Opinion: The Cost of Combat

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Nobody thought the UFC Fight Night 111 showdown between Holly Holm and Bethe Correia on Saturday was going to be the biggest news of the combat sports world. Nor did anyone think that claim would belong to the rematch between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev. The most important news to occur recently did not belong exclusively to boxing or mixed martial arts but rather an overlap of the two; and no, I’m not talking about the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight.

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight Tim Hague died on Sunday after getting knocked out in a boxing match in Canada. Hague, 1-2 in boxing and 21-13 in MMA, was knocked out a combined 10 times in his total 15 losses across sports, including both of his boxing losses and each of his last five mixed martial arts bouts. He was 34 years old. This type of thing may not technically qualify as news, since it’s not really new to anyone. It’s a reminder, more than anything, of the tremendous costs of fighting for a living.

Traumatic brain injury for combat sports athletes is rarely the result of a singular event. It’s an accumulation of damage, a creeping punch-at-a-time erosion that takes place in every fight and sparring session. For the duration of his professional MMA career between 2006 and 2016, Hague fought once every 14 weeks. If he had a five-week training camp for every fight -- short by industry standards -- that means in a given year he was taking real-time, fight-prep punishment either in the gym or in a fight for over 200 days out of the year.

We don’t know Hague’s exact training conditions, but even the safest, most precautionary camps put the human body through extreme rigors. That is to say, the sport itself puts the human body through extreme rigors. There is no way to safely be a fighter; the best way to prevent injury of any kind is to not participate in the first place.

Such tragedies put a spotlight on a number of questions that are normally ignored or contentedly left unanswered. Why did the commission let this fight happen, knowing that Hague had been knocked out regularly and recently? Why did Hague, a former kindergarten teacher, want to continue putting his health on the line in this line of work? Why did the referee let the fight go on after Hague had been dropped several times in the opening minutes of the match? Why didn’t his corner throw in the towel? Why do we watch people inflict life-altering brain damage on each other?

The specter of brain trauma looms over the career of all fighters like a morbid debt collector, keeping careful tally of all charges made, compounding increasingly unforgiving interest each time out until it’s time to repossess. It happens with each strike absorbed. Brains get rattled, crowds roar in excitement. Only when the debt is paid do we think twice about this, and even then a lot of us choose not to.

Given the human toll of combat sports, every one of us has to reconcile our personal ethics with the worth of our entertainment. There will always be those who consume their preferred form of violence from the comfortable, convenient shallows of not having a conscience, those who lack the empathy, humanity or intelligence to think beyond “Well, the fighters sign up for this.” We don’t need to address them; willful stupidity is an impossibly stubborn habit to break.

There is no shortage of so-called purists who groan at every bit of news that isn’t about the actual fights. Whether it’s about MMA fighters making $12,000 on a UFC undercard or Mayweather-McGregor catalyzing the movement of an estimated billion dollars, there are those who care for nothing more than to see big hits and vicious knockouts. To them, fighters are merely props for their amusement, flat characters on a screen to discard as soon as the winner’s hand is raised. There is nothing explicitly evil about this; the insidiousness of it is that it’s an easy trap to fall into for anyone. We all have our own worries in life, and we have a limited emotional capacity. Nobody can truly care about everything, and frankly, there is an ethical dilemma tied up in nearly everything, from the clothes we buy to the food we eat to the sports we watch. The spectrum of combat sports fans is wide enough to contain everyone from the Bleeding Hearts to the Just Bleeds. That’s why it’s so important to report on fighter working conditions, to remind us that these are real people in the real world putting themselves on the line for our enjoyment. That’s why it’s such a farce that so many fighters are not provided health coverage or adequate compensation. It is an extreme dissonance for a lot of fans that needs to be dissolved as frequently as possible. As spectators, we have a stake in this, too.

To be sure, this isn’t to say that larger paychecks will eradicate the risks involved with professional fighting. More money will, however, relieve some of the pressure fighters feel to keep fighting after accruing brutal mileage on their brains and bodies, and it will enable them to take better care of themselves in the meantime. It sounds contradictory to call for more fighter support of this nature instead of, say, mandatory headgear or complete dissolution of the sports themselves. So be it. Life is complex, and it’s OK to love watching the balletic violence while simultaneously hating the effects of it. We lament the final stage of degeneration that Muhammad Ali lived in, but we cheer for the action that caused it. We respect the decision of fighters who retire early, but we boo them for fighting conservatively. Combat sports are among the most conflicted, contradictory pastimes in existence.

Fighting -- be it in the form of boxing or mixed martial arts -- is unique in the world of sports in that the athletes don’t know the score while the competition is unfolding. The same can be said of a career as a whole; while the fights continue on, a silent, unknowable scorecard is being kept. If you’re smart, you’ll keep your own scorecard as accurately as possible. If you’re lucky, you can finish the fight before you ever need to know what the scorecards say.

It’s important to remember the real costs of fighting. Hague may have been a career journeyman on regional circuits, but he was a family man and a teacher, too. He was a father who wasn’t able to be with his son on Father’s Day. No sequence of numbers can be put behind a dollar sign to make up for the value of a human life. Yet as talks of spectacular sums of money will almost certainly dominate the combat sports world in the coming weeks, it would be good to see some of that money go towards supporting the Hague family. Medically, legally, philosophically, spiritually -- you are your brain. Use yours, so that those who entertain us can protect theirs.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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