—Kenny Rice

No matter how spectacular or average their career, most athletes, regardless of the sport, think with their heart not their head when making that enormous decision— Do I retire?

More sobering– What are the lasting effects on my body, my mind from the sport I loved to play?

The suicide of 4-time Pro Bowl and Super Bowl champion Dave Duerson should have resonated with deafening force the latter. A troubled soul with problems not limited to football, Duerson’s mind was in a perpetual flux that even speculation will never do justice. Yet in his final minute he knew this, point the gun at his heart because he had to donate his brain for study. Study of the years of pounding it had taken on the gridiron. His legacy could be that, maybe scientist, doctors can see what Duerson felt. Maybe future athletes in violent sports can better understand not just the obvious risks, but the warning signs before they too feel hope is gone.

It has been reported he had a degenerative brain condition from too many concussions. Compared to football and boxing, MMA is an infant in longevity, history. But it is reaching an age when some of its brightest stars might be showing the wear and tear of taking blows to the head.

On Inside MMA, Dr. Ayman Salem, a neurosurgeon at the Los Angeles Brain and Spine Institute at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, stated a knockout is a concussion, a “ripple effect contained within the skull.” He added getting KO’ d “can have a functional disruption. You may see stars, there is some moment of black out. It is the shearing of nerve cells.”

Until a fighter is examined no one can say, even a specialist, what is exactly going through the mind, literally, of a knockout victim. It’s impossible to be certain but an alarming number of MMA’s best have suffered vicious KO’s recently, Andrei Arlovki, Tim Sylvia, Matt Lindland, and they don’t even resemble the fighters they once were.

After losing three straight knockouts, the legend Chuck Liddell retired. He’s never cited any physical problems that might have resulted for the decision. Perhaps the Iceman did realize, as Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young did and several others have, that there is a time when the mind overrules the heart. That the pounding of the head is not a natural occurrence and the overall body skills are fading.

To be hit in the head according to Dr. Salem is tantamount to this. “A boxer hits with 52 G-Force, it’s like being hit with a 13-pound bowling ball traveling 20 miles per hour. One punch.”

The frightening dilemma with being knockout is what Dr. Salem calls the “athlete’s anti-syndrome,.” he explains, “They can return to action without the first concussion healing. They may not feel the full amount immediately or for a few years. Like Ali with all those fights resulting in dramatic Parkinson’s disease. Like Dave Duerson with his degenerative condition. But a blow to the head that results in a loss of consciousness for any period of time has done some degree of damage.”

Losing three of his last four by way of knockout, Arlovski answered speculation about possible retirement with this on his web site. “I’m not going to retire because I have too much pride inside of me and I can’t retire like this.”

That’s a common instinct not just from the former UFC champ but any athlete who has reached the highest level of their sport, who may not be feeling all the signals the brain might be sending.

Mike Pyle, who is preparing to fight Ricardo Almeida in UFC 128, talked on Inside MMA about being knockout by Rory Markham in the first round of their IFL bout in 2006.  “I just remember waking up and having (referee) Herb Dean in a single leg lock.”

He full well understands the pride factor that can override the reality of coming back from such a KO. As a fighter scrambles to get that next fight, his brain my still be scrambled from what is best for him. “You want the fighter standpoint or the practical standpoint?” he laughs, “The fighter is back in the gym hitting the bag, working out and sees his buddy sparring. ‘I want to do that, show I’m ready’ but then the practical says ‘wait’ because you are not ready.”

Mark Munoz, who fights C.B. Dollawy in UFC Live March 3rd, was knocked out by Matt Hamill in UFC 96. He concurs with Pyle. “It’s the toughest thing for a fighter, patience. You don’t want to but you have to really think through it, when is the right time to go full out in training (after a KO)? It’s not easy.”

That will always be the question for the fighter, the football player, who has seen too many stars not in the heavens. Who has awaken wondering, if just for that second, where they are, what happened? Because as the doctor said it doesn’t have to be immediately to feel the long term affects.

But it may be time for friends, family, managers and trainers to understand the impact it can have, to help before it’s too late. Maybe prevent another potential Dave Duerson tragedy.

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