Two days after Gary Goodridge told me that fighting for a living had broken his brain in tragic and irreversible ways, I found myself standing in the lodge of Montana's Jackson Hot Springs resort, holding a can of PBR and watching one of his old fights on TV alongside a few barely interested strangers. Two days after I'd interviewed Goodridge and his friends, two days after I'd spent the better part of an afternoon reading about the brain disease that would likely drive him into an early grave, there he was in front of me, doing the very thing that would eventually change him into a person even his own family barely recognized.
It was one of those strange moments in life. A moment where the one thing you've been consciously trying not to look at suddenly shoves itself in your face. It was not a nice moment. Not as a fight fan or an MMA writer. Even after the moment had passed, I couldn't help but think about how many more times I might have to relive it in the years to come as the fighters I've watched and wrote about begin to slide into old, or even just middle age.
The fight was Goodridge vs. Igor Vovchanchyn, in case you're curious. It was the first of two meetings between them, back at Pride 4 in 1998. Goodridge was 32 then, the same age I am now. In the video, he looks clear-eyed and ferocious, trading power shots with that Ukrainian spark plug of a man who made a career out of battling bigger, stronger opponents in cavernous Japanese arenas.
Every time a Vovchanchyn hook caught the side of Goodridge's big, bald head, I thought about him at home in Barrie, Ont., spending his days in bed, watching TV, popping prescription pills for his memory loss and his depression. When Vovchanchyn sent him wobbling back into the corner, I remembered how Goodridge's friends told me that sometimes he'd call them on the phone to talk, then call them back 10 minutes later with no memory whatsoever of the conversation they'd just had. When the Pride referee jumped in to wave the fight off I watched Goodridge's eyes swimming in his head and thought about his best friend since childhood choking up as he told me how he missed the man he used to know, the man who was once so charismatic and brimming with life, the man who now, at 46, is a dim shadow of his former self.
Did the strangers in the hot springs lodge have any clue what they were looking at? Did they know that, in some sense, they were watching a ghost at work on the plasma big screen on this lazy Saturday afternoon? I doubt it. To them, it was a passing image of mildly entertaining violence, seen and then quickly forgotten. To Fuel TV, the cable channel that the UFC has now all but commandeered, it was a rerun. Something to fill a weekend programming hole. Expendable and interchangeable scenes from an insignificant past.
To Goodridge, it was one beating among many. It was so long ago that it might as well have happened to someone else. In a way, it did.
According to a brain injury specialist at Toronto's St. Michael's hospital, Goodridge most likely has chronic traumatic encephalopathy. As in, the dreaded CTE that researchers are now finding in the brains of deceased NFL and NHL players, as well as in boxers and professional wrestlers. As in, the disease that results from years of head trauma, and which eventually reduced capable young professional athletes to brooding, impulsive, self-destructive wrecks. As in, the same disease that led to former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson shooting himself in the chest at 50, leaving behind a message to please see that his brain was given to the researchers responsible for slicing it into thin slivers and looking at it under a microscope in order to figure out why he lost control of his emotions, his mind, his life.
No one can tell Goodridge for sure that CTE is the reason why he can remember things he did 30 years ago, but not what he did yesterday They can't say that it's why he snapped at his mother for the first time in 46 years just recently, or if it's why he can't stand on one foot without falling over. The only way to be certain is to cut open his brain and look for the brown splotches of tau protein that spread out and derail the brain function in a person with CTE. For now, the doctors can only tell him that he probably has it, just like his friends who look up the symptoms on the internet have to admit to each other that the Gary they knew is almost certainly gone for good.
There can be little doubt that fighting did this to Goodridge. Exactly what type of fighting and whose fault it is, that's a little trickier.
Goodridge will tell you it was all that kickboxing he did. Thirty-eight fights in 11 years, and even though he didn't win one for his last four-and-a-half years of competition, they kept inviting him back because he was the type who would do his best to deliver a knockout one way or another. More often than not, the knockout he produced was his own.
Sure, his friends say, the kickboxing probably did most of the damage, but he took his share of beatings in MMA as well. There was the night a Gilbert Yvel head kick dropped him lifelessly to the mat. There was the time that Fedor Emelianenko battered him with punches before kicking his face like a soccer ball several times. There were the years worth of beatings he took in small, often wholly unregulated events all over the globe, long after even he knew he should have hung up his gloves.
And make no mistake -- he did know. He admitted it in interviews and private conversations many times.
"I should not fight again," he told me after his late-notice bout with Gegard Mousasi at FEG's Dynamite!! New Year's Eve show in Japan in 2009. "I know I shouldn't."
But he did. He needed the money, and there always seemed to be some fight promoter dangling 20 or 30 grand in front of him if he'd only board a plane for Tokyo or Bulgaria or Budapest -- even Washington D.C. -- and take just enough of a beating to make the local crowd happy.
That's Goodridge's fault, even if he had some unscrupulous enablers helping him to destroy himself. At the same time, how much can you blame a brain-damaged man for his failure to accurately assess risk and reward? When he can't remember what he had for breakfast, how much do you criticize him for the inability to come up with a better long-term financial strategy?
Perhaps more importantly, with a disease like CTE -- which researchers say has a genetic component that makes some more susceptible to it than others, and which may not result in any clear symptoms for months or even decades after the trauma itself -- how do we know we aren't paying $54.95 to watch it happen to our present-day heroes on pay-per-view each UFC Saturday night?
The answer is, we don't. We can't. Neither can the UFC or the athletic commissions or the fighters themselves. When UFC president Dana White forced former light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell into retirement after his third straight knockout loss at 40, it was hailed as a rare victory for restraint and good sense in the combat sports world. And it was, at least if we compare it to the standard operating procedure in boxing, where legends like Evander Holyfield and James Toney are permitted to continue on far past anything even resembling their primes.
And yet, for all we know even Liddell's forced retirement came too late. Or maybe he could have taken the hits for a few more years and still been fine. Just as one person can smoke cigarettes for 50 years without getting lung cancer, some people can probably take more concussions without getting CTE. There's no formula that tells us when a fighter's brain has taken all it can stand. All we can do is look for the symptoms after the fact, and by then it's too late.
But I find myself thinking about this more now, after writing Goodridge's story, and I wonder why I didn't think about it before. I think about the friend who tried to convince him to retire by sending him a video of an interview he did in 1996, when he was sharp and witty, and then one he did in 2009, when he slurred his words like it was last call.
I think about how you could do this exact same thing with guys like Liddell, who I've interviewed recently, and who, I must admit, doesn't sound great. I think about Wanderlei Silva, who started out in the bare-knuckle days back in Brazil, and who now looks out at the world through a mask of scar tissue. I certainly think about it with "Rampage" Jackson, who has a history of erratic behavior and exceedingly poor impulse control, and yet who recently bragged on Twitter that, thanks to testosterone replacement therapy, he now feels like he could fight for 10 more years.
These are adults with the right to make their own choices. These are men who, along with their friends and families, will have to live with the consequences of those choices, and they have the right to make them even if they might ultimately be making a trade that most people would consider utterly insane. I realize that. At the same time, I don't know if they realize it. I don't know if anyone truly can. Certainly, Goodridge didn't, even if he says now that he'd do it all over again if he had the chance.
Though of course, he doesn't have that chance. Instead he has pills and TV. He has friends and family and his iPhone to remind him of all the day-to-day things he can't possibly remember. He has those reruns on a Saturday afternoon. Today's fighters? They have him to remind them of what's really at stake in their pursuit of money and glory. Hopefully they're paying close attention.