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TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig on the lingering effects of concussions and the time to move on

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UFC on FOX 8 weigh-in photos

OK. I’m Mac. I’m at my house. This is my room. I’m safe. My kid, she’s sleeping in her room. I’m cool.

It’s the middle of the night and the details are slowly coming back to Mac Danzig. Usually, it doesn’t take too long, but there are times when his amnesia lasts at least an hour, propelling him out of bed to make sure everything in his house is where it should be.

This is not the mental fog of a sleep cycle interrupted, or a lingering dream. For Danzig, it’s something different. He can’t be 100 percent sure it’s the result of his career in fighting, but he didn’t experience it before he got in the cage. The bouts of amnesia and disorientation come and go along with a sensation that grips the back of his head. The physical symptoms remind him that his days of giving and taking punches are over.

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Mac Danzig’s UFC career ended in 2014 with an open letter, making official a decision he wrestled with for two years as he lost the ability to sustain damage in the gym. He wrote to fans, “After 14 years of training and taking shots like a champ, my brain was finally telling me to chill out.” Like many before him, he could see the writing on the wall. Unlike many others, he acted on it.

But even after he chilled out, his brain continued to send him signals.

“You know in TV shows when people have amnesia, they always say, ‘Where am I?’ I don’t say that sh*t out loud – I’m stumbling around in the dark,” Danzig told MMA Fighting. “The fear of being that confused about where you are and who you are and what’s going on, it’s terrible. I can’t explain it.”

Sitting in an office at the Luo Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which hosts the Professional Athletes Brain Health study in which he’s a subject, Danzig remembers trying to. After describing what happened to one of the doctors administering the study, the doctor meandered to the conclusion that it might be sleep apnea, not a traumatic brain injury, that was the culprit.

I don’t wake up short of breath, he told the doctor.

“You should do a sleep study,” the doctor replied. “Unfortunately, there’s only so much we can tell about the brain when the person’s alive.”

With no official answers, Danzig took them from his body. He tried several times to make a fresh start after the end of his career, moving from job to job before following the well-traveled road of gym owner and instructor.

There are times at Danzig MMA, the academy he founded in Bend, Ore., when he would like to give his students a taste of what it’s like to fight a UFC fighter. It’s the market edge he has over other schools in the area. But when he tries to spar like he once did, the symptoms come back.

“I’ve just make it a point not to do that,” he said. “It would be fun for me to do it. It would keep me sharp. I’m a martial artist, and I want to continue to use my skills and have fun. It’s just not worth it. I can’t do it anymore.”

Talking to a reporter about the lingering effects of brain trauma wasn’t high on Mac Danzig’s list of things to do. He is an intensely private person, hated by many fans, he believes, for his vegan diet, and wary of the way his messages are often received: A disgruntled former fighter complaining about the job he chose.

Danzig makes one thing clear: He did this to himself – it is nobody else’s fault.

“I just want to make sure people understand, I’m not trying to blame somebody else,” he said. “It was me.”

On the other hand, he also wants to show the MMA community that his former lightweight colleague Spencer Fisher is not alone, and that this is something people need to pay attention to. As Fisher agonized over the decision to go public about worsening neurological issues as the result of fighting, Danzig was a name he kept mentioning as someone who was suffering from symptoms. And so Danzig agreed to talk about how his brain is doing these days.

Other than the boundaries around parts of his craft, the 41-year-old Cleveland native considers himself fortunate to be in relatively good health. A meat-free diet, active lifestyle and no alcohol appear to have gone a long way to preserve his faculties. But he didn’t make it out of the sport unscathed – that was clear long before he hung up his gloves.

“There’s this feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I started to experience it around that time when the concussions started getting really bad,” he said. “I couldn’t deal with normal occurrences in life, normal disappointments. My patience got extremely low, and I felt really irritable and in a bad mood all the time, and there was a really vague feeling coming from the back of my head and throughout my back.”

A lifelong documentarian through the camera lens, Danzig once tried to shine a light on the consequences of a career in MMA; he and another filmmaker teamed up to make a film about CTE in the sport. The project fizzled, he said, when several fighters who, after initially revealing harrowing struggles with concussions and brain trauma, refused to speak on the record because they were afraid they’d lose their only source of future work.

The fighters’ rationalization was a familiar one. He’d made it himself during his time in the UFC. The caption on his UFC bio still reads: I won’t let anything stop me from making a living in this sport.

