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Old 03-14-2012, 05:44 PM
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Default The Fighter Who Stayed Too Long

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Mar 13, 2012 - Ask his friends and theyíll tell you. The changes to Gary Goodridgeís personality happened the same way the brain damage did: gradually, over the course of several years. It wasnít like he took one big blow to the head and woke up the next day with a mind that could no longer trace the thread of a conversation or remember what heíd had for dinner the night before. It was the little stuff. His speech got a little harder to understand. He didnít tell as many jokes. He forgot things.

But everybody forgets things. Everybody gets older. So what? Even the people whoíd known him since childhood couldnít say for sure that there was something wrong with Goodridge at first. It was hard to notice, until it wasnít.

"When talking to him on the phone, his speech was becoming slurred," said Mike Mobbs, whoís counted Goodridge as his best friend since the two were nine years old, growing up in Barrie, Ontario together. "It got to the point where, when having phone conversations with him, I found myself constantly saying, ĎWhat did you say? Pardon?í That, to me, was the tip-off."

Heíd forget appointments, forget whole conversations. Heíd call a friend on the phone, talk to them for a while, then hang up and call them back ten minutes later. ĎHowís it going?í heíd ask. And what were you supposed to say? That it was going exactly the same as it was ten minutes ago? That his brain was broken, and that there was nothing anybody could do about it?

If you ask Goodridge now, heíll tell you that his last good fight was in 2003, when he knocked out Don Frye in his Pride "retirement match." Even then he was suffering from back pain so severe that he hardly trained at all before the fight. He landed a head kick in the first minute that kept the world from finding out just how far from fighting shape he really was. Then he fought for seven more years. He had 13 more MMA fights and more than 30 kickboxing matches in that time. He took probably a dozen more concussions, at least. He ran up a tab using his body and his brain as collateral. Now the bill has come due.

"I had no idea about CTE," Goodridge said. "I didnít know anything."

Punch-drunk, is what the old-timers called it. Dementia pugilistica, if you wanted to sound smarter than you were. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is what itís been dubbed by the researchers who have begun slicing open the brains of deceased football and hockey players, many of whom died by suicide or drug overdose, sometimes after months or years of bizarre, out-of-character behavior. What those researchers are finding when they look at those brains now are the unmistakable brown splotches, the nerve cells filled with tau protein that sprawl out like weeds in an untended garden, indicating CTE.

Itís something you might expect in the brain of an elderly person with an extremely advanced case of Alzheimerís disease. Not something you expect in a 46-year-old man like Goodridge.

And yet, according to Dr. Donna Ouchterlony, the director of the brain injury clinic at Torontoís St. Michaelís Hospital, thatís whatís most likely happening in Goodridgeís brain right now. It would take a post-mortem examination to determine conclusively, but after conducting tests of Goodridgeís cognitive abilities, his balance, and even his sense of smell, Dr. Ouchterlony wrote in her report: "It seems clear that Gary Goodridge has CTE and has had the disease for some time."

During the exam, she noted that he couldn't stand on one leg without falling over. His sense of smell was diminished in one nostril. His cognitive abilities were clearly impaired.

"I had no idea it was coming," said Goodridge. "You donít know. Everyone around you tells you itís happening, but you donít notice it yourself."

A Changed Man

At the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where the bulk of the research is being done, they describe CTE as "a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head." The tau protein builds up and disrupts normal brain function, leading to symptoms such as "memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia."

And yeah, Goodridgeís friends will tell you. Thatís Gary these days. Though it didnít used to be.

"Gary used to walk into a room and he owned the room," said Mobbs, whoís now a police officer in Ontario. "His charisma, his wit -- he was one of the wittiest guys I knew. He was quick to laugh, charming, and within five or seven minutes of him walking into a room, people just gravitated to him. It wasnít like he was trying to do it, either. He was just such a strong personality, so fun and vivacious, so full of life."



