LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3.com) -- Knockout punches. Kicks. Takedowns. They are all part of the appeal of America's fastest growing sport -- mixed martial arts.
A major venue for MMA matches, Las Vegas is becoming “ground zero” for research on how blows to the head, sustained in a variety of sports, affect athletes’ brains.
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas see a correlation between repeated blows to the head and neurological problems, especially memory loss.
Among major questions the clinic's doctors will try to answer is when does brain damage begin in contact sports and who is most at risk. Their answers could bring new insight to the quest to make sports safer.
The results also could affect the reputation of mixed martial arts, a sport some say might be fighting for its life. Critics see it as too brutal, violent and dangerous, with the possibility of brain damage.
The powerful MMA punches, doctors say, are at the root of their argument that the sport can lead to injuries that get progressively worse, even after fighters leave the ring.
“I have this saying,” comments fighter Javier Guzman. “Nothing wakes you up in the morning quite like getting punched in the head.”
Guzman has been sidelined, banned from the mats after being knocked out in practice.
“I was sparring with a teammate and he just plowed me with a sidekick to the head,” Guzman says. “You know, lights went out for a second. It was a mild concussion.”
Doctors who study MMA, say the repetitive blows to the head rock the brain. One punch can deliver about 58 g’s of force. That’s more than 10 times the force experienced on most roller coasters.
“We're interested in the effects of repetitive head trauma,” says Dr. Charles Bernick, associate director of Cleveland Clinics Lou Ruvo Center.
With the research under way at Ruvo, fighters are flocking to Las Vegas for the groundbreaking study of the sport that has sidelined those like Guzman.
“Is it how many times you've been hit? How you've been hit?” Bernick asks. “Are genetic factors involved?”
The answers could translate into new regulations for such MMA organizations as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“We are always looking at opportunities to make the sport safer for our athletes,” says Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of the UFC. The multimillion-dollar organization one of the backers of the brain injury study.
“The ultimate goal is to improve safety,” says the Ruvo Center’s Bernick. “We're not going to eliminate these sports. That's not our intent.”