As a kid, Johnny Benjamin and his dad would sit down together and watch sports. Their favorite: boxing. They made it a point to gather for any Muhammad Ali fights. "I'll never forget those moments with my dad," Benjamin says. "They were some of my best childhood memories."
Fast forward to the 1990s. Now Dr. Johnny Bejamin met Buddy McGirt, who opened up a gym near Benjamin's Vero Beach practice. Pretty soon, McGirt was sending his guys over to Dr. Benjamin for pre-fight medical clearance. Benjamin ended up signing off on Antonio Tarver, Laila Ali, Artuto Gatti and a slew of other McGirt guys before fights.
Around the same time, he started hearing about MMA.
He watched Royce Gracie early on, then Ken Shamrock and all the other original stars of MMA. He particularly was fascinated by Carlos Newton, the soft-spoken former UFC welterweight champion who's now studying geriatric medicine in Canada.
Dr. Benjamin had caught the MMA bug. And he was just about alone among his peers.
"I'd say 99.9% of doctors aren't the nerds that you think we are," Dr. Benjamin says. "Orthopedic surgeons love sports, too. But with boxing and MMA, there's almost no conversation. I'm a little bit of a pariah when it comes to that."
Benjamin made news a few months ago with a story he posted questioning Pat Miletich's return to the cage after a neck injury. Miletich even posted on MMA Junkie saying Benjamin's story forced him to receive extra clearance from a spine specialist in order to return to the cage.
The broader issue Benjamin wanted to get at was how fighters with lingering injuries receive medical clearance to fight again.
"It shouldn't be general practioners clearing guys with specific injuries," Dr. Benjamin says. "If a guy has an orbital bone fracture, he needs to see an eye doctor to make sure he should fight again. Right now, guys can get clearance from their wife's gynecologist. That needs to change."
That's not the only change the doctor would prescribe regarding MMA medical issues. He's already been asked by the New York State Assembly if he'd be willing to testify when MMA sanctioning for the Empire State is discussed later this year. (He will do so.)
Dr. Benjamin says after careful review of the medical data, he'd giving a ringing endorsement for the sport to be sanctioned in New York, or any other state.
"It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, human cockfighting," he says. "To be perfectly honest, there are a lot more serious injuries in high school girls soccer than there are in MMA. And there are 100 times more Little League baseball deaths over the past 20 years than in MMA."
But he also acknowledges the sport is not perfect. Here are five medical changes he'd recommend.
Insurance: "These big fight organizations need to take care of their guys, and not just active fighters. Retired fighters need adequate coverage, too. I don't see that right now. They're giving up their health, to a certain extent, when they get in there. They should never have to worry about medical coverage."
Uniformed medical databases: Dr. Benjamin thinks some of the clearance chaos between different states could be eradicated with a national database of fighters' health records. "That way, doctors across the country who see these fighters and clear them for fights have access to everything that's gone on with a fighter's health," he says. "And these guys are such warriors that sometimes, believe it or not, you have to protect fighters from themselves. That's the doctor's job."
Mandatory training and education for refs: Much has been made recently of the lack of quality refs in MMA. Dr. Benjamin agrees, especially when it comes to the medical aspect of officiating fights. "There aren't enough quality refs out there right now because the sport has exploded so quickly," he says. "The refs need some standardized training that emphasizes that their primary purpose in the cage should be the fighters' health."
Random PED testing: Dr. Benjamin says athletes are smart enough today about drug testing to know when to cycle off performance-enhancing drugs and still pass a drug test. "I would recommend random testing," he says. "Just walk into contracted fighters' gyms and ask for blood. Not urine, blood."
Better in-fight access for doctors: "That should be part of the referee training," he says. And not only that—Dr. Benjamin thinks there should be an easier contact method during fights for doctors to get refs' attention. "Even if it's an air horn, there has to be a way for doctors to weigh in as a fight is happening," he says. "Right now, it's too hard for doctors, even when they're screaming at cage-side, for a ref to hear them."