“I didn’t want to tell them about concussion issues, because I didn’t want them to think that I was a liability that they had to release,” Danzig said. “As if it wasn’t already bad enough that you had a couple of losses, your head’s on the chopping block, if you start talking about having concussion problems, I think it would cause a major conflict of interest. So I avoided that.”

Eventually, there was no way around the changes he was experiencing during the tail end of his career. As he prepared for a 2012 fight with Takanori Gomi, Danzig suffered several flash knockouts where his legs went out from under him but he remained conscious. Sparring was rarely a light thing; for several years of his UFC career, he trained at Xtreme Couture in the days when Randy Couture, Tyson Griffin, Jay Hieron, Gray Maynard, Martin Kampmann were regulars. It was long before the UFC Performance Institute and fancy rehab machines and baseline testing. Preparing yourself for a fight was about experiencing the worst-case scenario so it wasn’t unfamiliar in the octagon.

In other words, there were a lot of gym wars.

At the time, Danzig’s thought was, “What if this was a fight and I have to keep going? I have to prove to the referee I’m still in this so they don’t stop it.” Stopping it not only meant a loss – it took half of his money.

“I thought if you did things lightly, you were just putzing around,” he said.

If you remember him from his time on The Ultimate Fighter 6, Danzig was a guy for whom the very thought of putzing was an insult. After fellow cast member Blake Bowman injured his knee in a TKO loss to Richie Hightower, he questioned why Bowman had even shown up on set.

“He is not fit to play rec league basketball, man,” Danzig told his roommates Dorian Price and Billy Miles.

“In all honesty, this sport is dangerous, and you can get hurt being struck in the head,” Miles offered.

“It’s a fight,” Danzig interrupted. “He shouldn’t have been here. It’s bad for the sport, and it’s a liability. In any other walk of life, he’d be an accountant, and you’d get into an argument in the parking lot at K-Mart, hit him once, and he sues you, and he probably screwed up his spine when you hit him.”

As trying as the strains, pulls and tears of the job were, Danzig refused to be a liability. Only when he was preparing to face Melvin Guillard at UFC on FOX 8 in July 2013 – the same fight card from which Fisher was pulled due to an abnormal brain scan – did he realize his days were numbered. There was a training partner with a good right hand. It found the top of his head one day, and he went completely out.

“I got up, and I insisted that we keep sparring,” Danzig remembers. “A lot of guys weren’t comfortable with it. They would start going lighter with me. I’d be like, ‘No, no, no. Don’t go light. Just keep going.’”

By then, he had relocated to another hard-nosed gym in Los Angeles. Less than two weeks from the bout, he was doing his last sparring session when another training partner clipped his chin with a kick. This time, he was fully awake as he fell backward, his head bouncing off the canvas, his teammates crowding around to make sure he was OK.

“I’m trying to sit up and my body won’t really move, and so I’m just laying there,” he said. “Eventually, I sit up, and I’m talking to people. I’m kind of insistent that I get back to sparring and finish the night, because it was only two or three rounds in, and I still need to get more rounds. And they say, ‘I don’t know.’ And I say, ‘No, no, I think I can do it. Just give me a minute.’

“I remember saying I’m just going to take a round to gather myself and decide if I can keep going. I sat there, and I started having this weird deja vu about a dream that I had probably 10 years earlier. And I hadn’t thought about that dream since the morning I had that dream. I was trying to put my finger on this feeling or this notion of something that happened. I couldn’t figure it out, and at some point, I looked up, and I noticed there wasn’t any music any more, and they were turning off the lights. The gym was closing. I had been sitting there for, like, 55 minutes and I didn’t even realize it.

“I knew then that this is really bad. I’m a week-and-a-half out from fighting a guy who’s only ability to beat me is by knocking me out.”

The fear turned out to be justified. As he closed distance on Guillard in the second round of the fight, he took a left hook that knocked him to the ground. As he tried to regain his bearings, Guillard hit him square in the face, twice, knocking him unconscious. He woke up seconds later, screaming in pain, unable to move as his body reset and the referee and other officials pressed on torn cartilage in his ribs.

UFC on FOX 8 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Thirty minutes later, Danzig was still feeling the effects of the knockout.

