Gary Goodridge suffering from brain damage
The Toronto Star recently did an in depth profile of long time fan favorite Gary Goodridge, and his struggles with the effects of brain damage suffered during his MMA and kickboxing careers.
Goodridge’s first first MMA fight ended in devastating fashion, for his opponent, wrestler Paul Herarra:
He came back that night and fought again, and won. And again that night he fought, finally losing to Don Frye. That was more than 15 years ago. For a decade and a half, Goodridge enjoyed an amazing career in combat sports, most notably as Pride’s gatekeeper.
He was willing to fight anyone anywhere, and he did, over the years facing the heaviest hands, and feet, in the history of the sport, including Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, Igor Vovchanchyn, Pedro Rizzo, Marco Ruas, Mark Coleman, Gilbert Yvel, Heath Herring, Don Frye, and many more. Goodridge had some 85 MMA and kickboxing bouts in total.
Gary earned pride, fans, and money, and he paid for it in the end with his health. In the interview below, he shows signs of slurred speech and diminished cognitive funtion. For example, in the video below when asked how long it had been since he fought in Japan, Goodridge replied; it had been about ten years, when in fact it was under two years.
He fought on, right up until seven months ago. He still wants to fight. But…
Friends say his speech, memory and co-ordination have deteriorated steadily for several years.
The hands that once delivered punches now cradle pill bottles.
To navigate life after fighting, the 45-year-old depends on medication.
Levoxyl for his thyroid.
Cipralex for depression.
Aricept for memory.
Still quick with a joke, Goodridge can recall his fights in painstaking detail. But he sometimes stumbles over words, and often repeats himself because he simply forgets what he’s just said.
His drug regimen is suited to an Alzheimer’s patient, and that’s no accident. After 85 combined kickboxing and MMA bouts, many of them poorly regulated, Goodridge at times feels much older than 45.
“My brain,” he says, “doesn’t remember much these days.”
Saturday night, a record 55,000 spectators will pack the Rogers Centre for UFC 129, further evidence that MMA is now mainstream. But beyond the UFC’s glitz lies the unglamorous reality that hounds other contact sports —repeated headshots cause irreversible brain damage.
Mixed martial artists aren’t immune, and as the sport’s first generation of stars hits middle age the issue becomes even more acute. A recent study by the National Athletic Trainers Association found MMA fighters suffer concussions at more than twice the rate of hockey players.
UFC Canada president Tom Wright says later this year the UFC will enter into a three-year Cleveland Clinic study that will track brain trauma in boxers and MMA fighters.
“We don’t know what the answers are going to be . . . but it’s important to establish some empirical data,” he said. “That’s why we’re working with commissions and with physicians to make the sports as safe as possible.”
Goodridge’s case is extreme.
With its focus on high-impact head shots, kickboxing is considered more dangerous than MMA and few fighters shuttle between the two sports as long as Goodridge did. But he’s not unique. He’s just the latest in a growing list of retired contact sport athletes with degenerative brain conditions.
While an autopsy on hockey enforcer Bob Probert showed he suffered from brain damage, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Jim McMahon and Terry Bradshaw have each spoken out recently about the concussions that caused the memory loss that haunts them in retirement.
When former Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006, a post-mortem showed the 44-year-old had the brain of a man more than 40 years older, thanks to concussions suffered during his 12-year NFL career.
In Feburary, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson killed himself after a retirement marred by depression and eroding motor skills — two symptoms of dementia. His suicide note included a plea to preserve and examine his brain for signs of damage.
Because the sport is so new, MMA doesn’t yet have a roll call of brain-damaged retirees, but brain trauma remains an issue.
Hamilton welterweight Jeff Joslin retired in 2007 after suffering a severe concussion while training for a UFC bout, while a string of crushing knockouts forced light-heavyweight legend Chuck Liddell into retirement last year.
“You can’t eliminate risk,” Wright says, “but there are things we’re doing to manage that risk.”
Any fighter knocked out Saturday night will be hospitalized overnight and forced to sit out for up to 90 days by both the UFC and the province.
The low-voltage shows where Goodridge slugged out the final years of his career lacked such safeguards. Goodridge fought until last December because he needed the cash and because small-time promoters needed a big name, even if it meant ignoring glaring signs of cognitive decline. Friends say his speech, memory and co-ordination have deteriorated steadily since at least 2006. Twice weekly, Goodridge attends Brain Injury Services in Barrie, where staff administer tests and memory drills meant to preserve cognitive function as his brain atrophies.
Yet earlier this month his former manager, Steve Rusich, opened an email from an Edmonton promoter with commission approval to host an MMA card with shockingly loose rules, permitting kicks to the head of downed fighters. He wanted to know if Goodridge, who hadn’t won in four years, was available to fight.
“I don’t think they understand the damage there is,” Rusich says. “I don’t know that they would care anyway, but I don’t think they know.”
Goodridge’s Barrie home office doubles as his trophy room, the walls surrounding his computer covered with mementos — T-shirts emblazoned with his image, framed articles from the local newspaper, a pair of boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali. They’re symbols of the fame Goodridge gained in a sport he found by accident.
