Gray Matters

By Ben Duffy Jul 6, 2018



UFC 226 is now available on Amazon Prime.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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I had an amazing column all ready to go for you this week. In observance of Independence Day and in the midst of International Fight Week, I had composed an epic celebration of all things U.S.A. in mixed martial arts. This thing was glorious, I tell you. It was the apex and apotheosis of all things American. How American, you ask? It was the prose equivalent to Don Frye hitting you with an apple pie to the face while wearing Dan Henderson’s powder-blue prom tuxedo and presiding over Randy Couture’s fifth wedding.

Then, on Wednesday, the word came down that Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight king Max Holloway had been pulled from his title fight with Brian Ortega at UFC 226 after exhibiting concussion-like symptoms this week. Shortly afterwards, the UFC, apparently cutting short its customary last-minute scramble to find a replacement opponent, scratched Ortega from the card, as well. That breaking news, of course, obliged a complete rewrite of my weekly column. Typing through bitter tears, I hammered out a fiery elegy to yet another title fight torpedoed at the 11th hour, in this case one of the most anticipated matches of the year to boot. I also railed against the tragedy of the apparently-cursed “Blessed” one being turned away from a fight on medical grounds for the third time this year. It was sheer catharsis in poetry. I sent off the resulting column to Sherdog Editor-in-Chief Mike Fridley.

“Duffy,” came the reply, “this is just you typing the F-word 1200 times in a row. While I appreciate you coming in under your word count guideline for once in your life, we can’t run this.”

“How about ‘All work and no Holloway makes Ben a dull boy’ 120 times in a row?” I offered.

There was no response: Fridley had spoken and would say no more. What you are reading, then, is my third shot at an op-ed column this week.

First of all, let me make it clear that I’m glad Holloway isn’t fighting on Saturday in Las Vegas. As much as it hurts to have one of the world’s best and most reliably exciting fighters drop out of yet another fight and as much as I feel for Ortega, Holloway’s safety outweighs our entertainment. That goes double for neurological concerns, which are the most poorly understood and, until recently, chronically overlooked health issue in contact sports. In fact, while I’m hesitant in most cases to call sports journalists brave for doing their job, I credit Michael Bisping for coming out and saying what much of his audience must have been thinking. In Holloway’s appearance on “UFC Tonight” this week, Bisping pointed out that the champ seemed out of sorts. While the Hawaiian deflected Bisping’s comments and attributed his behavior to his notoriously hard weight cut, “The Count” didn’t appear convinced. In an industry and a situation -- MMA is heading into one of the biggest weekends of the year for the sport’s biggest promotion -- where “the show must go on” is an ingrained mentality, Bisping’s voice was that of a man who has been frank and open about the long-term damage and health risks he himself incurred in the Octagon.

My first, most sincere hope is that whatever is ailing Holloway will be diagnosed quickly and treated successfully. My second, selfish hope is that it turns out to be a temporary issue that does not affect his ability to compete in the future. Perhaps Holloway will be proven right after all and this episode will turn out to have been a final act of rebellion by the body of an allegedly 190-pound featherweight. “Blessed” blessing the lightweight division immediately rather than later would not be a bad thing, would it?

The specter of traumatic brain injury in fight sports looms over another piece of headline news from this bizarre week. Golden Boy Promotions, the vehicle of boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya, announced its initial foray into mixed martial arts in the form of a fight between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. That trilogy fight, which isn’t even a rubber match since Liddell is up 2-0 in the series, will take place a dozen years from their last encounter at UFC 66 and nearly a decade from the last time either fighter was in the Top 10.

On the face of it, the matchup between the 43-year-old “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” and 48-year-old “Iceman” is a giant pile of whatever. De La Hoya is perfectly within his rights to put on the fight, assuming he can get both men licensed and cleared. What payment he chooses to offer the two former champions and how he tries to cover those purses and turn a profit is his business, as well, and I am perfectly free to ignore it or pay attention to it as I please -- or would be, except for one glaring detail.

While Ortiz has survived his career apparently free of major damage other than the expected wear and tear, a solid case can be made that Liddell has been exhibiting “concussion-like symptoms” since roughly the time Barack Obama was moving into the White House. I’m not a doctor, and even if I were, that would not make me Liddell’s doctor. However, it’s a matter of public record that he ended his competitive career -- to date, at least -- on three straight knockout losses. Two of those, courtesy of Rashad Evans and Rich Franklin, left him completely unconscious in a way that suggested the erosion of his once-legendary chin. Most disturbingly, if you compare a Liddell interview in 2003 to one given in 2013, the difference between the bright-eyed, voluble, quick-witted young contender and the latter-day veteran is startling. Whether that diminishment is due to an accumulation of head trauma, the effects of his reputed party-hearty lifestyle or, as seems most likely, a combination of the two, it does not speak well of his fitness to step into a cage and fight.

There is an inherent callousness to being a fan of combat sports. No matter what steps we take, these will never be completely safe or gentle pursuits. Honestly, we don’t even want that. We crave sensational knockouts, and videos and animated gifs of broken bones are among our most viral. To take in mixed martial arts, to enjoy this bloody spectacle, requires any ethical person to believe and accept that the competitors are consenting adults choosing to fight for money. I have no issues with that, but the lines blur when it comes to brain damage. For one, we understand so little about it; and what little we understand now is 10 times more than what we knew 20 years ago. Part of consent is knowing what you’re signing up for. The other issue is that brain damage can impair the very judgment that would allow fighters to choose -- or decline -- to keep fighting. At what point do friends, family members or teammates have a moral obligation to save fighters from themselves? At what point do promoters have a legal obligation, if ever?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m not yet comfortable calling for even these two aging fighters to be barred from making money the best way they know how. In light of that moral confusion, this is what I wish: for Liddell and Ortiz to receive seven figures apiece in show money, for the fight to end by one fighter blundering into a guillotine choke before a single strike is thrown and for Golden Boy to take an absolute bath when the event sells nine pay-per-views. Happy retirement, Chuck and Tito. Invest wisely.

On the topic of Holloway, of course I want to see him plying his trade in the Octagon once more, but above all, I hope that he and those around him are considering his long-term quality of life. If he were to walk away, even from an abundance of caution, I can only wish him well. I would rather have 100 T.J. Grants than another Tim Hague, and I would much rather miss out on Holloway the competitor than have his loved ones miss out one day on Holloway the man.

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