“I had all these green triangles in this, like, geometric pattern that would not leave my peripheral vision. It was like a vignette around my vision,” he said. “If I really looked to the side, trying to look at it, it would go away. And I was like, ‘Man, I’m messed up. I’m f*cked up.’”

No one other than Danzig’s teammates knew what he had been through in the leadup to the fight, and he couldn’t risk losing a payday by telling the UFC or the overseeing athletic commission beforehand. He got one more chance to stay with the promotion and was released after a unanimous decision loss to Joe Lauzon less than five months later. His UFC career lasted six years and 13 fights.

The symptoms that Danzig experienced still weren’t enough to keep him away from the cage. Nearly four years later, in 2017, he took one more fight on the regional circuit. This time, he used his grappling to overwhelm an unheralded opponent.

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For years after his career ended, Danzig was angry about the way he’d been treated by the UFC. He joined the ongoing class-action lawsuit against the promotion and spoke out about the company in interviews. But eventually, he came to the conclusion that his anger was part of the grieving process of letting go of his life as a professional athlete.

“Overall, life after fighting is slowly getting better as the years go by,” he said. “Although the first few years after my last UFC fight were really tough in so many ways, retiring when I did was one of the best decisions I made.”

Danzig still takes the UFC to task for the way they’ve treated the subject of brain trauma. Responsibility to help those who suffer long-term effects, he said, rests in part with the promotion for profiting from the brutality of the sport and encouraging fighters to trade more punches, elbows, kicks and knees.

“The fighters-only meetings, [UFC President Dana White] is like, ‘If you motherf*ckers go out there and put on a show, you don’t have to worry about it, I’m going to take care of you. But if you go out there and hold and just push the guy up against the fence, I don’t care if you win.’ It’s like this dad, this grandfather, this boss’s mentality, holding it over fighters’ heads, and being like, ‘This is the way you need to fight.’ And so people are fighting like idiots, and they’re fighting in a way that does not help their longevity in the sport, and that’s why they’re chewed up and spit out real quick.”

Danzig also acknowledges that fighters’ attitudes are half the problem. They don’t do enough to protect themselves during their careers and pay the price when their bodies eventually give way. They can’t be fully honest about what’s going on, either, because it has the potential to threaten their livelihood. A culture of risk-taking enables another one of silence.

But in his experience, the UFC didn’t offer much of an incentive for fighters to act otherwise. Even when he was under contract, he said the protections offered by the promotion left much to be desired when it came to injuries that didn’t happen in the octagon. The accident insurance secured for the fighters in 2011 was routed through a single UFC staffer, he said, and it was a nightmare of delays and avoidance when claims arose.

When an injury made you a liability, he said, your relationship with the promotion determined whether or not medical bills got paid quickly – or you were left to chase down reimbursement.

“It wasn’t just me – it was many fighters who experienced this,” he said. “If you finally got ahold of them, it was so far away from your fight, they would say, ‘Well, how do we know this isn’t a pre-existing condition?’ And they said publicly that they were covering pre-existing conditions, and they were covering injuries that happened in training for the fight. And it was a lie. They weren’t. They did everything they could not to help me out when I had physical problems that occurred in fights.” (A UFC official acknowledged a request for comment but did not respond to Danzig’s statement.)

Considering the potentially lifelong health effects of a career fighting in a cage, Danzig supports the idea of a program that offers assistance to fighters like Fisher.

“It doesn’t mean they have to shell out billions of dollars,” he said. “You guys can still have your wealth, but set up a program that’s not just a public farce like this supposed health insurance. Don’t do this just to cover things. Actually set up a system for people who are post-career and have problems with this.”

Danzig was under no illusions about what his job required, and he knowingly risked his health to fight in the UFC. He wanted to be the best mixed martial artist in the world, and he was willing to put up with the underbelly of his career. It was only when he realized his goal might jeopardize the life he’d have after fighting that he decided he couldn’t participate any more. By then, of course, the damage was already done. But he had made peace with his choice.

For now, the physical tradeoffs of that decision are manageable. He may never know what’s really going on in his brain right now. By the time he’s dead, it won’t matter anyway.

But for current fighters who might be at the point where things are starting to go downhill, he has some advice about how to think about the future.

“It’s not about quitting or giving up,” he said. “It’s about preserving yourself. There’s more to life than this. Life does go on after fighting, and it can really, really be a sh*tty life if you don’t think ahead of time.”