Are you wondering whether UFC fighters get brain damage because of frequent hits to the head and knockouts and if there’s anything that can be done to prevent it?
In this article, we’ll examine whether UFC fighters get brain damage, what causes this, how it compares to other sports such as boxing, examples of UFC fighter brain damage, and whether there’s anything that can be done to prevent UFC fighters’ brain damage.
Short answer: Yes, research suggests MMA and UFC fighters get brain damage. The most alarming research suggests that 23.6% of MMA fighters suffer some form of brain damage, and MMA fighters suffer a traumatic brain injury or concussion-like injury in 32% of fights.
However, UFC fighter brain damage is a nuanced subject, and there’s a lot more to it than this.
- UFC Brain Damage
- Do All UFC Fighters Get Brain Damage?
- UFC Brain Damage Cases
- What Can Be Done To Prevent UFC Fighter Brain Damage?
- The Bottom Line
UFC Brain Damage
Brain damage is defined as an injury to the brain, and in a UFC fighter’s case, this is caused by head trauma from the impacts to the head.
To answer the question, ‘do UFC fighters get brain damage?’, it’s essential to look at medical research. The problem is, since professional MMA has only been around since the early 90s, the evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s certainly pointing towards MMA and UFC fighters getting brain damage.
Let’s take a look at some of the research.
Study 1: Overview of 30 MMA Brain Damage Studies
The most conclusive and recent study was published in the Physician and Sportsmedicine journal in 2021. This study identified and reviewed all 30 studies looking at the association between head injuries and cognitive functions in MMA fighters.
The study concluded:
- Between 58% to 78% of all MMA injuries are head trauma related.
- Cognitive impairment tests revealed that post-fighting scores were drastically worse for fighters who experienced head trauma during a fight.
- The thalamus and caudate are the most affected part of MMA fighters’ brains, which impair processing speed, psychomotor speed, and verbal memory.
- Head trauma is a factor in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE.
While this study reviewed all head trauma research concerning MMA fighters, let’s take a look at the findings of some individual studies.
Study 2: Percentage of MMA Fighters Getting Brain Damage
Research published in 2018 looking at the risk factors for concussion and injury in amateur and professional MMA bouts in Calgary, Alberta, from 2010 to 2015, found that 23.6% of fighters suffer from some form of brain damage.
The numbers involved 151 injured fighters and 535 uninjured fighters, which is just under 1 in 4 MMA fighters. Of the 151 injured fighters, there were 162 injuries and 116 were head injuries (71.6%).
Study 3: Percentage of Head Trauma in UFC Fights
Research published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine by Prof. Hutchison and doctors at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto conducted a study looking at the dangers of head trauma in MMA, which they did by studying all UFC fight results and video footage from 2006 to 2012.
Their study concluded:
- MMA fighters suffer a traumatic brain injury or concussion-like injury in 32% of fights.
- UFC fights see an average of 2.6 head strikes after a knockout, inflicted on unconscious fighters, which further increased the likelihood of brain damage.
- Lastly, 90% of TKOs were caused by repeated blows to the head of a fighter.
The study recommended the UFC stop a fight after a fighter is knocked down and that brain scans are mandatory for fighters suffering a TKO/KO.
However, there’s not enough evidence to suggest stopping a fight after a fighter is knocked down prevents brain damage or CTE. This is going against the general agreement in the medical field that boxers are more likely to experience CTE because of repeated strikes to the head.
In boxing, after a fighter is knocked down they may be stood back up to fight meaning boxers potentially face multiple concussions, whereas in MMA if a fighter is badly hurt or knocked down and no longer intelligent defending themself, the fight is often stopped by a TKO and they receive no further damage.
Do All UFC Fighters Get Brain Damage?
After looking at studies examining the percentage of fighters experiencing some form of brain damage, let’s look at other research to see how career length affects whether a UFC fighter gets brain damage.
Study 4: Career Length
An interesting study in 2013 by the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health involving 104 boxers and 135 mixed martial artists, found no major difference in the brains of fighters with up to 5 years of fighting from nonfighting brains.
However, brain volume was found to be 10% lower in the caudate for fighters with careers lasting 15 years or more; an area of the brain concerning memory and learning.
While this is only one study and many more are required, it suggests that fighters who fight less frequently in the year and have shorter fighting careers are less likely to experience brain damage and develop conditions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Study 5: Is Boxing or MMA More Dangerous?
Later renamed the Professional Fighters’ Brain Health Study, in 2019 the same researchers at the Lou Ruvo Center looked at 100 MMA fighters and 50 boxers, with a mix of both current and retired fighters, as well as a nonfighting control group of 31.
They found that current and retired fighters showed loss of brain volume in different areas of the brain, while the control group was gaining brain volume.
Current fighters’ losses were in the areas of the brain consistent with brain injury, while the retired fighters’ brain losses were in areas associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE and Alzheimers.
The numbers given for the three groups were:
- Boxers lost an average of 145 cubic millimeters of brain volume annually
- Martial artists lost 100 cubic millimeters annually
- The nonfighting control group saw a gain of 43 cubic millimeters annually
Thinking and memory tests were conducted, and while there wasn’t too much of a difference found between the three groups, the most apparent difference was the fighters scored less on tests concerning the brain’s processing speed.
