All you need is to see a brain scan lighting up a room to ponder — just for a few moments — exactly what it is we’re looking at. Last week, in the lead up to UFC Fight Night 82, the media on hand was invited to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health — a branch of the Cleveland Clinic in downtown Las Vegas— to take a look at a couple. There were a few takers.
Next to the glowing images that Dr. Charles Bernick tried to break down to a layman’s level of understanding was an MRI scan machine itself, in which middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin were asked the day prior to test the boundaries of their own claustrophobia, submerged in the dire truth-telling tube, while researchers checked to see if anybody’s thalamus was noticeably shrinking.
The road to glory leads to batteries of tests.
The Cleveland Clinic is happily the elephant in the room when it comes to contact and collision sports. They want to know what a concussive blow means to your brain. They are trying to figure out the debilitating speed in which the brain turns to mush, through trial of mitigating factors. They are trying to prevent fighters (and other athletes) from lingering in a field that could be trying to disintegrate their memories. In short, they are the sober voice in a room full of shouting brawl enthusiasts — the conscience that plays over every guilty head kick.
And maybe it would seem counterintuitive to bring the attention of brain trauma to the fore in a game where divesting a man of his consciousness is literally a key to victory…but the UFC is backing it. In fact, it donated $1 million to continue the research into the gray matter of the brain. Something like this could feel like Munchausen by proxy, but it’s a good preemptive step in the age of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
"The first thing we think about every morning when we get up is the health and safety of our athletes," UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told MMA Fighting. "This whole study is really the centerpiece of all that stuff. It’s one thing to help a guy get his knee fixed. It’s another thing to make sure we’re protecting athletes."
Epstein has been backing the Cleveland Clinic’s research since the study began in 2011. He said at the podium that he has watched people close to him — non-fighters — deteriorate from the effects of dementia, which played a personal note in his role.
He also said that it was a UFC imperative to get its entire roster screened for early detection of CTE.
"We want to send every single athlete through this program, because there’s so many unanswered questions right now," he said. "You don’t know if somebody’s exhibiting symptoms earlier in their career, later in their career — whether they’ve had damage early or late — so we want to get athletes in as soon as possible.
"The second thing we want to study athletes over a period of time. You could hear Dr. Bernick talk about how you can take a look at these images over a period of time and see changes. And that’s something that’s very important."
Of late, CTE has been a hot topic, particularly in the realm of pro football. Ken Stabler, the former Oakland Raiders quarterback who died in 2015, was found to have CTE. So did New York Giants safety Tyler Sash, and longtime player/broadcaster Frank Gifford, who also died in 2015. There have been numerous others. Bernick cited stars like Stabler and the new film, Concussion — which has added scrutiny on the NFL’s handling of such issues — as reasons why it was important to delve deeper.
Throughout the history of boxing, some of its most iconic names have suffered from CTE, or its more designated form known as dementia pugilistica. Most are fairly well documented. With MMA a relatively young sport, where concussions are rampant both in training and in competition, these new protocols may serve at least get out in front of the issue to prevent long-term effects.
"You obviously need to be aware of the brain and understand the brain, and if there is a problem start formulating a program to heal the brain," Rockhold said. "And so this is the first step, and then it’s understanding and tracking that process and giving a protocol to help heal in that situation.
"I’ve done my own homework and I know that diet, exercise, creative thinking, learning new things, supplementation, there are so many different levels, and obviously on the flip side alcohol abuse, sleep deprivation. Everything works in conjunction with the brain to help heal it. So you can’t abuse your body. It all cycles back to the brain. The brain is the least understood part of the body."
Rockhold, too, competes in a trade where the potential endgame is one that terrifies him. And, like Epstein, he has personal experience in standing by as a loved one’s mind deteriorates. His father, who played a stint in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors, was among them.
"For me, I’ve had a history," he said. "I’ve watched my dad decline, and go through dementia and Alzheimer’s, for many reasons. And also my grandpa and my grandma, too. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s near and dear to me, and it’s the scariest thing in the world. And so, seeing that happen and knowing them and what their situation is — and maybe they didn’t take care of their bodies the way they should have, it all plays role — but I’m in the fight game. Not only is health and nutrition and all that, I’m taking damage. Those concussions people get, and serious head trauma that have a lasting effect. So I’ve done my own study to develop and have an understanding of where I need to be. It’s a scary, scary situation."
Rockhold said the last concussion he took was in 2006. Yet in his only UFC loss, which came against Vitor Belfort in 2013 in Brazil, he was knocked out via a spinning heel kick. Given that Belfort was on testosterone replacement therapy at the time, Rockhold is still fuming that he took damage from an enhanced fighter.
Yet he points out that on most occasions, he doesn’t get hit all that much — that his sense of self-preservation is one of the ingredients that goes into him being a champion.
"You don’t see me take damage in my fights," he said. "I focus everyday on my footwork, maintaining my distance, my head movement — I don’t take damage. People want to say I was in a war with Chris Weidman? Count the number of head shots I took. I don’t think I took one big head shot. I might have been touched a couple of times, I didn’t take any big blows. I took body kicks. He wrestled me a little bit. I was the one delivering the damage. Because everyday I focus on not getting hit."
Still, he knows what it is he’s doing. He’s either taking the damage, or inflicting it. That’s part of the game. And given that the game is a literal transaction between one combatant who is trying to impose his will physically on another, he’s glad to see the Cleveland Clinic delving into people’s heads.
It’s hard to separate the passion of fighting from its vocational hazards, but both Epstein and Rockhold see the need to necessitate it. Both seemed enthusiastically behind the work the Cleveland Clinic is doing to study what for so long has been a killer underneath the surface.
"I’ve had a couple members of my family who were afflicted with brain diseases," Epstein said. "Having seen them go through you know, literally a stripping of their entire personalities, a stripping of really who they are — when you go through that, it becomes part of your DNA. You feel like, you know what, we’ve got to do everything we possibly can to make sure people are protected."
For every big punch, there’s a potential color patch forming in an eventual MRI scan. The brain is a complex organ. If there’s a better way to track its health — or downfall — Rockhold said he’s all about it. He said he couldn’t imagine a life in which his memories faded to black long before he did.
"Zombieland," he said. "What’s the point of living? There’s nothing scarier in this world than losing your mind."