The two fighters I want to talk about are the type of scrappers that often go unrecognized on the street. They're the undercard guys who feed the top guys and the promotions; the blue collar workhorses grinding and smashing their way through relative mainstream obscurity, putting their bodies on the line for the love of their sport and, as the line would have it, the entertainment of fans.
It's largely a thankless pursuit. This isn't one of those times, though, where I'm going to wax poetic about the sport and tell you how great it is that fighters face down physical and financial insecurity for little in return.
The two fighters in question are Nick Denis and Eddie Yagin, and last month they both faced a similar conundrum regarding brain injury and addressed it in very different ways.
Denis, who fought while also studying for his PhD in biochemistry, first became conscious of CTE after suffering a knockout loss to Marlon Sandro at a Sengoku event in 2009. Curiosity led him to further research the issue of CTE in contact sports over the next three years, and he discovered the same thing that many other participants and observers are starting to realize: CTE isn't just caused by concussions. It's also the repeated blows that occur after a concussion, especially undiagnosed ones, that can accumulate and cause long-term damage.
Gary Goodridge Takes on CTE
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After stepping up his training and joining an elite camp, he found that sparring with higher caliber fighters also meant taking harder shots in practice. The heightened competitive atmosphere leads many – far too many, in this author's opinion – to get reckless with themselves and especially their partners' health and safety.
Denis started noticing that it was taking him longer to recover from hits. He continued doing research, and everything he read further convinced him that he was heading for a debilitating life in his later years if he continued his pursuit of glory.
And so on November 22nd, at 29 years old, Nick Denis announced his retirement from the sport of MMA.
Less than two weeks earlier, featherweight prospect Eddie Yagin was preparing for a fight against Dennis Siver at UFC on Fox 5, a fight that was originally scheduled to go down at UFC 151 before the event's cancellation. Another injury would prevent the Siver fight from happening again, this time to Yagin himself and with the stakes far more dire.
One day after training, Yagin woke up with a severe headache and vomiting. He couldn't even keep water down. He went to the hospital, where an MRI and CAT scan revealed Yagin's brain had swelled and was putting pressure on his skull. Thankfully, surgery wasn't required, but it would be thirty days before he recovered and a full six months before he resuming physical activity.
Yagin has expressed an eagerness to return, but admitted the last thing he wants to do is rush things and make it worse. Obviously a smart move, as Yagin is no dummy. Yet the question has to be asked: Should someone in Yagin's position even continue fighting? And what on Earth is going on at these gyms where guys like Yagin are taking so many straight, unprotected shots in sparring that it causes brain swelling?
At a glance, it's clear that Denis made the right decision in spite of any blowback he might receive from stubborn and ignorant fans. Yagin will likely get far more praise and adulation if and when he does eventually return to the Octagon than Denis ever will for his decision to call it quits. Which is a shame, but we're inclined to root for the guy overcoming adversity than the one who decides that it isn't worth the severe costs you pay for a career in fighting, even if the latter is the objectively smarter and more rational decision.
Perseverance and stubbornness can often be separated by the thinnest of lines, and it's hard if you know a fighter's mindset to fault Yagin for his decision to continue. Eight months to a year from now, we'll probably see a closeup of Yagin pacing in the Octagon and psyching himself up as Bruce Buffer announces his name. But some of us, myself included, won't think of how resilient and brave he is for returning. We'll probably watch instead with a sense of dread, unable to ignore that nagging thought that he probably shouldn't be in there at all.
Read More:Nick Denis Did His Homework, and Then He Did What Few UFC Fighters Can (Ben Fowlkes, MMAjunkie.com)