The UFC is Back This Week, A Few Thoughts On That

On Spencer Fisher, head trauma, UFC Fight Island 7, and Rafael Fiziev

There are things happening again.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “How are things happening again? They literally just happened. Why do they keep happening, the things? Don’t they ever just not happen for, like, five minutes? This is exhausting.”

And yes, I agree. I, too, would love a break from the constant managing of the happenings of the things. But, unfortunately, that’s just the hand we’ve been dealt. Things happen all the time in the world and, more relevantly to the point of this particular space, they also happen in MMA.

The good news is that not all of the things that happen are bad. In fact, some of them are OK. And some of them are indifferent, which is not great but it’s better than bad and therefore kind of OK, too.

Today, I discourse on some of these things.

Spencer Fisher and hard truths we can’t look away from

This week, MMA Fighting’s Steven Marrocco’s published a brilliant piece on Spencer Fisher, a retired fighter who’s been dealing with the terribly debilitating effects of severe brain trauma for years.

The story, which chronicles the former UFC lightweight’s cognitive and emotional downfall before and after his 2013 retirement, is by no means an easy or particularly pleasant read. It is, however, one that those who claim to care about MMA can’t — and shouldn’t — look away from. If the relative newness of the sport has somewhat shielded us from acknowledging the full extent of its actual long-term consequences to bodies and brains, it’s now virtually impossible for anyone to honestly plead ignorance.

Take BloodyElbow’s brilliant series on former UFC fighter David Mitchell, for instance. Or the admissions of fighters like veteran brawler Wanderlei Silva. Or a 2020 survey conducted by The Athletic in which almost 30 percent of 170 fighters considered the possibility they were already dealing with symptoms of brain trauma in their everyday lives. For all the ways in which UFC president Dana White’s response to the Fisher story was far from ideal, he was right about one thing: “(Fisher is) not the first and he’s definitely not going to be the last.”


It’s hard to talk about silver linings when this level of personal tragedy is involved, but one non-terrible takeaway from these conversations is the fact that we’re even having them at all. The fact that fighters are worried about long-lasting damage is encouraging, compared to the dismissive attitude toward safety and general approach to day-to-day contact even a decade ago. It is now common to hear coaches and gym leaders talk about responsible sparring and concussion protocols.

For all the (justifiable) flack the UFC gets, their  investment in brain health studies is a commendable effort, as well as the work provided by their Performance Institute to help ease the inevitable toll of an extraordinarily physically and emotionally taxing career.

Still, Fisher’s story — one in who knows how many — is a raw portrait of the many ways in which this sport keeps failing is athletes.

How fair is it that, after they’re done with serving as sources of entertainment and revenue, professional fighters don’t have access to a retirement plan or proper healthcare? How can we just accept that workers who put so much on the line get so little in return? What is the role of promotions, and what should it be? How long can we keep allowing those who profit from these athletes’ labor to maintain such one-sided, borderline exploitative structures? Beyond the companies and promoters, what is our responsibility, as people who benefit from the labour of these athletes — whether it’s as a source of entertainment or, in cases like mine, of income — to help push for significant change?

How can we just accept that workers who put so much on the line get so little in return?

I am not naive enough to think I have the solutions to a problem that, on the bad days, I don’t really think can be fixed. But I’d say that acknowledging the real nature of what these athletes are up against and taking practical steps to not only protect, but appreciate and value them accordingly is a start.

Don’t go breaking my heart

As Dana White spoke of a “big fight for Nate Diaz in the works,” I couldn’t help but wonder: Should I open my battle-scarred heart once more, only to risk having it ripped out, shredded to pieces and trampled on by a horde of middle-school kids playing Imagine Dragons on the flute?

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Fight Island is upon us again

As we prepare to go on this ride once more, how about a trip down memory lane provided by a writer of distinguished taste and superior intellect?

And, if that isn’t available, how about a trip down memory lane provided by me?

A series of unfortunate events

Going into full detail as to what Santiago Ponzinibbio has been up against for the past couple of years would require a couple of columns and probably a legal waiver from the IDOMTTWBYO (International Department of MMA Things That Will Bum You Out), so I’m just going to leave you with this link, and this link, and this link, and this gif of a corgi butt.