In 1996, Goodridge worked at the Honda factory in Alliston, a world champion arm wrestler who had dabbled in amateur boxing. That winter, he watched a grainy videotape of UFC 3 with some friends, who quickly began pushing Goodridge to try the nearly no-holds-barred form of fighting. Within two weeks, they had located the UFC matchmaker, and a quick conversation earned Goodridge a berth at UFC 8 in Puerto Rico.
Then he realized he would have to back up his bragging.
“I wanted to hide,” Goodridge says. “What the hell was I doing? I didn’t know. I was just talking big because in my mind I didn’t think it would go anywhere.”
Goodridge had no formal martial arts training, but it didn’t matter. He faced a wrestler named Paul Herrera and starched him with those eight quick elbow strikes. The bout remains part of UFC folklore and a lingering regret for renowned referee John McCarthy.
“That’s one fight,” McCarthy says, “I wish I had stopped sooner.”
Goodridge’s career as a full-contact fighter started that night, and after six more UFC bouts he jetted to Japan, where MMA and kickboxing were already filling stadiums. He was learning on the job, but had freakish power and a never-surrender style. While Goodridge didn’t always win, he always entertained.
“He wouldn’t quit, and that’s why the Japanese loved him so much,” says Susie Goodridge, Gary’s younger sister and long-time strength coach. “He wasn’t the best fighter out there, but they loved him because of his heart.”
In Japan, Goodridge delivered devastating knockouts and received some, too.
Like the time in 1997 when he flattened Oleg Taktarov; Goodridge’s right fist arcs like an axe blade toward the Russian grappler’s face before it cracks his chin. Taktarov falls face-first at Goodridge’s feet, unconscious.
Three years later, Goodridge faces Dutch kickboxing ace Gilbert Yvel, and catches a kick on the side of his skull. The blow rattles Goodridge to his teeth, several of which spill out of his mouth as he crumples to the canvas, unconscious.
“That was definitely a concussion. It was the first knockout I ever had in my life,” Goodridge says. “I had a few after that.”
Did that knockout jump-start the degeneration of Goodridge’s brain? It’s tough to tell. Early on the damage can accrue slowly, like interest on a savings account.
UCLA neuropsychologist Dr. Tony Strickland explains that each headshot causes the brain to bounce off the skull’s inner walls, which in turn prompts a disruption in blood flow that jolts the brain’s chemical environment out of equilibrium. Calcium rushes in while brain cells run critically low on glucose, the energy source they need to function properly.
Most times the brain snaps to normal within seconds. But after a heavy blow that imbalance can persist, depriving the brain of the blood and glucose it needs for hours or more. That’s a concussion, with effects — like headaches, fatigue and nausea — that you might feel for days, weeks or months.
Whether or not they cause concussions, repeated headshots diminish an athlete’s ability to recover from head trauma.
In aging fighters, the damage compounds like the interest on a payday loan. As headshots ravage the brain’s delicate circuitry, speech, memory and co-ordination deteriorate quickly.
“People talk about the brain as if it’s a homogenous, undifferentiated mass,” says Strickland, director of the Sports Concussion Institute in Los Angeles. “(It’s more complex) and it will greatly accelerate the decline if you already have the decline (and keep fighting).”
Goodridge’s upcoming biography, Gatekeeper, discusses his brain damage in detail. The author, Mark Dorsey, hasn’t seen photos of Goodridge’s brain, and isn’t sure he wants to.
“It’s one of those silent killers and the evidence builds up slowly,” he says. “But I guarantee that if you look at his brain it’s got major dark spots and looks like an Alzheimer’s patient.”
In Ontario, a fighter in that condition would likely flunk a pre-fight medical exam. In mid-April, the UFC had to scramble to find an opponent for Toronto’s Sean Pierson when a pre-fight MRI revealed a brain hemorrhage in his original UFC 129 opponent, Brian Foster.
But Goodridge spent his late career on the sport’s poorly regulated periphery. In 2008, he lost a sloppy fight on a Six Nations reserve, and his final bout took place in a dingy Bulgarian arena. His sister Susie says those small-time fights often didn’t require a blood test, let alone a brain scan.
After those fights Susie would ask Goodridge questions to test his memory. Then she would cry.
“As much as I enjoyed myself, I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore,” she says. “I felt anxiety. It’s very hard to watch somebody you love keep getting kicked in the head.”
Though Goodridge moves more slowly than before, he’s far from feeble.
His name still resonates, and he opened a second Facebook profile because he had exceeded the site’s limit of 5,000 friends.
After two failed attempts to open a gym in Barrie, Goodridge recently founded the Big Daddy Fight team, with an eye on opening another fitness centre. But his increasingly garbled speech means color commentary, once his most likely calling, isn’t an option.
Nevertheless, Goodridge says he doesn’t regret the high cost of fighting so long.
“Why retire?” he says. “To hang on to a couple of extra brain cells? All the old people die and all the young people live. We’re just getting ready for the bone yard.”