Charles Bernick stood at the front of a room in the Senate’s Russell Building on Tuesday afternoon and zipped through a couple of slides. The eyes of the boxers and mixed-martial arts fighters seated behind him were locked on the projection screen, as Bernick, the associate medical director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, shared a chart showing how a fighter’s brain changed over the course of a couple of years. A batch of brain fibers slowly faded away until they were non-existent.
“When you’re looking at it and you’re calm and you’re not in the ring, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. That’s wild,’ ” boxer Paulie Malignaggi, the former welterweight world champion, said a short time later. “You wonder, what does my brain look like? I feel good, but I’m certain a lot of fighters felt good when they retired.”
Malignaggi and a handful of other fighters visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to announce funding that will allow the Cleveland Clinic’s study of fighters’ brains to continue and also share the news that in Nevada, every licensed fighter will now be required to undergo brain testing.
The Cleveland Clinic study is entering a fifth year and includes more than 650 boxers and MMA fighters. Similar to many of the ongoing football studies, researchers there are monitoring both active and retired fighters to track changes in the brain, including fluctuations in behavior and cognitive ability. Already, they’ve identified specific points in the brain that seem vulnerable to injury and feel they’re inching closer to using the accumulated data to predict who might be at increased risk for long-term impairment.
“You can’t rely just on autopsy studies,” Bernick said. “Not that they’re not important. But to find out what we need to understand, you need to follow athletes when they’re exposed, when they’re actively fighting, and follow them over time.”
The study subjects are tested annually. The fighters undergo advanced brain imaging and use an iPad program to test areas such as speech and memory. The further research will be jointly funded by a partnership of entities, including Bellator MMA, UFC, Spike TV, Haymon Boxing and Top Rank. The exact dollar amount was not released.
Talk of head injuries and later-life impairment is “the elephant in the room” in most fighting gyms, said Phil Davis, a former collegiate wrestler who has 19 MMA fights under his belt. Fighters must brush aside any fears to perform at their best in a sport with inherent danger, he said. Davis met with Bernick on Tuesday and plans to sign up for the study.
“I want to know when those cognitive abilities begin to slow down at all — I’m out,” he said. “There’s no part of me that wants to jeopardize my long-term cognitive abilities for the sake of entertainment.”
Tuesday’s news conference also featured former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes; Herschel Walker, a former NFL running back who also dabbled in MMA; and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an avid boxing fan who has played a role in fight legislation for much of his political career.
“We must make sure that young men and women who engage in these sports are not going to put their lives and their future in jeopardy,” McCain said. “That’s what this is all about.”
Bernick said he’s hopeful other states follow Nevada’s lead and mandate brain health testing for fighters. It would help organizers know when to sideline a fighter, but it would also arm researchers with a wealth of data. Boxer Austin Trout is a former super welterweight champion who is in the study and is grateful the research will continue. The study results could help him decide when to finally hang up his gloves and walk away.
“It is our collective responsibility as leaders to be at the forefront and always challenging the status quo in order to elevate the safety standards so critical to the future of combat sports,” UFC Chief Operating Officer Ike Lawrence Epstein said in a statement.
“I know the risk I’m taking when I get in that ring,” he said. “We all do. We know that one punch could end it all, and it could end it all for life. . . . But what we don’t really know is what about afterwards? When you get through the hard fight, your hand is raised, you’re feeling great — but what kind of damage did you take in that fight that you went through?”