‘Diablita’ retired from combat sports but suffering cognitive symptoms

Friday, January 02, 2015

Michele “Diablita” Gutierrez had a modest MMA career, going 2-5 with another win in an exhibition bout between 2009 and 2013. Before that she was 7-3 as an amateur boxing, and 2-0 as a professional boxer.

In a recent profile on AXS.com by Eric Holden titled “Michele Gutierrez feeling long-term effects of MMA fighting” the fighter talks about health issues she is having that could be traced to head trauma from combat sports.

The only figure from MMA with a publicly confirmed diagnosis for CTE is Gary Goodridge, and he explicitly attributes it to the damage he took in kickboxing. Goodridge had over 85 fights of various types, many of them unregulated, and believes he was knocked out 11 times.

“It was definitely the K-1 kickboxing that did me in,” said Goodridge in 2012. “In MMA, I never really got struck, but the K-1 kickboxing is where I got knocked out. That's where I got my brain damage.”

In a 2011 interview, Gutierrez too acknowledged that head trauma can be greater in boxing than in MMA, when she was asked who had hit her the hardest.

“It was in boxing,” she said. “In my pro debut against Katarina De La Cruz.  It was the only time I was ever like 'whoa where am I'.  I haven’t seem to have gotten hit in MMA as I have fast hands and I tend to hit them before they hit me.”

Setting aside the irresponsible headline, the profile is important. With a heightened awareness of the dangers of head trauma in contact sports, preventive measures are far more likely to be taken.

She's not positive her memory loss is a direct result of MMA fighting, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. Besides possible brain trauma from strikes to the head, Gutierrez says a decade of weight-cutting messed up her body in a big way.

“Firstly I was having a lot of problems with my menstrual cycles. The doctors were concerned I wouldn't be able to have kids and they said it could have been related to over 10 years of weight cuts and the dieting,” Gutierrez told AXS of the negative effects of MMA fighting. “Obviously I got pregnant and I'm grateful for that, but I can tell some damage was done. I was a boxer long before I ever started MMA, so I've been getting hit for over 15 years.

“I feel spacey a lot. I do things like put the cheese in the pantry and bread in the fridge. I have no long term memory and it's awful. I feel like I'm 80 years old. I definitely find it hard to concentrate. All my MRI and brain scans have always come back normal, but I did suffer a seizure about a year ago and the doctors couldn't explain why. I was very irresponsible during training. I never wore head gear! I felt like I got hit more wearing it and I def regret that. Can't say I'm like this from fighting but I'd guess yes if I had to bet on it.

“Other symptoms are confusion, just like an old lady gets confused. Depression here and there but nothing too serious.”

Gutierrez says she started noticing a change in her mind and body after her fight in 2011 against Amanda LaVoy. She suffered a serious concussion that year, and described herself as “feeling different” from then on. The hard-hitting California slugger went on to fight three more times over the next two years, absorbing dozens more blows to the head.

If there's one thing she could say to help, it's that she recommends wearing headgear during sparring sessions. “Also pay attention to concussions…don't try to tough through them and not tell anyone,” she said. “I decided to keep fighting because I honestly felt there was nothing left for me and at the time I loved it. Stopping was out of the question.”

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Holden says it doesn't take a rocket scientist to tie the symptoms she is experiencing to her MMA career, but in fact it does. And Holden is, let's face it, no rocket scientist. You can google his name for the litany of complaints about his efforts in women's mixed martial arts.

Boxing has generated thousands of fighters with what used to be called “Punch Drunk.” In MMA the situation is far more ambiguous. Gutierrez had a boxing career longer than her MMA career, and explicitly references it as a source of head trauma, yet either via ineptitude or as click bait, the word boxing nowhere appears in Holden's title.

Still, Gutierrez's case is important, as it heightens awareness that MMA is a dangerous sport, and while nothing can ever be done to change that, many steps can be taken to minimize the risk.