These days he spends most of his time in bed. He watches a lot of TV, probably ten hours a day, according to friends, and heís more or less glued to his iPhone, which he uses as a sort of exterior memory bank. It reminds him who he needs to talk to and where he needs to be. At the same time, even the iPhone can only help him so much.

According to Mark Dorsey, who co-wrote Goodridgeís memoir, Gatekeeper: The Fighting Life of Gary "Big Daddy" Goodridge, the former UFC and K-1 fighterís long-term memory is still "impeccable." Itís the short-term he canít get a grip on.

"Iíve gone on trips with him and weíll be in the hotel at night and heíll ask me, ĎWhat did we do today?í" said Dorsey. "I wonít give it to him right away and heíll sit there and try to rack his brain and remember."

Dorsey flew with Goodridge to California recently so the fighter could appear on an episode of Inside MMA. Goodrige seemed mostly fine at first, Dorsey said, but "on the plane ride he back he couldnít remember why he had gone to California. I mean, and thatís after we said goodbye to the guys from Inside MMA that morning. Five hours later, he couldnít remember why we had even made the trip in the first place."

According to Mobbs, itís made Goodridge more introverted and less outgoing. Heís not the same quick-witted guy he used to be, and he avoids long conversations because "he doesnít know what heís already said."

The memory problems are "frustrating as hell," Goodridge said, but thatís not the worst of it. His friends tell him that his whole personality has changed. He gets angry much easier. Heís more impulsive. He knows this, in a way, but itís hard for him to fully comprehend.

"Iím still not aware," Goodridge said. "Iím trying to get a grasp on it. Iím starting to understand that thereís something wrong with me, but Iím still trying to get my head around it that Iím different than who I was. Itís hard for me to see the difference, but there is a difference."

For starters, he recently had a rare argument with his mother that resulted in the two not speaking for several weeks. For some people, the occasional battle with their mother might be normal operating procedure. For Goodridge, it was unheard of.

"I never talked back to my mother. Never, ever," he said. "Iím 46 years old, and Iíve never talked back to my mother. I actually talked back to her in a very rude, harsh way for the first time a couple months ago. Thatís not me."

At least, it wasnít him. Not for most of his life. But now Goodridge has to accept that years of head trauma may have changed his entire personality. And while the multiple medications he takes and the occupational therapy he undergoes a couple times a week can help mitigate the effects, thereís no known way of reversing the brain damage heís suffered. In all likelihood, it will only get worse as the years progress, something Goodridge says he thinks about "quite a bit" these days.

"Youíre kind of in disbelief when you first hear it," he said. "I thought, it must be something else. Maybe itís a misdiagnosis. Iím still getting used to the idea that Iím not going to be okay ever again. This is my life."

Asking for Trouble

The question you almost canít help but ask when you look at Goodridgeís MMA and kickboxing records is, didnít he know what he was doing to himself? He lost his last eight MMA bouts, with the most recent one coming in December of 2010. He suffered 14 TKO or KO losses as a kickboxer. He fought more than 80 bouts between kickboxing and MMA in a little over 14 years of competition. Didnít he know that there might be consequences?

The answer, according to Goodridge, is yes. Sort of. He knew there were risks, even if no one was talking about CTE -- at least not in those terms -- when he made his MMA debut at UFC 8 at the age of 30.

At the same time, the risks always seemed to be so hypothetical, so distant. Risks were something for other people to worry about. Goodridge had to worry about the present, and about putting money in his pocket.

"I just knew that I was trying to do the best for my family," he said. "I have two girls, and I wanted to do my best for them."

He came from poverty and he never wanted to go back. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, he moved to Canada with his family when he was seven years old. As he wrote in his book, he stuck out in Barrie, Ontario "like a fly in a bowl of milk." He got involved in competitive arm-wrestling at 15, and went on to become a champion. After that came boxing, where the 6'3", 250-pound Goodridge became the super heavyweight amateur champion of Canada. Then there was the UFC. Then Pride and K-1. Then the unregulated fringes of MMA. One thing, as they say, led to another.



