Dr. Bennet Omalu was the first to document the problem of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in professional football players. The National Football League for years sought to downplay his findings. The NFL has since acknowledged it has a "concussio Andy Furillo The Sacramento Bee
Dr. Bennet Omalu was the first to document the problem of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in professional football players. The National Football League for years sought to downplay his findings. The NFL has since acknowledged it has a "concussio Andy Furillo The Sacramento Bee

Sports

Fighters now must pass concussion protocol before MMA events

By Mark Billingsley

Bee Correspondent

December 14, 2016 03:46 PM

For the first time in California, mixed martial artists – along with professional boxers – will undergo testing before and possibly after bouts to help determine if they have suffered neurological damage or deficiencies.

All fighters scheduled for Saturday’s UFC Fight Night on Fox at Golden 1 Center have been given baseline testing on cognitive awareness and balance using an iPad with proprietary software designed for the C3 protocol. It stands for Comprehensive Concussion Care and is modeled after tests administered by the Cleveland Clinic’s Professional Fighter Brain Health Study.

Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance, said if a fighter is knocked out or takes enough significant shots to the head, ringside physicians will order post-fight C3 tests that will inform the UFC about lengths of possible medical suspensions. Those suspensions could last as many as 180 days, although 45- and 60-day medical suspensions are common in the UFC, Novitzky said. The California State Athletic Commission has partnered with the UFC to help establish and administer the C3 protocols at all sanctioned MMA events in California starting Saturday.

“This new C3 protocol gives us baseline objective and measurable data on a fighter before a fight and can be given to the fighter after a bout to see if they are hurt. They can ask for another test to compare,” Novitzky said. “The feedback from the first fighters tested (Tuesday) has been great.”

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Novitzky said the test process takes about 20 to 25 minutes and includes the fighter holding an iPad. The test is described as being somewhat similar to a field sobriety test, which includes a cognition portion and a balance portion. Part of the cognition portion entails fighters counting numbers forward and backward into the iPad’s microphone. They also use the iPad’s screen to recognize symbols and patterns in timed sequences. The balance portion of the test includes having fighters close their eyes and maintain balance on one leg while holding the iPad away from their body. The iPad’s gyroscope can sense balance issues that may point to a concussion. The data is sent to the UFC, the appropriate athletic commissions and the Cleveland Clinic. That data is checked and rechecked to reveal possible neurological declines.

“The testing will be an annual process for UFC fighters, eventually,” Novitzky said. “As people age they decline naturally in neurocognition. But we want to see if fighters decline quicker and, if so, how and why?”

The UFC signed a five-year extension in February with the Cleveland Clinic and provided $1 million for the study focusing on early identification of brain function declines and prediction of long-term neurological effects. The study’s physicians are trying to understand why fighters with similar exposure to repeated head strikes are affected differently.

Sacramento MMA fighter Josh Emmett faces Scott Holtzman in a lightweight match Saturday. Both fighters took the baseline test Tuesday; Emmett said he appreciates the safety measures taken by the UFC and athletic commission.

“They’re taking extra precautions and looking out for the fighters,” said Emmett, an El Camino High School graduate who has a 10-0 MMA record. “Having a baseline is great. You can’t cheat science, and hopefully some guys won’t get back into the gym if they’re hurt.”

Emmett, who will compete in just his second UFC fight, said he likely suffered a minor concussion after a hard-fought victory over Christos Giagos in a West Coast Fighting Championship bout in January. While the WFC did not give him a medical suspension, Emmett said he would expect one from the UFC should he take heavy blows Saturday.

“Luckily the (C3) test isn’t pass/fail,” Emmett said.

Eventually, baseline and subsequent testing ordered by ringside physicians will be required for any boxer or MMA fighter to be licensed in California, said Andy Foster, state athletic commission executive officer.

“The commission doesn’t have eyes in every gym in the state and many fighters go back into the gym and spar even though they may be on a medical suspension,” Foster said. “Hopefully, they can use the C3 tests to see if they are hurt and hopefully the trainers will see the information and they’ll uphold the suspensions.”

Foster said Saturday will be the “first step in a long road to getting all 50 states to do C3 testing.” Foster said California sanctions about 400 mixed martial artists. Nevada is the only other state to regulate C3 testing, Foster said.

Novitzky said the UFC has about 530 fighters in 37 countries, which makes testing difficult. But in Sacramento, and in every city in the world from now on, the UFC will test its fighters before events.

“This program is about quality of life for fighters after they compete and has been put in place for them,” Novitzky said. “The UFC is being proactive. It just makes sense.”

Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer. Reach him at editorwriter@att.net or @editorwriter001.

UFC Fight Night on FOX

Saturday: Golden 1 Center

Prelims: 12:30 p.m., online streaming; 3:30 p.m., FS1

Main card: 5 p.m., Ch. 40

Main event: Paige VanZant vs. Michelle Waterson

Co-main: Urijah Faber vs. Brad Pickett