Mental Health in MMA

Mental Health in MMA
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06: Tony Ferguson looks on while competing against Anthony Pettis in their lightweight bout during the UFC 229 event inside T-Mobile Arena on October 6, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Mental health in MMA has become more of a prominent issue of late. It is not unusual to hear reports of fighters suffering from mental health issues in modern day MMA. The reasons behind this are largely unclear, whether it is nature or nurture we simply don’t know. One thing that is for sure, however, is that taking repeated blows to the head is harmful to a fighter’s brain.

I spoke with UFC flyweight and TUF 26 alumnus Gillian Robertson to discuss her views on mental health within professional MMA.

CTE and Fighter Well-being

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain condition related to receiving repeated head trauma. This is clearly a risk of the job with fighters and needs to be addressed more adequately. When fighters cut a lot of weight, they drain their brain of fluid, making them especially vulnerable to trauma. This clearly isn’t good for brain functioning, especially within combat sports. Common symptoms of CTE include memory loss and depression.

Fighter well-being

One of the most high profile cases of the UFC acting upon a possible CTE case was when they pulled Mark Hunt from his bout with Marcin Tybura. Hunt had reported trouble sleeping and that he had begun to stutter and slur his words. With concerns over his well-being, the UFC pulled him out of this bout and replaced him with Fabricio Werdum.

More recently, Jeremy Stephens opened up about suicidal thoughts and his general mental health issues following his loss to Jose Aldo. If fighters are suffering from mental health issues as serious as this, it must be addressed quickly and adequately. Likewise, recent reports of Tony Ferguson’s declining mental health have been circling. What is refreshing and positive to see is that fighters are coming out in full support of these athletes. Conor McGregor tweeted in support of Ferguson, encouraging him to ‘come back stronger than ever’. Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov also showed his support to Ferguson.

Fighter Perspective
Gillian Robertson on Mental Health in MMA

I spoke to UFC fighter Gillian Robertson, discussing her views on mental health within MMA. Robertson holds a professional record of 6-3, and appeared on TUF 26 on Team Justin Gaethje.

I do not think most MMA promotions do enough to support mental health needs.”

Robertson does believe that her current employer is making progress. 

“The UFC does more than any other promotion to ensure the health of their fighters.”

It is refreshing to note that the UFC ensure that the health of their fighters looked after. However, it’s disappointing to discover that no promotion that Robertson has previously represented does enough to ensure fighter well-being. Commissions are the body who make sure that fighters don’t go into fights injured. They primarily focus on physical rather than mental health. If fighters at the pinnacle of the sport feel that organisations aren’t doing enough, it must be addressed. This can start by the issue being addressed by commissions.

Next Steps

Despite it being the responsibility of the commissions to ensure fighter well-being, fight promotions also have a duty of care. I asked Robertson what she suggests could be done in the future to help support fighters mental health needs.

“Maybe more frequent assessments of brain health to monitor the status of the athlete.”

This would make it safer for fighters as any anomalies would be flagged up before a fight. The fighter can then be monitored further, and their mental health can take precedent.

After a certain age the UFC requires an MRI before every fight, but it may be a better option to implement the rule on fighters of all ages.” 

This seems like a viable option and also makes sense. If fighters have an MRI before each fight, regardless of age it will hopefully flag up any issues sooner rather than later.

Turning Point

Gillian Robertson also believes that, “getting knocked out in the octagon is not healthy for you. The majority of the mental health issues we run into are due to years and years of hard sparring which isn’t really necessary all the time.”

This makes logical sense and hard sparring was arguably made famous by the Chute Boxe gym. Legends of the game including Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua notoriously used to spar multiple times a week and go hard every time. The introduction of ‘flow’ sparring has been a big part of former featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor’s training camps. Going through the motions of a fight without taking damage is something which is becoming more important for fighters.

McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, describes it as “updating the software without damaging the hardware.” This is a training method adopted by many camps in recent years and the days of constant hard sparring seem to be behind us.  

Robertson summarized her opinions on fighter care.

“I feel like a fighter’s approach to smarter sparring as well as more regular assessments of a fighter’s mental health would be very beneficial to fighters’ well-being.”

What is next?

When speaking to Gillian Robertson, it was clear that she flagged up two main things that had to change. Firstly, a smarter approach to sparring must be adopted by fighters. Taking shots to the head is a potential risk of the game but if a fighter takes less damage in training, it can minimalise this risk. This is not something that commissions or promotions can enforce. It is a measure that the fighters and camps must take up.

The second measure suggested by Robertson is one that commissions or promotions can ensure happens. She suggests the option of more regular assessments on the fighter’s mental health. If there are any red flags that appear from these regular assessments, these can be dealt with, ensuring fighter’s mental health needs are being met.

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