- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Putting down their dukes for a day, rival executives and fighters from the nation’s largest boxing and mixed martial arts organizations came together on Capitol Hill Tuesday to announce their support for a major new study on ways to understand and reduce the dangers of brain trauma.

The executives were joined by two of the Hill’s most famous ex-boxers, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. Mr. McCain acknowledged that one reason for highlighting the study was to address growing public concerns about the safety and long-term health impacts of boxing and mixed martial arts.

“If we don’t do this, then I’m afraid that support for these incredible entertaining sports will wane on the part of the American people,” Mr. McCain said.

The press briefing, in fact, came just a day after 23-year-old Mexican featherweight Oscar Gonzalez was taken off life support 36 hours after the 10th-round knockout loss to Jesus Galicia in a bout in Mexico City.

The Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, where the study is being conducted, is studying more than 400 current and retired fighters, seeking to answer questions of why certain people are predisposed to brain trauma, when it begins to form and how it can be prevented.

“Most head injury does not produce brain injury, but some head injuries produce a brain injury that starts a process that ends up in something that looks like Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, medical director at the Ruvo Center.

“We can empower our athletes,” he added. “We can give them information that would say, ‘Yes, I’m safe,’ or ‘No, I’m not.’”

Two years into the study, clinic researchers have found an index of determining head trauma. Dr. Charles Bernick, the center’s associate medical director, said there is a correlation between how athletes perform on cognitive tests and whether they may need greater examination in the ring.

“We hope not that the results would just help the safety of fighting, but really can be applied to all sports, whether you are in the octagon or the ring or the football field or the battlefield or the hockey ring,” Dr. Bernick said.

Executives from Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions, leading boxing organizations, and Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA from the mixed martial arts world, all guaranteed their support for the study, despite their fierce rivalries in the ring. The groups are pledging a combined $600,000 to help finance the research.

“If organizations that are as fiercely competitive as Viacom and the UFC are and, in the boxing world, Top Rank and Golden Boy, can come together today, I think there’s still hope for North and South Korea, maybe even Democrats and Republicans,” Kevin Kay, Spike TV president, said.

Studies have shown 20-50 percent of professional fighters may develop neurological problems like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or depression at a young age. The clinic has been studying active and young fighters to better determine when this brain trauma starts to allow for more educated prevention.

“It’s important so that we can not only determine what the long-term affect of these activities are, but also find out if some people should stop doing what they’re doing at an earlier rate,” said Mr. Reid. “With a little more study, we can determine, it’s time we stop this.”

Mr. Reid, a high school amateur boxer, and Mr. McCain, a former U.S. Naval Academy lightweight boxer, offered support for the study, standing beside current UFC and MMA fighters.

Bernard Hopkins, IBF light heavyweight champion, has fought since 1988.

“It’s the training, the nine weeks, the eight weeks, the sparring with two or three guys and the pounding from day in and day out. That’s where the damage starts,” Mr. Hopkins said.

• Meghan Drake can be reached at mdrake@washingtontimes.com.

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