At K-1 kickboxing events, he was known as the guy who would do his best to make sure somebody got knocked out. That earned him many repeat performances, despite a winless streak that lasted for more than four years at the end of his career.

"They paid me a lot of money for that, because they knew there would be a KO," he said of his K-1 days. "Either I'm getting knocked out or you're getting knocked out. Thatís what they wanted to see. They paid me to do that."

In MMA, after his glory days in Japan's Pride Fighting Championships organization were done, he became the guy who you could get when you needed somebody with a name, and you needed them in a hurry. In 2008, after Aleksander Emelienanko was pulled from the Affliction: Banned fight card at the last minute, Goodridge stepped in as a replacement against heavyweight Paul Buentello. He made $25,000 for going three rounds in a losing effort.

When he took on Gegard Mousasi at FEGís Dynamite!! 2009 event, he said he was promised $30,000 for the short-notice bout. The fight was over in a minute and a half. It took him a year to get partial payment from the FEG promoters.

For at least the last five years of his career, fighting was something he couldnít talk about with his childhood friend Mobbs, who was adamant that Goodridge should hang up the gloves. If he mentioned anything about an upcoming fight, it was Mobbs who would tell him that his skills had deteriorated with age and he needed to get out of the game. Yeah, youíre right, Goodridge would tell him. Then heíd take the fight anyway, because he had no other source of income.

In an attempt to make his point via other means, Mobbs sent Goodridge the video of an interview heíd done at UFC 8 in 1996. Then he sent him one that heíd done in 2009.

"Not the same person," Mobbs said. "Very, very different. And I think he saw the difference, but he still needed the money. Heíd been out of the workforce for 13 or 14 years, had no trade, no real employment history."

As he told me in 2010, when he was in the final throes of his fight career, no one who cared about him wanted to see him fight anymore.

"I should not fight again," he said. "I know I shouldn't. But I have to get paid. I'm trying to get a job. But in the meantime I have to get paid, and people take advantage of you."

He took one more MMA fight and two more kickboxing bouts after that conversation. He lost them all.

From Goodridgeís perspective, it was the same thing over and over again. Heíd tell himself he was done fighting, and set to looking for a job. How seriously he looked depends on who you ask, but eventually some fight promoter would call him up with another chance to make 20 or 30 grand for a few minutes of work, which meant a chance to pay some bills and get some financial breathing room, so heíd take it.

"No one likes to lose, and itís always about ego on some level," said Mobbs. "But honestly, I canít remember the last time he got in the ring really wanting to win. It was only about the paycheck at the end."

When word of his diagnosis spread throughout the MMA community, Goodridge was quick to claim that it was the kickboxing and not the MMA bouts that were responsible.

"Gary and I disagree on that," said Dorsey, who followed Goodridgeís fighting career closely even before the two started working on the book together. "He says it was all from kickboxing, and thatís his line whenever heís asked about it. He says his only knockout [in MMA] was from Gilbert Yvel, and all the damage came from kickboxing. Well, youíve followed his career and Iíve watched every one of his fights, and I can guarantee he got damaged in mixed martial arts. I could probably bring up ten fights where he got concussed. I donít think he really realized what was happening until his kickboxing career, and he took more noticeable knockouts there, but to me thereís no doubt that all the training, the sparring, the fights during his long mixed martial arts career also had a significant effect."

Beyond the brain damage, Goodridgeís body is still dealing with the consequences of both sports in other ways, Dorsey said. He has back and leg issues, and a sciatic nerve that often gives him trouble.

"The guy can hardly stand for 20 minutes at a time without having to sit down or stretch. Heís got a lot of damage in his legs, and I think that affects him at times just as much as the brain damage. He canít really go out a lot of places. If you canít go anywhere where you might have to stand in line or walk around and be standing up for more than 20 minutes, that severely limits you."