Also, these findings suggest boxers are losing more brain volume than UFC and MMA fighters, which is generally accepted for the following reasons:
- Boxers continuously take punches to the head throughout a potentially much longer fight of 36 minutes, whereas an MMA fight is mostly 15 minutes, and sometimes 25 minutes for title fights and main event fights.
- Boxers can only punch which means most of the strikes are to the head, whereas in MMA, the head, body, and legs are all attacked, and grappling and jiu-jitsu are involved, meaning strikes to the head are less frequent.
- Boxing has a 10-count knockdown, which can see a fighter continue after being concussed and therefore face multiple concussions. On the other hand, if a fighter isn’t intelligently defending themselves in MMA, the referee will end the fight, resulting in a TKO.
- Boxing uses a minimum of 8-ounce gloves but usually either 10-12 ounce gloves, whereas the UFC uses 4-ounce gloves, and sometimes 6-ounce for fighters requiring a bigger size. The heavier gloves in boxing allow for a fighter to sustain more damage than lighter gloves allow, meaning many more blows to the head.
Overall, both sports lead to brain volume loss and the evidence is likely to stack from here as more studies are conducted, more data becomes available, and testing advances make conclusions easier.
Study 6: Subconcussive Head Trauma vs Knockouts
Although there hasn’t been research comparing the danger of subconcussive head trauma against knockouts, it’s important to look at each as they both lead to brain damage.
When UFC fighters are knocked unconscious, they’re at risk of a huge loss of brain tissue, which is why some fighters have to retire after being viciously knocked out because they immediately feel the effects.
While knockouts are more severe, it’s more likely to be subconcussive head trauma which causes UFC fighter brain damage and more specifically CTE.
This is because subconcussive impacts are much more frequent and they have an accumulative effect that can lead to impairment and neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE, later in life.
It’s also because UFC fighters are suspended for a minimum of 45 days after being knocked out (KO), which gives their brains time to recover and heal. However, 45 days is still short as knockouts and concussions (mild TBI) can take 3-4 months to recover most or all brain function.
On the other hand, subconcussive head trauma is damage to the brain not passing the concussion threshold, so fighters may pile up damage dealt without any symptoms, causing them to avoid rest and unknowingly pass the threshold for diseases such as CTE.
Also, the danger here is that they won’t know they’ve passed a dangerous threshold until potentially 20 years after retiring.
UFC Brain Damage Cases
After examing the best studies exploring MMA and UFC fighter brain damage, let’s take a look at UFC brain damage cases.
1. Spencer Fisher
The most high-profile UFC brain damage case belongs to Spencer Fisher, who developed CTE symptoms in 2021. He’s now considered permanently disabled and unable to work because of his condition.
Spencer suffered many concussions over the course of his fighting career and now often forgets names and where he’s going, as well as having bouts of depression and dizziness.
Spencer retired with an MMA record of 24-9, only suffering 3 knockout losses during his 10-year career. As he didn’t suffer many knockouts, it points towards UFC brain damage being caused by repeated blows.
This was the most high-profile case because Dana White responded to Spencer’s CTE story by saying, “Fisher’s not the first, and he’s definitely not going to be the last… It’s just part of the gig”. While harsh to hear, the evidence above suggests it’s a very true statement.
2. Tim Hague
Former UFC fighter, Tim Hague, died in 2017 after he was knocked out in a boxing match and had a fatal brain hemorrhage. It was revealed in the autopsy that Hague had CTE, likely because of his 10-year MMA career and the 4 knockout losses he suffered in his last 5 fights over an 11-month period.
Perhaps Tim is evidence that knockouts leaving a fighter unconscious leads to the worst diseases like CTE, but further research is required.
It must also be questioned as to why he had 5 fights in just 11 months, as he likely wasn’t giving his brain enough time to heal.
Research suggests it takes 3-4 months for brain function to fully recover after a concussion, so he was over-fighting. Especially when you consider the training and sparring he would’ve been doing in between these fights.
3. Renato Sobral
Renato Sobral experienced CTE symptoms in 2019, after a 16-year MMA career and 49 professional fights; only getting knocked out in 7. He retired from MMA in 2013 and now suffers from poor memory, blindness in his left eye, balance issues, and depression.
This is consistent with the study discussed earlier in the article, suggesting an MMA career of around 15 years leads to brain volume in the caudate being 10% lower. It’s also consistent with the findings that retired MMA fighters show brain losses in areas of the brain associated with neurodegenerative diseases.
4. Krzysztof Soszynski
In his last fight in December 2011, Krzysztof was knocked unconscious for the first time in 39 professional fights during his 8-year MMA career. His brain didn’t wake up for 40 minutes after the fight, and when it did, he started to forget words and struggle to count; early warning signs of neurodegenerative disease.
Fast forward 10 years to 2021, Krzysztof has revealed his mind is very strong after working with doctors to regenerate connective tissue in his brain. During his recovery, he’s taken peptides, supplements, and psychedelic drugs, all substances linked with positive effects for people having suffered brain trauma.
