UFC veteran Tim Hague passed away at a hospital in Edmonton, Canada on 18 June 2017 after suffering a second round knockout in a boxing match against Adam Braidwood on 16 June.
He was 34-years-old with a record of 1-2 in boxing and 21-13 in MMA. Of those 13 losses in MMA, eight were KOs or TKOs. One of the losses in boxing before this match was also by TKO. This does not take into account any KOs sustained in the gym.
Deaths related to head trauma are still a rare occurrence in MMA with the first recorded casualty in 2007 after Sam Vasquez was knocked out in the third round of a match in the US.
Injuries are a hazard of any sport whether you are participating in full contact martial arts, hockey, football or skiing. Even skiing articles emphasise that you are 100 times more likely to die canoeing than on the slopes.
Instead of reactionary calls for a ban, there should be discussion focused on safety and prevention. This dialogue can be had without blame or vilification. Whether you are a training in MMA, BJJ, golf, snowboarding or even canoeing there are basic precautions to prevent injury and in extreme cases, death.
Every sport can be dangerous when we are ignorant or careless. When I started training MMA in 2003 we sparred for several rounds at the end of every class.
These sparring matches were not wars but opportunities to practice the techniques in a safe, live environment. We all wore gloves to protect our hands and mouth guards to protect our teeth. Our gym had a healthy training culture but occasionally a shot would be mistimed resulting a broken nose or a concussion.
I know this because I was a recipient of both. After both of these injuries I continued to train but would abstain from sparring for a period. This practice was by no means standard especially in the early 2000’s.
There were a few gyms in my city with a reputation for going hard in sparring sessions resulting in regular KOs. In training.
After a decade, some of those fighters from those gyms showed early symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This was a result of cumulative head trauma from sparring and competition. CTE is not exclusive to MMA or boxing.
It can be found in American football, rugby, ice hockey, professional wrestling / luta livre and even rodeo riding. Symptoms of CTE occur in four stages with the first stage usually surfacing about 8-10 years after “repetitive mild traumatic brain injury”.
Many fighters suffer concussions in training either from sparring or a stray knee or elbow drilling techniques. In fact, a lot of fighters have said they sustained more injuries in the gym than in a match.
Nearly 24 years after the first UFC, MMA training has evolved. We have more information now about diet, strength and conditioning, injury prevention and safety.
In 2014, UFC fighters Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks caused a collective gasp after admitting they do not spar. Tim Kennedy and Donald Cerrone have also admitted sparring doesn’t feature in their fight camps.
This is because the idea of needing to spar in order to simulate a match is a myth.
Endurance and grit can be pushed in strength and conditioning. There is nothing at stake in sparring so it doesn’t make sense for fighters to risk injury in the gym which could cancel a fight.
Sparring is meant to test techniques and scenarios in a safe environment so that you win a fight with minimal damage. It is not meant for you to get out your aggression or deal with your anger management issues. That’s what the heavy bag or grappling dummy is there for.
Many of the fighters who eschew sparring will instead drill techniques. Pacing, speed, power and defence can all be tested with a good coach who is formidable at holding pads. If anything, the latter could actually help prevent you from eating some serious headshots on fight night.
Many gyms introduced a mandatory headgear or 16oz glove sparring rule to prevent injury although it often seems to have the opposite effect. This is largely down to the illusion of safety from the bigger gloves or head padding which can inadvertently encourage people to hit harder.
CHANGE BEGINS IN THE GYM. THE FOCUS OF EVERY SESSION SHOULD BE IMPROVEMENT OVER INJURY, SKILL OR EGO.
When we sparred with 8oz or 10oz gloves we were always careful because we didn’t want to break our hands. With 4oz or 8oz MMA gloves our shots would lightly tag each other because there was even less protection for our hands.
Unfortunately, head trauma isn’t as apparent as a broken hand. And most won’t rest a head injury in the way they would a broken bone. Many fighters may not even be aware of head trauma injuries.
This can happen if they experience a flash knockout or get stunned from a blow to the head. They feel a bit dizzy or rocked and then continue. These are just as serious as concussions if not more so. This is because a fighter will continue sparring unaware that they are injured.
The change begins in the gym. The focus of every session should be improvement over injury, skill over ego. Gyms should not be run like an underground fight club where students are constantly suffering from injuries or belittled for looking after their own safety. The coach should be there reminding fighters that the objective is to learn and pull out anyone going too hard on teammates in practice, even banning repeat offenders.
Some gyms won’t even allow sparring until the students have attended a minimum number of classes or demonstrated their ability to spar responsibly. When I coached, sparring sessions for grappling commenced with several blind rolls where everyone started from their knees and eyes closed for the duration of the round. This was to prevent the overzealous or new students from going too hard.
It also made for really productive sessions where the focus was on technique rather than brute strength. This couldn’t be applied to striking practice for obvious reasons but there are ways to pace sparring sessions, focusing on specific scenarios and also stopping those that are going too hard.
As a fighter or student, you can also help prevent long term injury in a few ways:
- Look for a gym that puts safety first. Ask questions about safety and sparring before joining.
- Always using protection when drilling and sparring. And remember that the protection you’re wearing is not a licence to go hard.
- Lead by example – go light when sparring. Let a teammate know that they’re going too hard. If they don’t correct it ask to partner someone else.
- Regular neck strengthening exercises.
- Seek medical advice immediately if you suffer a concussion, whiplash or a KO in training. And FOLLOW said medical advice whether it’s abstaining from training or cancelling a match.
Tragedies suffered by the likes of Tim Hague or Joao Carvalho should be taken seriously. We owe it to these fighters to educate ourselves, prevent head trauma and manage these injuries when they do happen. These casualties should be discussed openly rather than treated like an elephant in the room.
There are plenty of ways to stay safe in the sport but it is up to all of us to promote a culture of pragmatism over bravado.
I’ve included a few resources on CTE & head trauma below: