MMA Staph Infection: What Is It & Why Are Fighters Vulnerable?

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Are you wondering what a staph infection is and why MMA fighters are vulnerable to getting them?

In this article, we’ll look at what a staph infection is, why MMA staph infections occur and why MMA fighters are vulnerable to them, and some examples of MMA fighters with staph infections.

MMA Staph Infection: What Is It?

Staph infection, or staphylococcal infection, is caused by the bacteria staphylococcus aureus getting under the skin through cuts and open wounds.

Staph is found on the ground, on dry surfaces, and on a person’s skin – mostly in their nose. Around one-third of the world’s population is colonized with staph – meaning they have the bacteria present on their body. Staphylococcus aureus is harmless until it makes its way into an open wound.

There are many types of staph infection, here are some of the most common:

  • Boils
  • A rash of painful blisters (impetigo)
  • Fever, rash, and blisters (staphylococcus scalded skin syndrome)
  • Abscesses, sores, boils, rashes (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) – known as MRSA because of its resistance to antibiotics
  • Skin rash that is hot, red, and swollen (cellulitis) – often affecting the legs, arms, or face
  • Joint inflammation (arthritis) and pain and weakness in bones
  • The body causes injury to its own organs and tissues if staph enters the bloodstream (sepsis) which can be life-threatening

Why Do MMA Fighters Get Staph Infections?

MMA fighters get staph infections for 6 main reasons.

1. High chance of open wounds
Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus aureus (bacteria) entering an open wound and MMA fighters are often cut open and bleeding during fights.

While cutmen do their best to stop an MMA fighter from bleeding, they don’t have time to close a wound. Therefore, MMA fighters are potentially fighting for either 15 minutes or 25 minutes with an open wound susceptible to staphylococcus aureus from their opponent or the ground of the cage.

2. Crowding and lack of cleanliness
MMA fighters train at big gyms where a lot of people attend, meaning there’s a high chance of staphylococcus aureus being on the ground. 

On top of this, gyms are notorious for being unclean, not only because of the germs being spread by large amounts of sweaty competitors but because many are simply lazy in cleaning surfaces before and after groups have trained.

3. MMA has a lot of skin-to-skin contact
MMA fighters are constantly in contact when grappling in the clinch, against the cage, or on the ground. As staphylococcus aureus is found on the ground and many people are colonized with staph, the bacteria can enter an MMA fighter’s wound easily.

4. Staphlococcus aureus is contagious
Staphylococcus aureus can be easily passed on through contact from one person to another and it can live on objects and surfaces for months if they’re not cleaned.

Staph infections remain contagious until up to 48 hours after finishing an antibiotics course.

5. Lack of testing and selfishness
In a business like MMA where money is made in lump sums, many fighters knowingly fight with a hidden staph infection to not miss a payment.

Top-level UFC fighters have managed to pass pre-medical checks by simply failing to disclose that they had a staph infection.

This includes Kevin Lee, who was called out by UFC commentators for fighting with a blatant staph infection, and Ilir Latifi who was recently suspended for 3 months in 2022 for failing to disclose a staph infection and fighting infected.

Staph testing isn’t required in MMA so MMA fighters never know if they, their partners, or their opponents are colonized or infected with staph.

Also, staph infection symptoms can take between 1 to 10 days to show, so MMA fighters may be recently infected and continue training – passing it on to other fighters unknowingly.

6. Weakened Immune Systems
MMA fighters put their body and mind under a lot of stress training and preparing for a fight. High amounts of exercise, cutting weight, media obligations, and being in the limelight tax a fighter’s immune system.

As a taxed or weakened immune system makes people more susceptible to getting sick, it too makes MMA fighters more susceptible to being infected with a staph infection.

How Do MMA Fighters Get Staph Infections?

MMA fighters can get staph infections in three main ways.

1. Self-infection
As most fighters don’t know if they’re colonized with staph (requires testing), they can easily self-infect from the staph present on their skin. This is likely to occur by having unclean hands and touching the nose before touching an open wound or cut.

2. Infected surfaces
As staphylococcus aureus is contagious and some strains can survive on surfaces for months, MMA fighters get staph infections from infected surfaces and objects such as mats, canvas, towels, razors, gym equipment, clothing, and more.

3. Skin-to-skin contact with a colonized or infected person
An MMA fighter can also get staph infections from anyone they come into contact with, who is either colonized with staph or recently infected.

How Can MMA Fighters Prevent Staph Infections?

