T.J. Grant's sensible response to concussion woes, and why it should worry us
From MMAJunkie.com (from Ben Fowlkes):
Here's a pretty depressing hypothetical for you.
Say T.J. Grant – he of the jiu-jitsu concussion, he who recently announced that he would be foregoing his second proposed UFC lightweight title shot while his brain heals – never gets his crack at the belt.
Say he's sidelined long enough that the division is forced to move on without him. Say he comes back in six or eight months and has to take a tune-up fight, which he then loses, and which lands him right back in the crowded middle of the UFC's most talent-rich division. Say one thing leads to another, as it so often does in this fickle business.
What would we say about his surprisingly reasonable and cautious response to a concussion suffered in training then?
I ask not because I think Grant made the wrong decision here, but because his is one of the only injuries where we'd even think to wonder about it. That probably tells us something about the nature of combat sports. It also tells us something about what we expect from those who make a living in them, and I'm not sure it's anything good.
The first time Grant told us that a knock on the head at jiu-jitsu practice would keep him out of a UFC lightweight title fight, the MMA world responded with conspiracy theories. The second time he did it, well, it kind of torpedoed the claims of the tinfoil hat crew, but at least it left the door wide open for questions about his heart, his desire, his determination. Just last night one fan responded to Grant, via Twitter (naturally), "bro are any fighters ever 100%!? Come on if you signed up to fight be a man and fight!!"
First of all, if you are considering beginning your tweet to someone you don't personally know with the word "bro," step back and reconsider everything. Second, imagine if we responded the same way to, say, UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. He's been out nearly two years with a knee injury. You see the dude walking around though, so how bad can it be? Why won't he be a man and fight?
Seems like we'd all instantly realize how absurd that viewpoint would be when it comes to stuff like knees and tendons and joints and bones. But when it comes to a fighter's brain? Honestly, I can't help but flashback to my own response to Grant's initial concussion woes, when I was shocked that he'd self-report something like that in the first place.
He's supposed to, of course. As a rule, state athletic commissions want to know if you've been knocked out in training or suffered any concussions in the weeks and months before your bout. Most of them actually take that stuff pretty seriously. It's just that, in a sport like MMA, we assume that fighters will actively conceal that information whenever possible. They have. They do. This doesn't seem to surprise us. Whether that's because we don't take brain health as seriously as we should to begin with, or because we don't expect fighters to, I'm not sure.
On some level, I get it. Fighters are engaged in a career that, no matter how cautious they are about it, is not good for their brains. Even the fighters who take little to no damage in a fight are bound to eat a shot in training now and then. And they train more or less year-round. If you want to do MMA, you're going to get hit in the head more than the doctor-recommended amount, which is zero. We know this. We accept it. We expect fighters to know and accept it too, and that's where things get weird.
How many UFC fighters would have kept that first concussion a secret in order to get their crack at the UFC lightweight title? My guess is, depending on the severity of their symptoms, most of them. Even Grant seems to have considered it.
In an interview with foxsports.com, he said he suffered the concussion two weeks after his win over Gray Maynard. That puts the initial injury in early June, though he didn't pull out of the fight with then-champ Benson Henderson until July. Seems reasonable to assume that if his concussion symptoms would have subsided before then, he'd have kept that incident to himself and gone on with the fight. Instead, his concussion was so bad, Grant said, that he got nauseous watching TV or listening to music. Even the sound of his newborn daughter's crying was too much for his wounded brain to take, Grant admitted, which is a pretty good sign that you shouldn't allow yourself to be hit in the head right then.
Fortunately he realized that, just like he realized that there is indeed life after fighting, and life that he'll probably want a fully functioning brain in order to enjoy. But the fact that Grant's rational, cautious approach to a head injury is the exception rather than the rule in MMA, that should be a little troubling.
It's not an easy line to draw. If you're going to do this sport, you're going to have to accept some risks to your long-term brain health. You have to know that you might not realize what you've done to yourself until years later, when it's too late to do much about it, and you're going to have to find some way to make your peace with that. It's either that or lie to yourself, avoid unpleasant information, and tell yourself that you're invincible right up until it becomes painfully clear that you're not.
Grant has adopted a surprisingly sensible balance, even if it's one that has so far kept him from realizing his dream of becoming a UFC champ.
It just makes you wonder, say that hypothetical we started with eventually becomes reality. Say Grant never gets his shot, for one reason or another. What lesson will other UFC fighters, both present and future, take from that? And would it lead to anything that we, as fans of both fighting and fighters, would want to see?
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