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Sunday, May 19, 2013

No Holds Barred: Nick Denis on Retiring from MMA, Brain Injuries, and the Future of Combat Sports 

Nick Denis

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (D, WFP - Manhattan)

On this edition of No Holds Barred, host Eddie Goldman speaks with the now-retired MMA fighter Nick Denis.

In November 2012, the 29-year-old Denis, from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and with a pro MMA record of 11-3, surprised many by announcing his retirement from the sport.

"I guess the main issue was my worry over potential brain injury," he said in this interview, which was recorded over Skype on Friday.

He explained that the main danger of brain injury in MMA comes from "blows to the head from training, not necessarily from fighting. Because when you're competing in the ring, it's only 15 minutes, and there's only so many times you can get hit. What it is, it's all the training, the months and months and weeks of training and hard sparring, and all these things that add up. It was really the training."

Already feeling some early effects of the blows he had taken, he said. "I basically just pictured myself, whether I was 60 or 70 or whatever, with some sort of form of dementia or neurological problems." His conclusion: "I don't want to not be able to recognize my friends and my family. It's not really that important to me. It's not worth risking my health and my mental health over, so I decided it was time to retire."

Since then, he has not even watched much MMA on television, saying, "I just kind of grew out of it." But that did not end his involvement with the sport.

Recently he was contacted by New York State Senator Brad Hoylman about the issue of brain injuries in MMA. Hoylman had read about his retirement, and was in the process of introducing legislation in New York to create a fund for MMA fighters to handle the long-term health effects of fighting.

Together, they wrote an opinion piece dated May 12, 2013, for the New York Daily News, entitled Protect cage fighters before it’s too late.

In that piece, they wrote, "Before we take additional steps to roll out the red carpet for this sport, we must ensure that MMA fighters have the resources to deal with the health effects as a result of their time in the ring. That's why we support legislation recently introduced in the state Senate mandating that the UFC and other promoters contribute to a state-coordinated fund -- similar to funds already created for horse jockeys and New York City cab drivers -- to cover long-term job-related injuries sustained by fighters. If cage fighting is ever going to be legal here, the least we should require is that the businesses that profit from the sport take financial responsibility for its health consequences."

Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan who interestingly enough has also voted to oppose the re-legalization of MMA in New York, has introduced S5055-2013. This bill "Establishes protocols for combative sports; authorizes mixed martial arts events in this state; establishes the New York Mixed Martial Arts Injury Compensation Fund, Inc.; establishes procedures for applications for licenses; establishes penalties for violations; imposes taxes on gross receipts of such events."

Our discussion with Nick Denis focused on these issues and the lessons from his fighting career for the future of the combat sports. We discussed how his devastating first-round knockout loss in 2009 in Sengoku to Marlon Sandro, his first-ever pro defeat after seven victories, started to change the direction of his career. While doing graduate study in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa, he discovered that not only concussions had long-term neurological effects on fighters, but repeated sub-concussive blows as well.

We also discussed whether it can any longer be said that MMA is safer than boxing, his own knockout slam victory over Nick Mamalis in 2011 in Wreck MMA, the need for people to be more educated on the issue of brain injuries and these sports, whether parents should allow their children to participate in them, the role of the traditional martial arts in teaching discipline, his own background in karate, and more.

"Anything that helps people start discussing the brain injury and the concussions and sub-concussive trauma and stuff like that aspect of MMA, or really any sport, I guess I really am appreciative for," he concluded. "As long as people are talking about it, then at least it's in people's consciousness and it's in people's psyche. And then whatever they chose to do with that information, it's up to them."

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