MMA fighters can prevent staph infections in a number of ways.

First, fighters can push gym owners to sanitize equipment and surfaces before and after training sessions. If gym owners are not keeping the gym clean, then fighters are responsible for training elsewhere. If a large number of fighters boycott a gym, the gym will soon fix up on cleanliness.

Secondly, gyms and coaches can help prevent staph infections in MMA by not allowing fighters to train or compete with signs or symptoms of a staph infection, or visible open wounds.

Lastly, fighters can use skin infection prevention soap specifically designed for wrestlers and Bjj practitioners before training or fighting, or when they know they’ll be wrestling or rolling (Bjj) on the mats.

Fighters can also improve their cleanliness by frequently washing their hands, taking showers before and after any training or fighting, and not sharing personal hygiene items that touch the skin such as towels and razors. 

They can also try to avoid touching their nose as much as possible, as this is where the majority of staph bacteria are on colonized people.

Promotions and State Athletic Commissions can help prevent staph infections among MMA fighters by requiring testing or stricter pre-medical exams and inspections. They could enforce once-a-year staph testing and closer physical inspections of fighters before every fight.

Examples of MMA/UFC Staph Infections

Staph infections have been present among MMA fighters since the sport emerged 30 years ago, and they’re still occurring despite the community being better informed about what they are and how they can be prevented.

Here are some of the biggest cases of MMA/UFC staph infections so far:

1. Kevin Randleman

Kevin Randleman is a former UFC heavyweight champion who suffered a life-threatening MRSA staph infection in 2007. The staph infection entered his bloodstream through a wound under his armpit, which ended up attacking his liver and kidney and putting him in a coma.

He was left with a huge hole just underneath his armpit and another further down on the same side. It took him more than a year to recover from the infection, which most believed would end his career.

Kevin was adamant about how clean he was, taking up to 6 showers a day, and blamed unclean fighters who trained at his gym.

MRSA infections are the most dangerous because they’re resistant to most commonly used antibiotics and are able to rapidly spread through the body while doctors try to find a suitable antibiotic to treat it.

2. Cole Escovedo

Cole Escovedo had a spinal staph infection in 2006 which kept him away from fighting for 3 years.

Initially, a simple staph infection was misdiagnosed and left untreated as a result. In 2007, this infection turned into MRSA which made its way into Cole’s spinal cord.

The staph infection started to eat away at his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the waist down. Cole had emergency surgery to have the infection removed, and luckily he made a full recovery. If the surgery was left any later he may have never walked again.

3. Mark Hunt

In May 2013, Mark Hunt developed a staph infection on his left leg after suffering a hematoma injury in his UFC 160 fight against Junior Dos Santos.

He went to the hospital for surgery to treat the staph infection which had started to eat away his skin and muscle. 

He was left with a huge hole in his leg, and while Mark never revealed how long it took him to recover, it’s safe to say it took roughly 4 to 5 months to heal as he fought again in December and would’ve needed 2 to 3 months for training camp.

4. Robert Whittaker

Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker developed a life-threatening staph infection in December 2017, which forced him to withdraw from his upcoming title defense against Luke Rockhold (UFC 221).

The staph infection was initially mistreated and managed to make its way to Whittaker’s stomach – which started to eat away at his organs and left him in critical condition in the hospital.

It took Whittaker roughly 4 months to fully recover as his next fight was in June 2018 and he would have needed some months to prepare for the fight.

5. List of Other Notable MMA Staph Infections

The list of MMA (UFC) fighters who’ve had staph infections is extensive and includes notable names such as Bas Rutten, Kevin Lee, Sage Northcutt, Ilir Latifii, Stephan Bonnar, Sean Brady, Santiago Ponzinibbio, and Demian Maia.

To Summarize

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus aureus bacteria getting under the skin via open wounds. They can cause many different types of staph infections, some of which can be life-threatening (MRSA) and also hard to treat. Many UFC fighters have suffered near career-ending staph infections.

MMA fighters are vulnerable to staph infections because of the nature of the sport. Fighters are often cut, they train in dirty and overcrowded gyms, MMA has a lot of skin-to-skin contact, and staph is contagious.

MMA fighters get staph infections via self-infection, skin-to-skin contact, and contact with infected surfaces.

In order to prevent staph infections in MMA, fighters, coaches, and gym owners need to be more aware and take better care of the cleanliness of training areas. Personal hygiene can also be improved, and soaps specifically designed to prevent staph infections when wrestling or rolling can be applied.

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