CTE/Brain Injury in Combat Sports

Hey All,

Long time reader of this sub so firstly want to say a big thanks to all of you who have served, and shared quality information with others on this forum. I imagine a lot more people read than you might think.

On to the topic - I’ve just started Muay Thai training again after a 5-6 year break (previous experience 1 year MT, 5 years Judo). These days I’m a little bit older, and perhaps more cautious than I was as a 21 year old.

I work in a field where intelligence and sharp thinking are critical to my ability to earn a living. Having recently started sparring again, I have given a lot more thought as to how I can keep myself safe and my cognition as undamaged as possible.

The current research on CTE and cumulative brain damage indicates that subconcussive blows over time can be just as damaging as a few bad knockouts.

Now of course I accept risk every time I put pads on and touch gloves, I’m aware of that. I’d be curious to know how you all have dealt with such risk in the past, ways that you have used to keep yourself safe and to ensure you learn and adapt as much as possible without getting into gym wars and going home dizzy.

So far I have just attempted to prioritize learning and working on my defensive skills, and picking good sparring partners, and that’s been good. However due to my size (6ft and about 210) I am commonly paired with heavyweights who are taller and rangier than I am. This results in eating some more shots than I’d like. I train both for fitness and to develop some self defence skills - I am unlikely to ever compete.

Would love to hear some opinions from those far more experienced than I.


Hey OP,

I cant really add much to your dilemma, but I am kind of in the same boat as you.

I have started my martial arts journey late. I have been doing BJJ for about 3 years now and boxing for about 8 months (boxing with very limited sparring).

My goal is similar to yours in terms of self defence. I am at the stage now with boxing that the only way to progress would be to start sparring, but Im not to keen on the idea of getting repeated blows to my head. Like yourself I am a big guy, and I get paired with other big guys.

Im actually thinking about cutting my boxing work down to 1 session a week that would involve pads and bags only, and to concentrate on BJJ. At least with BJJ there is much less chance of blows to the head.

Anyway, I am interested to see what others have to say.


I started training for MMA 4 years ago. I have a sordid history of concussions from football. I had 6 that I can remember. 3 of them were bad. 1 had me fucked up for a week. I’m a HW that’s short (IE extremely poor reach), slow (IE poor footwork and mobility), with a really big head (IE huge target). In other words, I have to walk through a lot of punches to get mine in.

Anyways, the MMA training involved muay thai sparring. I was in my 2nd sparring session and got hit in the top of the head (where there’s obviously no padding from headgear) by a pretty big guy and saw stars. That was my last sparring session. I decided the risk-benefit of resuming an amateur MMA career at 33, with 3 kids (at the time, now I have 4), was not justified.

I’ve been training bjj ever since. Haven’t had any issues with head injuries, though there have been some black eyes from getting kneed or elbowed inadvertently.

BJJ is not without its risks. I can already tell that my neck is going to be completely fucked when I get older if I don’t change how I roll. Guys that invert a lot tend to get their backs wrecked over time. Knees seem to end up getting screwed up one way or another. Hands end up like claws from gi gripping, etc. However, I think brain trauma is probably lowest with bjj than with any other combat sport/martial art.


Thanks for the input guys.

At this stage I’m definitely considering your decision also! I really do love the Muay Thai training and I’m sure that there is plenty I can get out of drilling with pads and partners, but I do also feel that sparring is very important to realize what you’re doing wrong.

Even in the first couple of sessions I’ve had, my footwork is significantly better, and my reactions to checking kicks etc. You learn fast when somebody is hitting you when you get it wrong. The advice I’ve seen on forums etc is to pick the right training partners, talk to them about going light in the sparring session. While this is all well and good, I think the risk is still there.

BJJ will be my backup option too, I think, if I decide to stop the Muay Thai Sparring. How do you think it prepares you for some kind of real altercation? I don’t think any Martial Art is perfect in this regard but would be interested you hear your thoughts.


1 Like

I think BJJ is great prep for real world altercation, although if that is your goal, I would be inclined to find a BJJ school that focuses somewhat on self defence. “Sport BJJ” will leave you vulnerable to strikes from all sorts of positions.

Obviously BJJ does not improve your striking skill, and its important to be prepared to know what to do when someone is striking at you, hence I still think having some training in a striking MA is important.


1 Like

BJJ is absolutely applicable in real situations. Any situation where grappling is involved and any situation where you want to control another person without injuring them.

Takedowns and throws are often fight enders too.

Like @theBird said some sport technique is useless but if you pull guard and try to berimbolo someone in a fight you deserve to get your ass beat.

Wrestling people to the ground and man handling them into positions where you can break bones, choke them out or beat them to death has always been a useful skill set when things get chippy.

1 Like

Appreciate the input, thank you. How do you organise your own training? Do you train striking as well, or some sort of weightlifting etc?

Trying to figure out how to put it all together at the moment. Have done a lot of weightlifting in the past but struggling to make it fit with the fight training.

Also not so sure how to put it together with BJJ - when to begin and if I should do one at a time etc. The advice I’ve received from fighters so far is to focus on one for a while.

I’ve been a competitive judoka for years and during the heyday of MMA I decided to teach myself a striking art. I’ve been regularly competing in grappling tournaments so I wanted to see how would I fare when striking was involved.

In hindsight, I was young and dumb. I started training boxing at an excellent school. Everything was great until I began sparring. Light sparring was ok, but after a year or so I noticed that I was getting “dumber” so to speak and that I’ve lost my mental edge - I’d have to expand mental energy to perform simple tasks - “ok, I’m gonna tie my shoelaces now” type of things.

Soon after this realization I quit boxing, not least because my job at the time required pretty strong analytical skills. I have acquired the fundamentals of boxing but in any physical altercation I’m going to fall back to my grappling knowledge.

1 Like

What has your Judo experience been like as an adult? It’d be good to get back to competition again.

I trained when I was younger, am interested in either getting back to Judo or BJJ, I probably prefer Judo. There’s not a high level of instruction in my area unfortunately.

Well, I’m very biased towards judo so my answer won’t be exactly objective. I always fancied myself a very bad copy of Flavio Canto as our fighting styles were very similar. Honestly, I extremely dislike the most recent rule changes as they discourage ne waza and transitions to the ground.

When choosing a grappling art to train (again) you should take into account your age and the length of your break from judo. I know several guys who came back after many years and due to lost agility and that judo specific sense of fluidity subsequently tore up their ACLs after trying to resist a throw. So from that perspective BJJ is maybe safer.

Oh another thing, don’t forget to tuck your chin when being thrown, otherwise you’ll get a concussion.