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Let’s just say, it’s been rough.

After returning from a hand injury to earn a knockout win over Neil Magny in November 2018, Ponzinibbio was on a seven-fight winning streak and seemed primed for his big break in the UFC’s crowded welterweight scene. His body, however, had other plans, and soon the Argentinian found himself grappling with multiple infections and a case of arthritis. After a couple of hospital stays and serious fears about the future of his career (and life), Ponzinibbio recovered, only to hurt his toe, suffer from an inflamed knee and test positive for COVID 19.

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I can’t even begin to imagine how it is for a healthy 34-year-old fighter to be repeatedly thrown into medical hell at the peak of his athletic career, having to answer questions about a comeback he doesn’t really know whether he’ll ever really get. It takes so much for an athlete to even reach the big leagues, let alone position themselves in the title picture, and then to have your own body be like “Nah, we’re cool” must involve a level of frustration that I, a person who may or may not have cried over getting the wrong kind of fries with her Uber Eats order, can’t begin to comprehend. How exactly Ponzinibbio got through all of that and still remains not only seemingly sane but also as affable as ever is absolutely beyond me, but I guess some people are just better at being people.

Ponzinibbio finally returns to the octagon this Saturday, against Jingliang “The Leech” Li. And as tempting as it is to say that “whatever happens, he’s already a winner,” I won’t. Because it’s tacky. But you get the gist of it.

P.S: If you’re interested in how a middle-class Argentinian kickboxer ended up selling sandwiches at a Brazilian beach before becoming the moral winner “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2″, I wrote about Ponzinibbio’s wild ride a few years ago.

Matt Brown vs. Carlos Condit

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But of course

Remember when I used an arguably excessive amount of words to argue that former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov gave us the perfect retirement but we wouldn’t let that happen because we kinda suck?

Well.

In fairness, White has since clarified that the idea behind the meeting was not to debate Numargomedov’s choice or drag him out of retirement, but instead to get a “yes or no” in what he expected to be a “five-minute conversation.” I still don’t know, however, if I’m entirely over the ickiness around the idea of a very wealthy man getting an athlete to walk back on the extremely personal decision of ending a particularly dangerous career simply because said extremely personal decision is not conducive with his bottom line.

Either way, here’s hoping Nurmagomedov looks after his own interests and makes a decision that is right for him and no one else. And if that decision involves a super fight with an equally willing and appropriately compensated Georges St-Pierre, I guess it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

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On that note

One of my new year’s resolutions was to stop letting myself get aggravated over Conor McGregor’s transparent attempts at getting reactions by issuing ludicrous and wildly hypocritical statements with a straight face.

Oh well, there’s always next year.

A step in the right direction

Remember when I made this whole wishlist for MMA in 2021 and one of them was that we got rid of ridiculous suspensions over marijuana?

If you don’t remember, it’s because you were lazy and unappreciative and didn’t read my full list of things I wish for MMA in 2021. That’s sad and frankly a little insulting, but thankfully there’s still time for you to go back there and fix it.

If you do remember it  — because you couldn’t bear to miss out on a single word that comes out of my keyboard — then you are a person of sophistication and exquisite taste and probably agree with me that it’s legitimately insane that we as a society are still fussing over weed at this point in time.

Well, we’ve got some good news on that front.

On Thursday, the UFC announced in a press release that positive tests for carboxy-THC will no longer be considered violations of its Anti-Doping Policy “unless additional evidence exists that an athlete used it intentionally for performance-enhancing purposes.”

Unfortunately, there are some caveats and immediate practical effects of this are limited, as athletic commissions worldwide will still continue to test and sanction fighters. Later that same day, however, ESPN’s Marc Raimondi reported that the the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has “also de-emphasized marijuana as a violation. Fighters who test positive in California face a $100 fine and no suspension. A victory would not be overturned.” The hope is that the message leads to changes in how other commissions handle the matter, too.

In other words, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but, as advocate and former UFC fighter Elias Theodorou said, “This is a huge step in the right direction to fight the stigma of medical cannabis in athletics.”

Also, it’s an excuse to finally use this gif.

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Also, Rafael Fiziev

You’re welcome.

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