Commentary

The cruel pension for punishment

Updated: October 14, 2009, 12:14 PM ET
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

The ultimate fighter at 25 has a body with a good temperament for training. He can take repeated abuse and repair himself. He can fight four times a year -- or five, or seven -- if he wishes. If he suffers a significant dent (a broken bone, a damaged eye, a muscle torn from its adhesive), he'll be ambulatory again before long.

And he gets attention. Lots of attention. From sponsors, from fans who admire his abilities and from women. He can close a nightclub the week of a fight and not suffer the consequences. He makes a decent wage, gets his training subsidized by sponsor money and splurges when a bonus falls into his lap. He's not a champion, so he can't afford to buy the Escalade outright. But he can make the lease payments.

Randy Couture
AP Photo/Eric JamisonBelieve it or not, Randy Couture -- a former champion and still competing in the UFC at age 46 -- is one of the lucky ones.

The ultimate fighter at 35 has recurring injuries. He's slower to get out of bed, favors aching knees in the gym and makes frequent apologies after fights for his performances -- often mediocre, often the result of a body that won't do what it's told to do. The title shot was a squash match. His head is scraping the ceiling.

The ultimate fighter at 40 doesn't know what else to do for a living. He takes fights in regional shows for flimsy checks, but he collects a lot of them, and they add up. So do the concussions. So do the pain medications.

At 45, his knees are gone, so he can't shoot his way out of a fistfight. His hands are arthritic, and he begs his corner to wrap them carefully. He's traded his body for some bonuses, women and cheers. And when that realization hits -- whenever it hits -- he's going to burst.

On Oct. 6, Junie Allen Browning -- a midtier fighter who realized he could turn his media-savvy obnoxiousness into a handful of paydays -- reportedly took 16 pills of antianxiety medication Klonopin in a bid to either kill himself or garner the wrong kind of attention. He was taken to a hospital, where he threatened the staff. That same week, he was released by the UFC. His last fight, six months ago, was a loss to Cole Miller.

Earlier in the year, Josh Neer was arrested for drunken driving and eluding police. During the summer of '08, Quinton Jackson endangered himself and others by driving erratically. Jon Koppenhaver assaulted a man outside a nightclub in 2007, choking him unconscious. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic declared he wished to hang himself after his most recent loss. Mike Guymon's wife took a gun from the fighter; his intention had been to kill himself. Justin Levens succeeded, taking the life of his wife before his own. Jeremy Williams shot himself in his car. Evan Tanner walked into the desert and was never seen alive again.

Like many sports that marry serious physical trauma with modest wages, mixed martial arts is discovering it has a dubious mortality rate -- but not in the way its critics expected.

JR Minkel, a Scientific American contributor, recently wrote an article for Real Fighter exploring the brain matter of combat athletes -- not the abuse suffered, but the neural pathways created or damaged by both their choice of profession and daily intake of it. He quoted a sports psychologist from the University of Florida as having taken an informal poll of prizefighters and grapplers. Out of the 400 who responded to his petition to take an online questionnaire, nearly one-quarter exhibited symptoms of depression.

Who else's income hinges on his performance in less than a half hour's work two or three times a year? In fighting, you need to trip only once.

Is this surprising to anyone? Think about the odds of performing to parity in the 15 or 25 minutes when it counts most. Who else's income hinges on his performance in less than a half hour's work two or three times a year? Even professions that require some kind of stellar public presentation or faultless performance often forgive a misstep. But in fighting, you need to trip only once.

The emotional pressure is overwhelming; physical punishment piles it on. Concussions have been inexorably linked to depression -- as many as 40 percent of head injuries could result in neurological disruption leading to behavioral changes or mood suffocation, according to a study at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University. Count concussions suffered in training, and you're smart to buy stock in Pfizer.

There are real troubles on the horizon for the majority of athletes in this sport who lose as often as they win, who hobble their way through their 30s and who never experience the lucrative financial or emotional rewards of being a champion. They're already hurting themselves, and others, and the sport has barely established itself. Boxing, keeper of a longer legacy of punishing its participants, can point you to 60-plus suicides in recent decades.

Jackson's behavior last year was unnerving -- wild and full of half-baked excuses involving energy drinks and fasting and wide-eyed religious talk. For a man who is so often the energetic focal point of a room, all it took was one loss to seemingly cut his cord from sanity.

So what are we going to do about it? Like many afflictions, preventative measures have gone ignored. More attention must be paid to fighters' brain health -- not only logging baseline MRIs to compare against follow-up scans, but enlisting mental health professionals to evaluate athletes throughout their careers. Businesses often employ crisis-counseling psychologists to help employees cope with traumatic events. In mixed martial arts, every fight is a traumatic event.

No one seems overly concerned with repeated concussions, those charming keepsakes shared by NFL players and the growing number of athletes in other sports who are living post-career lives in misery as a result. Athletes who have suffered a head injury on multiple occasions and demand to compete anyway don't need to have their tantrums indulged. They need to talk to someone about how to adapt to life without audiences and adulation.

My pride in observing and reporting the events of this sport comes from its near-spotless safety record. It's often a viscerally disgusting event -- hematomas, blood, screams -- but it doesn't take lives in the cage, a fact I've been happy to spew whenever a debate crops up. Now I realize that my assertion is wrong: Fighters are dying, but in a way so subversive that it's going unnoticed.

The concept of the ultimate fighter at 50 isn't depressing. It's optimistic.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.