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Nevada officials to require brain health testing for fighters

Pummeling his way through 75 fights, boxing great Larry Holmes was a force to be reckoned with, winning 69 of those clashes.

It’s the nature of the sport, though, that it takes a toll on fighters, he said.

Repeated hits to the head are common in combat sports as the area is a primary target for knockout punches.

“My intent was not to hurt anybody,” said Holmes, a former heavyweight champion who won 44 matches by knockout, at a brain health event Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

After years of discussion on the long-term effects of repeated head trauma in combat sports, officials at the event announced the Nevada Athletic Commission will require all licensed fighters in the Silver State, including professional boxers and mixed martial athletes, to undergo regular brain health testing.

Dr. Charles Bernick, associate director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, joined notables such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Spike TV President Kevin Kay, Bellator MMA President Scott Coker and Holmes on Capitol Hill to announce the new regulation and a donation to the center.

“Nevada has always been at the forefront of fighter safety, and we’re proud and excited to be implementing this policy,” Nevada Athletic Commission Executive Director Bob Bennett said before the official announcement. “It’s not going to cost the fighters anything, and it takes 15 minutes.”

The athletes will be required to undergo assessments using the Cleveland Clinic C3 application, an iPad-based testing tool in the Ruvo Center’s Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, Bernick said.

The health study, established in 2011, uses C3 to assess brain health and function in about 650 participants, all of whom are active or retired fighters representing sports from boxing to muay thai.

“We’re extremely pleased by the commission’s decision to require regular brain health testing using the C3 app in Nevada, which was a decision influenced largely by data collected from the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study,” Bernick said in a news release.

Bernick also said he hopes other sports commissions follow Nevada’s lead.

Among the findings of the Ruvo Center study so far are brain changes that researchers say correlate with differences in testing performance.

Researchers also believe they might be able to use PET (positron emission tomography) scans to detect the protein tau, which builds up during progressive degeneration of brain tissue and appears to be involved in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, according to Bernick and Boston University’s CTE Center.

Confirmation of the progressive brain disease for now is done only after death.

Public attention to CTE has spiked in recent years, due in part to a lawsuit by thousands of former players and their families against the National Football League over brain injuries.

Mentioned throughout the news conference was heavyweight boxing great Muhammad Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

The announcement of Nevada’s new regulation, which isn’t expected to take effect until June or July, coincides with the announcement of a donation to the Ruvo Center by Bellator and the Premier Boxing Champions.

A spokeswoman for the Ruvo Center declined to disclose the amount of the donation but said it would be spread out over two years.

Former football star Herschel Walker, a star running back involved in the mixed martial arts, described brain health research by the Ruvo Center as a blessing.

He appeared alongside boxers Paulie Malignaggi and Austin Trout and mixed martial athlete Phil Davis.

Fighters and officials not in attendance during Tuesday’s event are also speaking out in favor of the new rule.

“It is our collective responsibility as leaders to be at the forefront and always challenging the status quo in order to elevate the safety standards so critical to the future of combat sports,” UFC Chief Operating Officer Ike Lawrence Epstein said.

World Boxing Organization welterweight champion Jessie Vargas also threw his support behind the regulation.

“It’s very important to protect the athlete,” he said. “You can’t argue with looking out for someone’s health.”

McCain, a former boxer, applauded the efforts of the organizations involved and said they will contribute to fighters’ long-term health.

Bob Arum, chairman of the boxing promotions company Top Rank, said everyone in the boxing world should be on-board with the new regulation, which he called a win-win situation.

“Nobody wants to see punch-drunk fighters. We have 100 percent confidence in the Lou Ruvo Center,” Arum said. “It will give the fighters a baseline so if there’s a deterioration in years to come, they can identify it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Pashtana Usufzy at pusufzy@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4563. Find @pashtana_u on Twitter. Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Find @adamhilllvrj on Twitter. Contact Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Find @stevecarprj on Twitter.

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