The referee stared into my eyes between rounds. My nose had just been broken and was bleeding like the prom scene in Carrie, but the ref ignored the blood. He wanted to see if I could still focus. "Don't you dare stop this fucking fight," I snarled at him, before suddenly remembering who he was. "Sorry about that." I'd had my bell rung so hard I sustained a near-concussion and had momentarily forgotten I was speaking to Randy Couture. He smirked, patted me on the shoulder, and let the fight continue. If I had enough of my wits about me to apologize for cursing out the former UFC heavyweight champion, it meant I was still capable of intelligently defending myself.
I spent two years training to become a MMA fighter for my latest book, Tapped Out. Much of the time was spent learning how to react to being hit in the head. When I first started I was all flight and no fight. One little tap and I'd wince, close my eyes, and look for the exit. My coaches, who also trained top MMA pros like Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones, tried to beat the cowardice out of me. For hours they'd have me kneel with my hands behind my back while they punched me in the face. Soon I became a rabid dog—all fight and no flight. This was an improvement but not the ideal: an angry fighter is a dumb fighter.
Here's how you're supposed to take a punch in the face: First, make sure you see the punch coming—it's the ones you don't see that knock you out. Second, keep your chin down and lean into the punch with your forehead—the bone is harder there. Third, register the blow as if it happened to someone else, adjust your defense, and stick to your strategy. The most important thing is to stay calm in the pocket and never panic.
It was a hard way to learn and also dangerous. But it was necessary. Knockouts have been the bread and butter of boxing and MMA since the ancient Greek Olympics, which featured an ancestral form of MMA called pankration, meaning "all powers." Concussions aren't an unfortunate byproduct of a combat sport; they are its highest achievement. No one involved has ever had any illusions about these sports being perfectly safe.
The human brain is a soft organ surrounded by spinal fluid that acts like padding inside our hard skulls. When the head is either accelerated quickly and then stopped suddenly, or spun rapidly (whiplash), the violent shaking causes brain cells to fire all their neurotransmitters at once, flooding the brain with chemicals and deadening certain receptors linked to learning and memory. Or to put it another way, the brain has a fail-safe devise that shuts down higher functions, like vision and hearing, to preserve more critical ones, like breathing and pumping blood.
When you get knocked out, time stops. You don't think, you don't dream. It's like that period of time has been permanently erased from your hard drive. One moment you're staring at your opponent, the next you can't understand why a doctor is pointing a pen light into your eyes. The first time it ever happened to me, when I was competing in Chinese kickboxing at the Shaolin Temple, I felt as if I'd inadvertently stepped into a time machine and been transported 30 seconds into the future. My opponent had his hands in the air while for some reason I was lying on my back. It was a trip.
But the really wacky stuff happens when you sustain a concussion without losing consciousness. You can actually experience your senses shutting down. In my final MMA fight, in Las Vegas in 2009, I was clipped on the button with a right hook that made everything go dark. One moment I was in a ring with spotlights, the next everything was black, as if someone had hit the light switch. I was aware I was still standing but I couldn't see and I couldn't hear anything. My senses began to return. From a distance I heard a scary voice growl at me, "Get out!" It was like The Amityville Horror. "Get out!" Then another voice screamed, "Hands up! Circle! Get on your bike!" It took me a second to recognize it was the voice of my coach. I tried to circle but my right leg was numb. I dragged it around the ring, ducking blindly, until feeling returned. The end of the round saved me from a TKO. I still couldn't see, so the referee had to lead me to my corner. It wasn't until halfway through the minute break between rounds that the lights in the arena turned back on.
Last year, head injuries became the scandal du jour of sports. The news media ran countless articles about concussions in football, hockey, and even youth soccer. Congress held hearings. Former athletes sued. And professional leagues shifted into full damage-control mode. (The NFL actually forced Toyota to edit an ad about a mother who was worried about her son "playing football.") It was like the steroids scandal in baseball all over again. Everyone is shocked—just shocked!—by something that should have been obvious for years.
As someone who has covered combat sports for a long time, I'm shocked that any of my "contact" brethren are surprised that concussions have long-term health implications. Did they really believe their sports—filled with skull-rattling tackles and slams into the boards—were safe? Have they never watched Muhammad Ali try to complete a sentence? Whenever an athlete gets his bell rung, damage occurs. If it happens often enough, severely enough, starting at a young enough age, over a long enough period of time, the consequences can be dire, no matter the sport.
There's been a lot of talk recently about MMA being safer than boxing or football or hockey—often in the context of a push by the UFC and others to legalize MMA in New York state. The sport has been around in the United States only since the '90s and has been broadly sanctioned only for a handful of years, which means medical data is limited. But you don't need a study to tell you that getting knocked into another dimension by Dan Henderson's right hand might not be great for your cognitive health.
It took me most of the second round of my MMA fight in Las Vegas to clear the cobwebs from my head, but when I did I returned the favor to my opponent. I hit him in the face so hard that he turned his back on me, bent over double, and went looking for the exit. I smacked him a few more times before the bell rang. From across the ring, I watched a doctor shine a pen light into his eyes. He was out on his feet. The fight was stopped; they put him on a stretcher and took him to the hospital to get an MRI. Fortunately, there was no permanent damage. I enjoyed the victory for a few days. Then I retired to preserve the few brain cells I have left. As my wife told me, "You're already dumb enough as it is."
Matthew Polly is the author of American Shaolin, which documents the two years he spent learning kung fu in the Shaolin Temple in China. Polly's new book, Tapped Out, is about the two years he trained to become an MMA fighter.