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The Fighter Who Stayed Too Long

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Photo courtesy of Gary Goodridge
Photo courtesy of Gary Goodridge

Ask his friends and they’ll tell you. The changes to Gary Goodridge’s personality happened the same way the brain damage did: gradually, over the course of several years. It wasn’t like he took one big blow to the head and woke up the next day with a mind that could no longer trace the thread of a conversation or remember what he’d had for dinner the night before. It was the little stuff. His speech got a little harder to understand. He didn’t tell as many jokes. He forgot things.

But everybody forgets things. Everybody gets older. So what? Even the people who’d known him since childhood couldn’t say for sure that there was something wrong with Goodridge at first. It was hard to notice, until it wasn’t.

"When talking to him on the phone, his speech was becoming slurred," said Mike Mobbs, who’s counted Goodridge as his best friend since the two were nine years old, growing up in Barrie, Ontario together. "It got to the point where, when having phone conversations with him, I found myself constantly saying, ‘What did you say? Pardon?’ That, to me, was the tip-off."

He’d forget appointments, forget whole conversations. He’d call a friend on the phone, talk to them for a while, then hang up and call them back ten minutes later. ‘How’s it going?’ he’d ask. And what were you supposed to say? That it was going exactly the same as it was ten minutes ago? That his brain was broken, and that there was nothing anybody could do about it?

If you ask Goodridge now, he’ll tell you that his last good fight was in 2003, when he knocked out Don Frye in his Pride "retirement match." Even then he was suffering from back pain so severe that he hardly trained at all before the fight. He landed a head kick in the first minute that kept the world from finding out just how far from fighting shape he really was. Then he fought for seven more years. He had 13 more MMA fights and more than 30 kickboxing matches in that time. He took probably a dozen more concussions, at least. He ran up a tab using his body and his brain as collateral. Now the bill has come due.

"I had no idea about CTE," Goodridge said. "I didn’t know anything."

Punch-drunk, is what the old-timers called it. Dementia pugilistica, if you wanted to sound smarter than you were. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is what it’s been dubbed by the researchers who have begun slicing open the brains of deceased football and hockey players, many of whom died by suicide or drug overdose, sometimes after months or years of bizarre, out-of-character behavior. What those researchers are finding when they look at those brains now are the unmistakable brown splotches, the nerve cells filled with tau protein that sprawl out like weeds in an untended garden, indicating CTE.

It’s something you might expect in the brain of an elderly person with an extremely advanced case of Alzheimer’s disease. Not something you expect in a 46-year-old man like Goodridge.

And yet, according to Dr. Donna Ouchterlony, the director of the brain injury clinic at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, that’s what’s most likely happening in Goodridge’s brain right now. It would take a post-mortem examination to determine conclusively, but after conducting tests of Goodridge’s cognitive abilities, his balance, and even his sense of smell, Dr. Ouchterlony wrote in her report: "It seems clear that Gary Goodridge has CTE and has had the disease for some time."

During the exam, she noted that he couldn't stand on one leg without falling over. His sense of smell was diminished in one nostril. His cognitive abilities were clearly impaired.

"I had no idea it was coming," said Goodridge. "You don’t know. Everyone around you tells you it’s happening, but you don’t notice it yourself."

A Changed Man

At the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where the bulk of the research is being done, they describe CTE as "a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head." The tau protein builds up and disrupts normal brain function, leading to symptoms such as "memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia."

And yeah, Goodridge’s friends will tell you. That’s Gary these days. Though it didn’t used to be.

"Gary used to walk into a room and he owned the room," said Mobbs, who’s now a police officer in Ontario. "His charisma, his wit -- he was one of the wittiest guys I knew. He was quick to laugh, charming, and within five or seven minutes of him walking into a room, people just gravitated to him. It wasn’t like he was trying to do it, either. He was just such a strong personality, so fun and vivacious, so full of life."

(Photo: Courtesy of Gary Goodridge)

These days he spends most of his time in bed. He watches a lot of TV, probably ten hours a day, according to friends, and he’s more or less glued to his iPhone, which he uses as a sort of exterior memory bank. It reminds him who he needs to talk to and where he needs to be. At the same time, even the iPhone can only help him so much.

According to Mark Dorsey, who co-wrote Goodridge’s memoir, Gatekeeper: The Fighting Life of Gary "Big Daddy" Goodridge, the former UFC and K-1 fighter’s long-term memory is still "impeccable." It’s the short-term he can’t get a grip on.

"I’ve gone on trips with him and we’ll be in the hotel at night and he’ll ask me, ‘What did we do today?’" said Dorsey. "I won’t give it to him right away and he’ll sit there and try to rack his brain and remember."

Dorsey flew with Goodridge to California recently so the fighter could appear on an episode of Inside MMA. Goodrige seemed mostly fine at first, Dorsey said, but "on the plane ride he back he couldn’t remember why he had gone to California. I mean, and that’s after we said goodbye to the guys from Inside MMA that morning. Five hours later, he couldn’t remember why we had even made the trip in the first place."

