The conflict between combat sports and ethical medicine: can they co-exist?

The conflict between combat sports and ethical medicine: can they co- exist?

N K Sethi, MD

Department of Neurology, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, NY, United States of America
Corresponding author: N K Sethi (
Disclosure: The author serves as the Chief Medical Officer of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC). The views expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect necessarily the views of the New York State Athletic Commission.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to:
Nitin K. Sethi, MD
Associate Professor of Neurology
Comprehensive Epilepsy Center
New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
525 East, 68th Street
New York, NY 10065
Tel: + 212-746-2346
Fax: + 212-746-8845
Even after so many years, there are times when my love and passion for combat sports collides head on with my love and passion for medicine and protecting athletes health.

One would assume that these 2 passions would not cause any conflict in me and for a while it never did. On many weekends, I would be at Mendez Boxing hitting the bag while wearing my favorite T-shirt proudly emblazoned “Neurologist-because awesome is not a job description”. My friends at Mendez know me and call me simply “doc” and some of my most memorable moments have been spent in their company discussing combat sports.

I once gave a lecture to a body of my peers at my hospital. The topic I chose was “Neurological injuries in boxing”. I spoke passionately about the topic. To my dismay, many of my colleagues disagreed with my involvement in combat sports and got up and left midway. I felt hurt but my passion and love for both combat sports and Neurology remained unchanged. But recent events have forced me to come to terms with my involvement as a ringside physician in combat sports.

One principle has always helped me when I find myself struggling and that is that I am there ringside or cage side for only one thing. To stop a fight once I feel the threshold has been reached beyond which I cannot guarantee a fighter’s health and safety.

The fighters are professionals skilled and trained to do their job. They always command my greatest respect. I too am a professional skilled and trained to do my job. My threshold of stopping a fight may differ from a fighter or a fan’s threshold of stopping a fight. It may also differ from a referee’s threshold of stopping a fight. As a physician one cannot defend combat sports by saying that boxing or MMA is good for the brain or the body. No amount of boxing or MMA is good for the brain-not one round, not even one punch to the head or to the body. Ringside or cage side I need to remain objective, completely free of any bias and make a call to stop a fight based solely on the medical facts in front of me not the fighter’s fight record and certainly not based on how big the fight is and how much money is at stake. The minute I do that, I fail to remain an objective doctor and I rather be a spectator occupying a seat at the venue rather than wasting a seat ringside or cage side. My judgement is going to be biased and I am now primed to fail in my only duty which is to protect the athlete’s health.

Do I have all the answers? No. But sometimes under tremendous pressure I must make a call. It does not matter whether the setting is the ER, the ICU or the bright lights of a combat sports arena. Why would I treat a patient that I am seeing in the ER after an assault on the street differently from an athlete who has sustained similar injuries inside a ring or a cage? If I am concerned about an assault victim, I am not going to tell him all is well and just discharge home from the ER. No, I shall admit him and do the necessary medical evaluation and management. Why should my approach be different cage side or ringside just because it is a big fight? If it is, I have no right to be present there for I am failing my patient (the athlete) who has trusted me with his/her health on entering the cage or the ring.

The ringside/ cage side setting is far more challenging to practice medicine than the controlled environment of the ER or the hospital. I must make a call and I must make it fast. I do not have the luxury of doing labs or a CT scan. It is all clinical with only the athlete in front of me. And yes, contrary to some people’s view it does take 15 to 18 years of intense medical training to make this call-which athlete has only suffered a concussion and can be discharged home versus one who may be about to develop a far more serious traumatic brain injury. You only have to encounter an unconscious person on the street to realize how tough it is and how helpless you feel without a doctor on hand. And I need to make the right call for there may never be a second chance for me to re approach my patient and change my decision.

It is unfortunate and dangerous when an experienced referee, inspector, judge or ringside physician is afraid to make a call because he/she is worried how the decision shall be viewed by the public and other parties. When they are worried whether their decision is going to cost them the opportunity of working the next “big” fight. Would you (if you were a patient) trust this doctor with your most precious possession of good health?

I am not saying that medical decision making in combat sports should not be critically appraised. Every medical stoppage should be looked at, studied and learnt from. Was it right or was it wrong? But there is a way to do this and it is not online. Telling a doctor that he is a “fucking scum”, screaming for his blood so that he fears for his own health and safety as he heads out of the arena is certainly not the way. Thrashing his reputation online is also not the way. Most ringside physicians practice ringside medicine a mere 1% of their total time practicing medicine. We work in hospitals and we have regular jobs. We do not do ringside medicine for the money. We are paid anywhere between $200 to $400 for the night, a night where we tirelessly work upto 12 hours under exceptionally difficult circumstances. That is below minimum wage. We do what we do because we care.

It is understandable why even my own peers in Neurology and Medicine do not support the work of ringside physicians and call for a ban on all combat sports. Combat sports and ethical medicine cannot co-exist without conflict. The gap is too large to bridge.

Today, I again struggle to bridge my love for medicine and combat sports.