Johnsburg grad Clay Guida downplays concerns about brain trauma in MMA

Hatsu Hiok (right) fights Johnsburg High School graduate Clay Guida during a UFC featherweight championship at the United Center on Jan. 26, 2013. Guida, who won the bout, said he does not believe MMA fighters are in the same danger of suffering long-term brain damage as NFL players or boxers. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Hatsu Hiok (right) fights Johnsburg High School graduate Clay Guida during a UFC featherweight championship at the United Center on Jan. 26, 2013. Guida, who won the bout, said he does not believe MMA fighters are in the same danger of suffering long-term brain damage as NFL players or boxers. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Clay Guida acknowledges that, over the course of 41 Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, he has "had his bell rung" on several occasions.

But the Round Lake resident and Johnsburg High School graduate isn't willing to concede that years of absorbing blows to the head will have the same long-term effects on him and his mixed martial arts peers as other fighters once their careers are over.

U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently brought officials from boxing and MMA together in Washington to pledge support for a study looking into the impact of head injuries and brain trauma among professional fighters.

Officials from the two sports have pledged $600,000 to the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. Despite the attention being given to a subject that has circulated mainly around former NFL players in recent years, Guida isn't convinced he faces a similar fate as he gets older.

A 2006 Johns Hopkins study tends to back Guida's theory, concluding that MMA fighters face “a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.”

"It's definitely something you're cognizant of," Guida said last week. "It's something you try not to think about. But if you look at mixed martial arts compared to every other contact sport or hand-to-hand combat sport ... you'll see how much more aware mixed martial artists are."

Guida is scheduled to return to the cage in April, according to Fight Sport Asia, which reported Friday that Guida will face Tatsuya Kawajiri in UFC Fight Night 39 in Abu Dhabi. Guida did not respond to a text message seeking confirmation.

Despite last week's announcement in Washington suggesting that boxers and MMA fighters may be headed down the same dangerous road that pro football players are believed to be on, Guida points instead to the differences between his sport and others.

Bellator MMA founder and chief operating officer Bjorn Rebner said Friday that his company is in the process of developing new protocols to deal with head injuries for fighters such as former world champion Pat Curran, who fights out of Crysta Lake's Curran MMA gym.

"It goes without saying that MMA is a combat sport," Rebner said in an emailed statement to the Northwest Herald. "As our sport evolves, we have an obligation to our athletes to find ways to better protect their well-being."

While boxers take repeated blows to the head during their fight careers, Guida maintains UFC fighters take one-tenth of the punches that boxers do and, therefore, suffer less damage over the years. He also points to the number of deaths among former boxers as evidence that those fighters are at greater risk than MMA fighters.

Guida insists that his sport, as a whole, is "more protected" and is watched over with greater attention by UFC officials, making the sport "that much safer" in his mind.

Others disagree.

As part of a six-month investigation into UFC fighting done by the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger last year, Dr. Charles Bernick, a neurologist at the Ruvo Center for Brain Health, told the paper that although the number of blows MMA fighters take may not be as great compared to their boxing brethren, they still remain at risk.

"No matter how you're getting hit, you're going to have damage," said Bernick, the principal investigator of a study focused on examining the brains of boxers and MMA fighters. "I don't think MMA people are immune to it. Whether you look at them separately or together (with boxers), you still get these findings."

Guida remains unconvinced.

He credits UFC officials for taking care of their fighters, and referees for making sure that combatants aren't taking too much damage during bouts. Guida said it's not justified to compare fighters to NFL players, who play a game that is "nothing but car collisions over and over and again." Rebner also points to differences between MMA and boxing, saying that referees in his sport are more likely to stop a fight before a fighter takes too much physical abuse.

"MMA is a much different sport that is separated by the disciplines of jiu jitsu and wrestling, kickboxing and Muay Thai," he said. "These guys are able to switch it up, and if you do get knocked out, it's immediate. They're not taking numerous beatings like boxers do the head.

"It's a very different dynamic."

Guida has lost three of his past four fights, including his most recent fight in August against Chad Mendes when Guida suffered his first technical knockout loss of his career. There have been times, Guida admits, when he has "had his bell rung" but not to the point where he fears for his long-term health.

Guida said he has never reached a point during a fight when he didn't know where he was or had to rethink things. Instead, he characterizes those instances as ones when he loses track of time briefly before things go back to normal.

Despite not agreeing with the findings of medical professionals, however, Guida welcomes any study that investigates the risks of fighting – a sport where he believes his future remains despite his recent string of losses in the cage.

"It's all about the longevity of the athletes, and it's about the safety of the athletes for their families and their well-being and just growing as a human," Guida said. "I think about [the risks], but boxers are in a tougher spot than we are just from taking blows to the head over and over again.

"So I definitely feel a lot more confident about my life after fighting."

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