MMA has come a long way in the past 20 years and the biggest promotion in the sport has ambitious plans for continued global growth.
Few things can derail ambitious plans faster, however, than foreseeable tragedy and the aftermath of subsequent litigation. With this in mind there are three potential areas worth canvassing that have the ability to cause long lasting repercussions to the sport. The good news these are all areas which can be addressed by those intending to shepherd the sport in the right direction, namely:
1. Performance Enhancing Drug Abuse
2. The Dangers Of Extreme Rapid Weight Cutting
3. Traumatic Brain Injury
The ugly reality is that PED abuse does exist in MMA even at the highest levels of the sport. The occasional failed drug test generates headlines from time to time, overturns a win to a no contest, and results in punishments such as stripped earnings and suspensions. The relatively lax and predictable tests administered by many athletic commissions, however, don’t weed out all cheaters. There is little doubt that more PED abuse exists in the sport than is currently caught. As the Lance Armstrong saga has taught us, oftentimes the full extent of doping in a sport is not known until years after the fact when old friendships are lost and whistleblowers come forward.
Accepting that doping occurs in MMA and that current regulatory practices don’t adequately address this what is the potential for harm? Unlike cycling, an advantage gained though doping in MMA comes with a real risk of harm to others. It also arguably vitiates participant consent.
While MMA has a relatively good track record of participant safety, past performance is no guarantee of future success. The sport, which the UFC describes in its fighter contracts as an “inherently and abnormally dangerous activity” comes with risks. If a fighter death ever was to occur and it was revealed that the winning combatant was doping subsequent litigation would leave few stones unturned. Worst case scenarios like this ought to be kept in mind and sensible PED policies should be crafted to help minimize the potential of such a scenario playing out. The recent efforts of fighters such as Georges St-Pierre in bringing enhanced testing to the sport should be embraced by stakeholders.
The second topic, Extreme Rapid Weight Cutting, comes with equal risks in harming the integrity of the sport. This potentially dangerous practice is a reality in all weight restricted combat sports. MMA is no exception and this topic is timely with UFC welterweight Brian Melancon announcing his early retirement from the sport today do decreased kidney function which he says will further deteriorate with the rigours of the sport stating that “If I continue to train, fight, and cut weight then I run the risk of permanent damage“.
Given that extreme rapid weight loss is a reality in MMA, the question is what steps are stakeholders prepared to take to address the risks that come with this practice? I have previously addressed this topic and while I don’t have all the answers I know that turning a blind eye is not one of them. Guidelines can be implemented to minimize the risks of and to discourage unsafe weight cut practices in combat sports.
The last topic is traumatic brain injury. As I previously discussed, the one thing the UFC and other MMA organizations can learn from NHL / NFL Concussion lawsuits is to get ahead of the curve. There is nothing to gain by taking an ostrich approach to brain trauma. Instead the MMA industry should take meaningful steps to acknowledge these risks head on and encourage their athletes to learn about the full known risks that come with participation. As retired Canadian MMA fighter Nick Denis demonstrated, not all fighters agree to carry on with a career in MMA after learning of the risks. Failing to facilitate athlete’s appreciation of CTE and other long term consequences not only undermines informed participation, it can also lead to the legal troubles that are now plaguing the NHL and NFL.
If the above areas are meaningfully addressed by the MMA community there is no reason why the sport can’t continue to thrive in the future.