According to Mobbs, it’s made Goodridge more introverted and less outgoing. He’s not the same quick-witted guy he used to be, and he avoids long conversations because "he doesn’t know what he’s already said."

The memory problems are "frustrating as hell," Goodridge said, but that’s not the worst of it. His friends tell him that his whole personality has changed. He gets angry much easier. He’s more impulsive. He knows this, in a way, but it’s hard for him to fully comprehend.

"I’m still not aware," Goodridge said. "I’m trying to get a grasp on it. I’m starting to understand that there’s something wrong with me, but I’m still trying to get my head around it that I’m different than who I was. It’s hard for me to see the difference, but there is a difference."

For starters, he recently had a rare argument with his mother that resulted in the two not speaking for several weeks. For some people, the occasional battle with their mother might be normal operating procedure. For Goodridge, it was unheard of.

"I never talked back to my mother. Never, ever," he said. "I’m 46 years old, and I’ve never talked back to my mother. I actually talked back to her in a very rude, harsh way for the first time a couple months ago. That’s not me."

At least, it wasn’t him. Not for most of his life. But now Goodridge has to accept that years of head trauma may have changed his entire personality. And while the multiple medications he takes and the occupational therapy he undergoes a couple times a week can help mitigate the effects, there’s no known way of reversing the brain damage he’s suffered. In all likelihood, it will only get worse as the years progress, something Goodridge says he thinks about "quite a bit" these days.

"You’re kind of in disbelief when you first hear it," he said. "I thought, it must be something else. Maybe it’s a misdiagnosis. I’m still getting used to the idea that I’m not going to be okay ever again. This is my life."

Asking for Trouble

The question you almost can’t help but ask when you look at Goodridge’s MMA and kickboxing records is, didn’t he know what he was doing to himself? He lost his last eight MMA bouts, with the most recent one coming in December of 2010. He suffered 14 TKO or KO losses as a kickboxer. He fought more than 80 bouts between kickboxing and MMA in a little over 14 years of competition. Didn’t he know that there might be consequences?

The answer, according to Goodridge, is yes. Sort of. He knew there were risks, even if no one was talking about CTE -- at least not in those terms -- when he made his MMA debut at UFC 8 at the age of 30.

At the same time, the risks always seemed to be so hypothetical, so distant. Risks were something for other people to worry about. Goodridge had to worry about the present, and about putting money in his pocket.

"I just knew that I was trying to do the best for my family," he said. "I have two girls, and I wanted to do my best for them."

He came from poverty and he never wanted to go back. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, he moved to Canada with his family when he was seven years old. As he wrote in his book, he stuck out in Barrie, Ontario "like a fly in a bowl of milk." He got involved in competitive arm-wrestling at 15, and went on to become a champion. After that came boxing, where the 6'3", 250-pound Goodridge became the super heavyweight amateur champion of Canada. Then there was the UFC. Then Pride and K-1. Then the unregulated fringes of MMA. One thing, as they say, led to another.

(Photo: Getty Images)

At K-1 kickboxing events, he was known as the guy who would do his best to make sure somebody got knocked out. That earned him many repeat performances, despite a winless streak that lasted for more than four years at the end of his career.

"They paid me a lot of money for that, because they knew there would be a KO," he said of his K-1 days. "Either I'm getting knocked out or you're getting knocked out. That’s what they wanted to see. They paid me to do that."

In MMA, after his glory days in Japan's Pride Fighting Championships organization were done, he became the guy who you could get when you needed somebody with a name, and you needed them in a hurry. In 2008, after Aleksander Emelienanko was pulled from the Affliction: Banned fight card at the last minute, Goodridge stepped in as a replacement against heavyweight Paul Buentello. He made $25,000 for going three rounds in a losing effort.

When he took on Gegard Mousasi at FEG’s Dynamite!! 2009 event, he said he was promised $30,000 for the short-notice bout. The fight was over in a minute and a half. It took him a year to get partial payment from the FEG promoters.

For at least the last five years of his career, fighting was something he couldn’t talk about with his childhood friend Mobbs, who was adamant that Goodridge should hang up the gloves. If he mentioned anything about an upcoming fight, it was Mobbs who would tell him that his skills had deteriorated with age and he needed to get out of the game. Yeah, you’re right, Goodridge would tell him. Then he’d take the fight anyway, because he had no other source of income.

In an attempt to make his point via other means, Mobbs sent Goodridge the video of an interview he’d done at UFC 8 in 1996. Then he sent him one that he’d done in 2009.

"Not the same person," Mobbs said. "Very, very different. And I think he saw the difference, but he still needed the money. He’d been out of the workforce for 13 or 14 years, had no trade, no real employment history."

As he told me in 2010, when he was in the final throes of his fight career, no one who cared about him wanted to see him fight anymore.

"I should not fight again," he said. "I know I shouldn't. But I have to get paid. I'm trying to get a job. But in the meantime I have to get paid, and people take advantage of you."