5. Gary Goodridge
One of the retired UFC fighters with the clearest signs of CTE is Gary Goodridge. Gary had a 14-year MMA career consisting of 46 professional fights in which he suffered 10 knockout losses. In 2012, 2 years after retiring, he was diagnosed with degenerative dementia which is a type of CTE.
He’s suffering from memory loss, speech problems, depression, and explosive behavior. Gary believes without the pills he’s taking, he’d have taken his own life.
As well as having a long career, Gary admitted to fighting 3 times in a night, many times. He also fought during the beginning of MMA, a time when there were fewer rules and fighter safety wasn’t much of a concern – the concern was getting the sport off the ground.
What Can Be Done To Prevent UFC Fighter Brain Damage?
There are various things that can be done to prevent UFC fighter brain damage, and these are:
1. Increased Medical Supervision for Fighters, During and After Their Career
This should include more regular visits to the doctor and more frequent scans of the brain to check for any changes. MRI and CT scans should be mandatory for any fighter suffering a TKO/KO loss, not only to detect brain damage but also to check for brain bleeds, one of the biggest causes of death in MMA.
2. Increased investment in All Things Concerning Fighter Brain Safety
The UFC is leading the way as they’ve invested over $2 million in the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which has been conducting the Professional Fighter’s Brain Health Study since 2011, aiming to find out about the effects of repetitive head trauma and any factors making certain athletes more likely to develop CTE.
In 2021 the UFC reached out to the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, the leading researcher into the medical use of psychedelics.
They’re hoping to find out whether psychedelics have therapeutic effects for UFC fighters suffering from any symptoms of brain damage. So far the research is positive and the most relevant evidence of this is Krzysztof Soszynski who has been taking psychedelic drugs to good effect during his brain trauma recovery.
Also, although not yet widespread, a device known as an infrascanner is being used at the biggest MMA and boxing events, as it’s able to detect brain bleeds and brain injury early.
However, the device costs $12,000 per unit and is only currently used at events sanctioned by the California State Athletic Commission. Further investment will lead to further development and hopefully lower prices in the near future so they can become more commonplace at UFC and MMA events.
3. Education & Training for the Entire MMA Industry Relating to CTE and Concussions
As it stands, trainers and coaches don’t need any formal qualification or license to offer their services to fighters, meaning there’s a lack of knowledge on concussions and CTE in the industry, and therefore fighter health isn’t protected.
On the other hand, concussion awareness training is required for coaches in USA judo, boxing, and wrestling, as part of their Coaches’ Certification training. Ultimately, MMA needs to be further regulated so that licensing is required and the knowledge of brain damage symptoms is widespread.
Thankfully concussion awareness is regarded as an issue in the industry, leading The Association of Ringside Physicians to develop a consensus statement in 2018 regarding concussion management in combat sports.
From this, the UFC published a 484-page study in 2021, called the “Cross-Sectional Performance Analysis and Projection of the UFC Athlete”. Their study includes a five-stage return-to-sport protocol following traumatic brain injuries and concussions.
In their own words, they’ve created the “blueprint for modern MMA by laying the framework for a professional and scientific approach to MMA training, development and performance”.
Their hope is that the framework and protocol become standardized for MMA globally. The framework is split into five sections:
- Part 1: Strategy & Goals
- Part 2: Off-Camp
- Part 3: Fight-Camp
- Part 4: Fight Week & Competition
- Part 5: Post-Fight & Transition
Not only does it cover a return-to-sport protocol concerning traumatic brain injuries, but it also includes advice on choosing a weight class, cutting weight, nutrition, injuries, travel, budgeting, and anything else you can think of.
4. MMA Mentality Shift Toward the Protection of Fighters’ Brain Health
Although lacking evidence, it’s widely believed that the majority of UFC fighters’ brain damage is caused by training and sparring, because fights only happen on average, 2 or 3 times a year; whereas sparring and training are year-long and where 90% of the damage is done.
MMA is infamous for the various ‘gym wars’ between fighters, where they’d take it too far and were getting knocked out or badly injured. Not only this, but subconcussive head trauma is most dangerous in sparring because it’s unlikely a fighter will sit out after having a slight headache.
If the mentality can be changed, removing dangerous sparring and overtraining can significantly reduce the amount of head trauma MMA and UFC fighters experience.
The Bottom Line
While it’s still early days in terms of research on brain damage in MMA, it’s obvious MMA and UFC fighters get brain damage, just like other athletes do in contact sports such as American football and boxing.
In the next two decades, we’ll likely see a lot more high-profile UFC stars suffering from CTE, and more conclusive evidence pointing toward UFC fighters getting brain damage because of MMA.
However, researchers of the Professional Fighter’s Brain Study declared the science shows not all fighters experience brain damage, and that there are many factors determining whether a fighter will experience brain damage, such as genetics, career length, the time between fights, and more.
Only time will tell, but in the meantime, there are various ways UFC fighters’ brain damage can be prevented, and while improvements are being implemented, more can be done to protect fighters.
You may also be interested in a list of dead UFC fighters, one of whom had CTE when they died.