An Uncertain Future

Say your brain no longer cooperates with you. Say it never will again, at least not like it used to. Conversations you had 20 years ago are still crystal clear, but yesterday is a total mystery, irretrievable without the help of some outside force. Even if someone tells you what you did all day, itís like someone describing your first birthday party to you. Ah yes, you tell yourself. I remember now. Or maybe itís just your imagination filling in the gaps. Maybe some things, once you lose them, are lost forever.

Say youíre angry and depressed, impulsive and moody, aggressive and afraid. Say your friends donít even recognize the person youíve become, and you know they must be right, if only because they all say the same thing. But the person they remember seems like a flickering dream to you. You remember vague outlines of it, but the particulars are hazy at best.

Say this is your life from here on out. What are you supposed to do with it? What if youíve got 30 or 40 more years of this?

He thinks about this all the time now. He never lived like he was trying to make it to old age, which is maybe the reason why he could disregard all the risks he was taking, but also the reason why he doesnít regret any of it.

"If I had it to do all over again, Iíd do it the exact same way," he said.

His friends arenít so sure. Maybe heíd do less kickboxing, they say. Maybe heíd walk away sooner, find something else to do while he was still capable of learning how to do it. But then, with something like CTE, nobody can tell you for sure when youíve gone too far. Sometimes the symptoms show up months after the trauma. Sometimes itís decades. Maybe it was Fedorís punches that did it. Maybe it was the head kicks from Pat Barry. Heíll never know.

Still, he was a star once. In Japan they lined up around the block to see Gary Goodridge. Heíd go to restaurants and the chef would come out to ask him what heíd ordered, just so he could make sure and do his best on "Big Daddyís" meal. He had women and money and nights that he thought would never end. Then it all ended, and his life went on.

"I had a great kick of the can," he said. "Now in my twilight years -- if you can call this my twilight years -- Iím going through some stuff. But Iím trying to get on top of it. Iím doing the best I can."

"Iím heartbroken," said his childhood friend Mobbs, who looks back now and wonders if he should have done more to try and make Goodridge stop. If he thinks about it too much, the tears start in his chest and move up through his throat. He stops and says he's sorry. The tough guy cop, apologizing for getting choked up. He thinks about another friend of theirs, how it used to be the three of them together for years. Decades, really.

"We often get together, and one of the things we say now is we wish our friend was back. We miss our friend."

But what were they supposed to do? They couldnít choose for him, even after they knew without a doubt that there was only one reasonable choice. And by the time the signs were obvious, it was already too late.

"It kind of sneaks up on you," said Goodridge. "You donít really understand. People have to tell you whatís going on. Even when you do get a notion of it, you think itís normal. I mean, you forget things sometimes. Thatís normal."

You forget things. You stay in bed. You get hit in the head for money. You get used to it. You settle into your new normal. You wait to find out what tomorrow will look like. Your life tumbles forward. Who can say where it will go next? Who can tell you what debts you already owe, or when you incurred them? And what are you supposed to do if you can't possibly pay? What then?
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Old 03-15-2012, 03:06 PM
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It is eerie how similar this sounds to an addiction story.

This story reminds me of this quote from Matt:
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Now, tough’s not always good in our sport because tough means you can take a bunch of punches and survive. If I’m good and I’m fighting somebody that’s tough, they’re going to take a bunch of punches but they’re not going to give up. So how is that good for them? That means that they’re probably going to go to the hospital with aches, pains, and bruises and still lose. I'd rather be good, or technical, or strong, way before tough, because tough just means you get beat up.
Gary had buckets of tough. I’m glad Matt always fought smart, always looking to corner his opponent and make them quit instead of doing stupid stuff to put on a show. I know Gary was far from stupid, in fact was one of the most intelligent guys around, but raw intelligence only goes so far. I wish he had applied it working out a future instead of making himself a brilliant spectacle.

Last edited by PRShrek; 03-15-2012 at 04:26 PM. Reason: spelling
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Old 03-17-2012, 02:12 PM
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wavetar wavetar is offline
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Originally Posted by PRShrek View Post
It is eerie how similar this sounds to an addiction story.
You're right, it really does. Sad stuff.
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