He took one more MMA fight and two more kickboxing bouts after that conversation. He lost them all.

From Goodridge’s perspective, it was the same thing over and over again. He’d tell himself he was done fighting, and set to looking for a job. How seriously he looked depends on who you ask, but eventually some fight promoter would call him up with another chance to make 20 or 30 grand for a few minutes of work, which meant a chance to pay some bills and get some financial breathing room, so he’d take it.

"No one likes to lose, and it’s always about ego on some level," said Mobbs. "But honestly, I can’t remember the last time he got in the ring really wanting to win. It was only about the paycheck at the end."

When word of his diagnosis spread throughout the MMA community, Goodridge was quick to claim that it was the kickboxing and not the MMA bouts that were responsible.

"Gary and I disagree on that," said Dorsey, who followed Goodridge’s fighting career closely even before the two started working on the book together. "He says it was all from kickboxing, and that’s his line whenever he’s asked about it. He says his only knockout [in MMA] was from Gilbert Yvel, and all the damage came from kickboxing. Well, you’ve followed his career and I’ve watched every one of his fights, and I can guarantee he got damaged in mixed martial arts. I could probably bring up ten fights where he got concussed. I don’t think he really realized what was happening until his kickboxing career, and he took more noticeable knockouts there, but to me there’s no doubt that all the training, the sparring, the fights during his long mixed martial arts career also had a significant effect."

Beyond the brain damage, Goodridge’s body is still dealing with the consequences of both sports in other ways, Dorsey said. He has back and leg issues, and a sciatic nerve that often gives him trouble.

"The guy can hardly stand for 20 minutes at a time without having to sit down or stretch. He’s got a lot of damage in his legs, and I think that affects him at times just as much as the brain damage. He can’t really go out a lot of places. If you can’t go anywhere where you might have to stand in line or walk around and be standing up for more than 20 minutes, that severely limits you."

An Uncertain Future

Say your brain no longer cooperates with you. Say it never will again, at least not like it used to. Conversations you had 20 years ago are still crystal clear, but yesterday is a total mystery, irretrievable without the help of some outside force. Even if someone tells you what you did all day, it’s like someone describing your first birthday party to you. Ah yes, you tell yourself. I remember now. Or maybe it’s just your imagination filling in the gaps. Maybe some things, once you lose them, are lost forever.

Say you’re angry and depressed, impulsive and moody, aggressive and afraid. Say your friends don’t even recognize the person you’ve become, and you know they must be right, if only because they all say the same thing. But the person they remember seems like a flickering dream to you. You remember vague outlines of it, but the particulars are hazy at best.

Say this is your life from here on out. What are you supposed to do with it? What if you’ve got 30 or 40 more years of this?

He thinks about this all the time now. He never lived like he was trying to make it to old age, which is maybe the reason why he could disregard all the risks he was taking, but also the reason why he doesn’t regret any of it.

"If I had it to do all over again, I’d do it the exact same way," he said.

His friends aren’t so sure. Maybe he’d do less kickboxing, they say. Maybe he’d walk away sooner, find something else to do while he was still capable of learning how to do it. But then, with something like CTE, nobody can tell you for sure when you’ve gone too far. Sometimes the symptoms show up months after the trauma. Sometimes it’s decades. Maybe it was Fedor’s punches that did it. Maybe it was the head kicks from Pat Barry. He’ll never know.

Still, he was a star once. In Japan they lined up around the block to see Gary Goodridge. He’d go to restaurants and the chef would come out to ask him what he’d ordered, just so he could make sure and do his best on "Big Daddy’s" meal. He had women and money and nights that he thought would never end. Then it all ended, and his life went on.

"I had a great kick of the can," he said. "Now in my twilight years -- if you can call this my twilight years -- I’m going through some stuff. But I’m trying to get on top of it. I’m doing the best I can."

"I’m heartbroken," said his childhood friend Mobbs, who looks back now and wonders if he should have done more to try and make Goodridge stop. If he thinks about it too much, the tears start in his chest and move up through his throat. He stops and says he's sorry. The tough guy cop, apologizing for getting choked up. He thinks about another friend of theirs, how it used to be the three of them together for years. Decades, really.

"We often get together, and one of the things we say now is we wish our friend was back. We miss our friend."

But what were they supposed to do? They couldn’t choose for him, even after they knew without a doubt that there was only one reasonable choice. And by the time the signs were obvious, it was already too late.

"It kind of sneaks up on you," said Goodridge. "You don’t really understand. People have to tell you what’s going on. Even when you do get a notion of it, you think it’s normal. I mean, you forget things sometimes. That’s normal."

You forget things. You stay in bed. You get hit in the head for money. You get used to it. You settle into your new normal. You wait to find out what tomorrow will look like. Your life tumbles forward. Who can say where it will go next? Who can tell you what debts you already owe, or when you incurred them? And what are you supposed to do if you can't possibly pay? What then?

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