found out about was former UFC Fighter Gary Goodridge, who is now battling with severe Dementia Pugilistica. Other fighters are former WBC light-middleweight champion Terry Norris who now lives with Parkinson’s disease and has noticeably slurred speech, Olympic medalist and former WBC champion Meldrick Taylor (Check out his interview on YouTube with Stephanie Ovadia) and of course, the late Muhammad Ali.

1Pugilistica Dementia has various names such as Punch Drunk Syndrome or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as it is now more commonly referred to. Boxing does seem to be the sport receiving the most attention in relation to CTE, although MMA and muay thai are also being mentioned. In 2015 The British Journal of Sports Science found that competitive fighters displayed slower cognitive processing speeds as well as shrinkage in certain regions of the brain. Irrespective of age, boxers tended to fare worse than MMA combatants.

Some studies have found CTE to be present in 17% of boxers studied, with other research finding it present in all of the boxers examined. Of course, many more recent studies are now taking the education level of participants and their time spent fighting into account, such as the 2013 study in Sweden which took thirty Olympic boxers competing at high level and compared them to 25 healthy, age-matched individuals that had never previously boxed. Boxers were found to have significantly higher levels of Tau protein, which has been named as a possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Of course, one should not speak at length only about the down sides. Any sport such as boxing or muay thai, which requires the practice of complex strategies for attack, defense and counter, is mentally as well as physically stimulating. During the repeated practice of these exercises, the generation of new nerve connections to the brain is encouraged and aids in brain cell maintenance and function.

The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is now hoping to find out why some boxers have significant brain damage whilst others do not. So far over 100 boxers and 150 MMA fighters have joined in their study. Findings after the first year of annual tests indicated ‘seasoned’ fighters had, in the lower regions of the brain, smaller brain volume and generally performed poorer in cognitive tests.

One thing that fascinates me is this: when said risks are taken into account, why do people continue to participate in combat sports? I took it upon myself to interview three fighters based in Xi’an, and try to gauge their thoughts on the previously mentioned risks that are found in combat sports.

Generally speaking, my personal opinion is that banning combat sports would have disastrous consequences. Combat sports are immensely popular and are here to stay. I believe banning combat sports will result in them going underground and the fighters receiving no medical checks prior to bouts, increasing the risk of serious injury. Banning these sports would also result in competitors not being viewed as legitimate athletes and thus losing the representation they require in such a high-risk sport.

Overall, do I believe these sports increase the risk of brain injury? Absolutely. Maybe not to all fighters, but being repeatedly hit in the head over a period of 10 – 15 years during training and competitions will surely have some kind of consequence. However, I’ll without a doubt continue my love for combat sports but only as a spectator; not a competitor.