NEW YORK CITY – As professional hockey attempts to address the serious health and safety issue of concussions in the rink, the UFC is highlighting the comparative safety of mixed martial arts.
The promotion's president said that mandatory medical suspensions are a key to limiting the amount of head trauma a fighter sustains during his professional career. So, too, is a rule set that prevents a fighter from taking undue punishment inside the cage.
"These guys don't take the damage that NFL players take, or boxers, or guys from the NHL," UFC president Dana White said during a press conference held today at New York City's Radio City Music Hall in support of UFC 128, which takes place Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
White's comments come amid increasing pro-hockey scrutiny following several high-profile incidents of direct contact to the head, as well as a new protocol designed to protect players who may have sustained concussions during play.
In the most flagrant example of the sport's possible danger, Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty was left with a fractured neck and severe concussion after Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara checked him into a glass partition during a game this past Tuesday at Montreal's Bell Centre. Chara escaped suspension by the NHL, but the Montreal police have opened an investigation into the matter.
In response to a firestorm of controversy over that hit and others, the NHL has instituted a new concussion protocol requiring any player suspected of the injury to sit out of the game for 15 minutes and be examined by a physician before being allowed to return.
Asked what the UFC is doing to prevent the types of head trauma that have become a hot topic among observers of such sports as hockey and football, White said athletic commissions are the first line of defense when it comes to keeping an athlete safe.
"Here's the reality: This is the most regulated sport in the world," White said. "When you have these guys talking about, 'Oh this shouldn't be in this state' or 'this is brutal' or this and that, the reality is when these guys fight, if they take any damage to the head ... they're put on a three-month medical suspension and cannot return until they're seen by a doctor."
The UFC also employs its own medical staff to examine fighters prior to a fight (beyond the clearance required by an athletic commission).
A 2008 article on MMA from the "British Journal of Sports Medicine" studied injury trends in a sample of 1,270 fights held from 2002-2007 in the state of Nevada and found severe concussions occurred in 3.3 percent of all matches. However, it recommended additional study of the sport to better understand injuries in MMA and how to prevent them.
The next line of defense against injuries is the small contingent of referees who can step in to save hurt fighters, White said.
Although somewhat counterintuitive to the casual observer, the executive said a fighter who is knocked down by a strike and swarmed by his opponent is safer than a participant in another contact sport who may be kept in the game long after he's been hurt.
"Because the guy has the ability to jump on top of him, the fight is usually stopped," White said. "These guys don't take the damage that NFL players take, or boxers, or guys from the NHL."
One medical expert told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
) that example holds true if a fighter is finished off with a submission hold. However, danger remains when striking is involved.
"If we're talking about jumping on somebody and wailing away at his head, obviously that's not (as safe)," said Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, a group that studies brain trauma in sports.
But when it comes to the amount of time athletes get to recover from trauma, White said the built-in safeguards of commissions work in tandem with the UFC to prevent fighters from being seriously injured inside the cage.
"Guys in the NFL and NHL can't miss three months," he said. "If a guy's out three months for a concussion, there would be no football. There would be no NHL. That's the difference.
"This sport's a million times safer than both of them."
That's a feeling shared by supporters of the push to legalize MMA in the state of New York. The sport has been banned here since 1997, and the UFC is lobbying to reverse that.
"I grew up watching boxing on TV; I grew up watching WWF, then turned to WWE," said New York City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera during today's press conference. "It motivated me to get into the gym; it motivated me to want to join martial arts. This is the impact that MMA and UFC has on our next generation of leadership, and that's why I think it's important that we bring it here to our great city and to Madison Square Garden where these fighters deserve the opportunity to fight.
"It's about time that government takes off the shackles, government opens up the doors, rolls out the red carpet, and allows the UFC into New York City."
For the latest on UFC 128, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of MMAjunkie.com.