I came across an article yesterday that made my neck hackles stand on end. It was a news piece that described how a training accident had resulted in the paralysis of a MMA practitioner.
It’s always sad to hear about serious injuries in MMA, and fortunately they’re generally rare occurrences. Despite some media depiction of MMA as a violent and brutal sport, most knowledgeable fans agree that while it is not without risk, it is no more dangerous than other popular sports.
Many defenders of the sport have argued that MMA athletes suffer from far fewer catastrophic injuries than other sports like football or cheerleading which are the #1 and #2 leading causes of catastrophic sport injuries in the USA.
A study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine states that “The lower knockout rates in MMA compared to boxing may help prevent brain injury in MMA events.”
However, there is one move in MMA that has resulted in several cases of permanent paralysis and one reported death.
The Biggest Danger in MMA
A recent tragedy in which 22 year old MMA fighter Devin Johnson was paralyzed during a training injury at Urijah Faber’s gym has been generating awareness of this extremely dangerous situation.
Having just published an article featuring the Great Coach Billy Robinson, I had Coach on the brain and as I was reading about Devin Johnson’s horrible tragedy, I couldn’t help but hear Coach’s weathered roughed voice shouting “Don’t ever do that in front of me again! That Double Leg stuff is for Amateurs.”
Now what Coach was referring to was not a slight or use of the word Amateur in a disparaging way, but rather as a category of sport. A sport where Neck Cranks, Chokes and Face Locks are prohibited… which is why it became so prevalent. Now in Catch as Catch Can, or the Professional version of the grappling arts, these are all regular parts of the game.
As a result, there is almost a phobic respect for ever placing your head or neck into a compromised situation where it can be encircled by the arms and potentially Choked, Twisted, Cranked or Broken. So much so that even the basic Catch Stance is upright and with a strong emphasis on posture, something we’ve touched on before in the Gotch Toe Hold Article.
Jake Shannon, founder of Scientific Wrestling, has personally suffered the same catastrophic injury as a result of being Guillotined. He suffered a fracture of his C3 and C4 vertebra while training at the Gracie Academy.
I too had a near brush with disaster while attempting a Double Leg, albeit it wasn’t from a Guillotine. I was shooting in on a partner for a Double Leg, and trying to apply good form, I kept my head as close to my opponent’s body as possible. Attempting to make contact with the front of my partner’s ribs before allowing my head to slide to the side, my partner sprawled hard and his full body weight (about 30 lbs. more than my own), came down on the top of my head, slipping a disk or two in my neck.
I have been gun shy of shooting ever since, something I made mention of in the video with Coach Robinson in our previous article.
My own personal style has been shaped by that terrifying accident, and although I continue to study the shooting style takedowns, when it came to playing my A Game, I always favored Thai Clinch, Grecco, and Judo style Trips, Sweeps, Body Locks, Dumps and Throws.
Oh, and how could I forget, allowing my opponents to force a poorly set up shot and catching them in a Grovit/Half Halch/Guillotine/Snap Down/Front Head Lock series. Something we taught our team to bring to bare in their own Submission Wrestling matches.
By no means am I trying to insinuate that if only Devin and the other unfortunate souls that have suffered a life threatening injury would have been perfectly safe had they only trained in Catch Wrestling.
It too, like any contact sport has plenty of potentially deadly techniques and situations arising because of them. Just take a look at our Article “MMA – Love Hurts – Training and Injuries” to see how training in Catch resulted in Kevin Dillar’s own brush with death and paralysis.
MMA is a dangerous sport and the potential for injury lurks behind every corner. As was the case with friend Daniel Grass in “A Fist Full of Reality Right To Your Face“. I think it was Dan Gable who said it best when he responded to questions regarding Mark Schultz’s dislocation of his opponent’s shoulder by saying “It is after all, a man’s sport.”
The point then is simply that there are ways to mitigate certain injuries, and situations which have a higher potential for injury. We can do this in the techniques we choose to use and employ, and the style and manner in which we employ them.
And most importantly of all, we can be constantly, present and mindful of the fact that what we do is dangerous. Pay respects before you step onto the mat or into the ring/cage. It very well may the last time you do so. Pay respects before you leave, in thanks for a fun and safe training session.
Be safe, and take care of each other out there. We are all in this together. Accidents are going to happen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do everything in our power to keep them to a minimum and to a superficial level. As sensei Paulson says “P.Y.P.P. Preserve Your Partner Program”.
As far as your own safety is concerned remember, survive first, win later. If there is something around your neck, STOP what your doing and take it off first, then worry about the Takedown, Guard Pass, etc.
Our thoughts are with Devin Johnson and we wish our fellow warrior strength and continued progress in his recovery. If you’d like to offer your support, a website has been setup with updates on Devin’s progress and is accepting donations to help with medical expenses.
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