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UFC fighters face a significant risk of head trauma while making far less than other athletes

Studies have shown what combat sports can do to the brain over time. But is the risk worth it?

It is hard to make a living as a UFC athlete. You never know if you will get severely injured when you step into the ring. Is the pay worth the pain? 

 A study published in the journal The Physician and Sports medicine showed the dangers of this sport, recording 291 injuries in 285 fights.  Other research has shown that repetitive blows land on the head has adverse effects on the human brain. The bigger amount of repetitive head trauma you are exposed to the more detrimental it is. Blows to the head are a regular occurrence in mixed martial arts (MMA) and yet despite the increased risk, the fighters pay lags far behind that of other athletes.

Leading MMA league, the UFC, has risen in popularity over its twenty-seven years of existence. The UFC official Instagram account has already surpassed the NFL’s official Instagram account in followers. The UFC hosts events around the globe from Canada to Denmark to U.A.E. It is big business but its fighters may not reap as many of the rewards.

 UFC is particularly dangerous. The study in The Physician and Sportsmedicine showed that in the UFC the total injury rate was 51 per 100 athletic exposure. While the men’s NCAA total soccer injury rate was 7.7 per 1000 athletic exposure. And the risk of injury due to strikes isn’t the only danger. Weight cutting is also a danger that comes with the sport. A UFC fighter talked to ESPN about his near-death experience during him trying to cut weight. There was another situation where MMA athlete Yang Jian died during his weight cut. 

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a big problem in the UFC. Famous UFC fighter Tim Hauge was diagnosed with CTE. Hauge fought in the UFC and boxing as well mainly in UFC through his professional career. He fought Adam Braidwood in Edmonton, Canada. Adam Braidwood knocked him out and he suffered a huge brain injury. Shortly after that, he died at 34 years old. Tim Hauge was just the second UFC fighter to be diagnosed with CTE.

Facing such stark risks as CTE and even death can fight for a living be worth it??

Retired UFC fighter, Babalu Sobral, suffered from CTE and said, “I can’t walk in a straight line. I don’t know if I will be able to see my grandkids.” He has started to lose vision in his left eye and his balance. Babalu stated he wouldn’t his children fight in the UFC  “If someone asked me if I would let my son fight, I would say no I, My daughter? No. I would hope she wouldn’t. I’d rather her study.” 

There have been many breakthroughs to help spot CTE in living patients that have the disease. CTE affects the human body’s emotions and neurological brain waves. People that have Alzheimer’s disease and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) have problems with emotions, loss of vision and slur their words when talking; their memory also starts to fade later on in their lifetime.

The average salary of a UFC fighter is USD 138,250. Compared to other sports, this isn’t a lot. The average soccer player in England makes $8.73 million in USD, and the average NBA player makes $7.7 million USD. 

Keep in mind that UFC fighters have to show up and fight to earn money while soccer players and basketball players can be reserves and bench players. 

The famous UFC retired veteran Babalu Sobral finished his career with a net worth estimated to be between 1 to 5 million USD.

Back in October 2018 when Khabib fought McGregor, arguably one of the biggest fights, Khabib was expected to take home a flat rate of $2 million and Connor $3 million. Now Khabib has to fight four times a year to make the equivalent to what a professional soccer player in England’s first league makes. And that is for one of the most famous UFC fighters in the world.  The undercards that night of the UFC 229 event, who shared the same risk of developing CTE, didn’t come close to making what Khabib and Conor made. 

The UFC has tried to make an improvement in this aspect of their brand. As Forbes reported on a UFC institute in Las Vegas, Nevada designed to help and manage the well being of the fighter’s health. They are also educating their fighters on how to cut weight properly and safely.

In 2019 a New York Times post stated that the UFC paid their fighters only 16% from their yearly profits in 2019. Compare that to Barcelona’s football club which Forbes stated pays its players 60% of its revenue

Also, a big reason why other athletes make more money than UFC fighters is that they can bring their sponsorships to the game, whereas UFC players are locked in with Reebok, the official sponsor of UFC. Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo alone is set to make 1 billion USD with his lifetime Nike contract made back in 2016. These opportunities for UFC fighters are limited.

Despite the high risks and limited rewards, athletes in the UFC are passionate about the sport. “I love it,” UFC fighter, Donald Cerrone told Sports Illustrated. He has nothing against fighting seven times a year.   “There’s no other place I would rather be.”

Image credit: Wikipedia

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