LAS VEGAS (KSNV & MyNews3) -- Boxing and mixed martial arts translate into big bucks in the arena, but the sport is brutal, and the blows sustained by participants can cause brain damage.
Boxers and MMA fighters are now the focus of a groundbreaking study being conducted in Las Vegas, in which doctors are looking at the consequences of concussions.
Doctors think the damage could lead to a crippling disease with no cure.
Mixed Martial Arts is a sport in which fighters, punch, kick and body slam their way to brutal victories. Matches take place inside a chain-link cage.
Fighters like Montel Williams channel fear into confidence for the chance to battle it out on a big stage in front of thousands of screaming fans.
“This is a sport going into it, I know, I’m not going to leave the same way coming out and I’ve accepted that,” Williams said.
New research shows these often bloody battles can lead to permanent brain damage.
“If you don’t rest the brain and you enter back into the ring while you’re still having concussion symptoms, that’s the dangerous part that us as physicians are concerned about that can lead to long term complications," said ringside physician Dr. Matthew Otten.
When does the damage begin? Who is most at risk? That’s what Dr. Charles Bernick at the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Brain Research center in Las Vegas is trying to understand. He's studying hundreds of fighters.
“We have to understand truly what are the risk factors, how do we detect changes early?” Bernick says, adding that knockout punches literally rattle the brain.
Bumps and bruises to the brain make fighters ticking time bombs for CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“It’s a condition we believe is similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Bernick said.
The disease is linked to former NFL players. The late Junior Seau had CTE. The pro-bowl linebacker committed suicide in 2012.
“It usually begins with behavioral changes, mood changes, depression, anxiety and irritability,” Bernick said.
Dr. Bernick’s goal is to determine the extent brain damage these fighters suffer, before it’s too late.
“The ultimate goal is to improve safety,” Bernick said.
That could mean stricter rules in the ring.
Lawrence Epstein, the COO of the UFC, says the organization is OK with that. In fact, the multimillion dollar business put money into the study.
“We're continually looking every day to try and make the sport more exciting, safer for the benefits of the athletes,” Epstein said.
Williams says it’s no secret - Mixed Martial Arts is dangerous.
“Anybody that tells you it’s not, is stupid,” Williams said, but like many other fighters, Williams may still have a long fight ahead.
“Obviously my time will come for me to stop fighting and it’s my job, for when that time comes, for me to accept that and not try to push through it,” Williams said.
Doctors say the results of this study could lead to changes in other sports like soccer and football. The findings could also lead to new safety measures for our military fighting overseas.