Traumatic Brain Injury and the Future of Ronda Rousey

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Written by Dr. Beau B Hightower


 “Talk to her! Talk to her! And be honest!” Those were the haunting words of renowned UFC referee Herb Dean as he attempted to convince someone from the corner of Ronda Rousey to tell her what had just happened. One moment, she was the queen of the UFC. From Jimmy Fallon to Ellen, Ronda Rousey has taken MMA crossover to a level never seen before. Within 7 short minutes, she was waking up, unaware of how her world, and the world of the woman who bested her was about to change.  

Head trauma is cumulative, so it wasn’t necessarily the brutal high kick that felled Rousey that put her physically unconscious, it was the follow-up hammer fists that did that deed. Within seconds she was coming to, trying to wrestle Herb Dean, and unaware that she had lost her crown.

Ronda lay on her back, and the damage was so severe that the new champion Holly Holm even stopped her celebration to take a knee and ensure that there was nothing grievously wrong with Rousey. Slow motion replay shows the exact moment when the hammer fists cause Ronda’s legs to go stiff and her head to begin bouncing off of the canvas. These strikes literally shut  Rousey’s brain off at the breaker box. It is always a strange combination of emotions between the desire to witness a knockout and the sickening feeling in your stomach when you see a boxer or MMA fighter’s legs go stiff and their heads bounce off of the mat.

So what happens to the body when someone is literally knocked out? Patients often ask me about concussions, sub-concussions, dementia pugilistica (boxer’s brain), and of course knock-outs. The brain functions via a complicated network of neurons (nerves) and blood vessels. These blood vessels are responsible for bringing glucose (sugar) to the neurons so that they may function properly. The brain uses a tremendous amount of sugar to function, and will almost immediately shut down the cortical brain (the area that separates our brains from animals) if this sugar supply runs low. This is what happens when someone faints either from blood pressure changes or from nutritional deficiencies. When a fighter is “choked out” the blood supply to the brain is temporarily compromised due to the opponents arm pressing on the arteries in the neck, and the fighter immediately goes limp, loses consciousness, and sometimes will even go into mini seizures.

As with the strike landed by Holm, a knock-out involves an immediate concussion response from the brain. The human brain floats in a liquid substance known as CSF which keeps it separate from the bony, hard skull. When a fighter lands such a hard strike (particularly to the jaw, temple, or cheek) a shock wave is transmitted along the bone which knocks the skull backwards. Being that the brain is floating in liquid, the front of the skull immediately makes contact with the brain, disrupting the “electrical connections” from one area to another. The brain literally bounces back and forth against the skull tearing nerve tissue, blood vessels, and allowing bleeding internally. This impact immediately makes the fighter lose consciousness and fall to the floor. Ronda’s aggressive offensive style has always left her open for a beating, but all it took was one shin to the base of the skull  to conceivably end the career of one of the greatest champions of our generation.

Remember the old punch-line about Lennox Lewis? The guy couldn’t be beaten. Well, he couldn’t be beaten except when big punchers like Oliver Mcall and Hasim Rahman found his jaw line. When someone is said to have a “Glass-jaw”, what they are really saying is that the structure of his jaw line is angled more severely towards the brain itself. This makes fighters like Lewis more susceptible to one punch knockouts. While anyone can be knocked out given the right angle and force, it takes a very specific blow to render an opponent “knocked out”

Will Rousey ever fight again? Time will tell, and it usually takes a long period of time for the brain to heal from concussions. Particularly as we age, our metabolic rates decrease, as does our healing factors and ability to recover from any type of injury. Given the amount of money she stands to make off endorsement deals, movie roles, and TV appearances, one would wonder if the risk for long term brain injury is worth stepping back into the Octagon.

Just this last week, hall of fame NFL player and announcer Frank Gifford’s autopsy showed advanced CTE. The Concussion movie starring Will Smith is set to impale the NFL for their ignorance of brain trauma this winter, and one has to wonder what boxers and MMA fighters are thinking of this horrific brain disease. CTE causes frontal cortex atrophy and causes the victim to deal with depression, memory loss, personality loss, and even loss of executive function such as tremors.

I would caution Edward Tarvaryn  and company to consider Muhammad Ali’s fight with Larry Holmes. A second or third severe brain trauma can truly hinder a hall of fame fighter’s personality, charisma, and persona. Granted, Ronda Rousey has taken far less trauma than most fighters have in their career including Holly Holm, but you would have to wonder, does she want to risk that feeling again. Sometimes a life is more important than a legacy.

Hopefully you have taken the time to appreciate what Ronda Rousey has done for MMA, and how fantastic her career has been. Saturday night Ronda’s aura invincibility disappeared under the onslaught of Holly Holm. She may never appear in the Octagon again.

If you would like to learn a little more about head trauma and how it affects memory you can read a good resource here.

(If you or a loved one have experience a severe blow to the head, it is imperative that you get to a hospital immediately. Concussions and traumatic brain injuries can lead to brain damage, permanent disability, and death)



Dr. Beau Hightower is a former collegiate athlete and avid fight fan. He serves as the President of Elite Ortho-Therapy and Sports Medicine LLC, the premier sports injury resolution center in New Mexico.

He is an instructor of bio-mechanics and kinesiology at Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine and the team doctor for Jackson/Winklejohn MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

IG: @dr.beauhightower