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‘He’s not fine’: Max Holloway’s alarming withdrawal dwarfs run-up to UFC 226

Its troubling when any athlete experiences concussion-like symptoms, but particularly when they surface days before a bout rather than after

Michael Bisping noticed something wasnt quite right.

Max Holloway didnt appear to be his usual cheery self during his appearance on the Fox Sports television program UFC Tonight on Wednesday. So Bisping, the former UFC middleweight champion, decided to press the issue.

Max, you say you feel great, dont be offended when I say this, but you look like you just got out of bed, Bisping noted. Are you tired? Whats going on? Hows the weight cut? Are you drained? You look a little sleepy.

Holloway, 26, had already been forced to withdraw from a lightweight title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 in April after experiencing difficulty during his weight cut.

If Holloway (19-3) was encountering similar trouble ahead of Saturdays scheduled featherweight title defense against Brian Ortega at UFC 226 in Las Vegas, its a mere formality at this point. It turns out Bisping was onto something with his queries: Holloway wasnt right. He withdrew from the fight on Wednesday citing lingering concussion symptoms, meaning he was, in effect, concussed when he was being interviewed.

Max Holloway was pulled from Saturdays scheduled featherweight title defense against Brian Ortega at UFC 226 in Las Vegas.

Maxs team and UFC staff noticed Max was not normal since late last week, Holloways manager, Brian Butler, said in a statement. This became obvious to many watching his interviews and public appearances the past few days. He was showing concussion-like symptoms before he even started his weight cut and was rushed to the ER on Monday where they admitted him over night.

Initial scans seemed OK, and he was released Tuesday afternoon but symptoms still continued. Max fought with his team to continue with the fight. He showed some improvement over the next day but was still showing obvious symptoms. After open workouts, he crashed and was very hard to wake up, when he did he had flashing vision and slurred speech. He is now back in the ER for further tests.

Where Holloway goes from here is unclear. Its alarming when any athlete experiences concussion-like symptoms, but particularly when its a fighter who is feeling the effects of his sports punishing nature days before a bout rather than after.

Maybe Holloways isnt a rare case but rather something that happens quite often with the warning signs ignored. Maybe its simply an indicator of progress that the public is even aware of Holloways plight. Retired two-division champion boxer Timothy Bradley experienced a myriad of neurological issues in the aftermath of his 2013 fight of the year with Ruslan Provodnikov, and he was frank in discussing how he dealt with lingering symptoms.

Bradley admitted that he was dizzy months later while preparing for a bout with Juan Manuel Marquez, and that his speech was a little bit off.

The toll required to become and remain a top-level fighter reaches far beyond the physical punishment the athletes sustain on fight night.

Sparring is often brutal, with recent studies showing that headgear does little to stave off the effects of blows to the head.

And as Bradley illustrated, you never stop paying for some particularly grueling fights, even if the fighters appear fine to the naked eye.

In this case, Holloway didnt appear fine to the trained eye of Bisping, and fortunately, he was pulled off the card before he sustained possibly life-threatening damage.

Its a weird situation, UFC president Dana White said at Thursdays news conference. I was talking to [UFC vice president of athlete health and performance] Jeff Novitzky in the back and theres a couple of different some people think its concussion-related and some people think its weight cut-related, so they havent really got down to the bottom of what it is.

But according to [Holloway], he feels fine, but obviously hes not fine. So were going to continue to try to figure out whats wrong with Max Holloway. In the meantime, theres no way that this guy is going to fight anytime soon.

Holloway, left, punches Jose Aldo, of Brazil during the third round of their featherweight title fight at UFC 218. Photograph: Jose Juarez/AP

Its a refreshing approach to Holloways health and safety in a blood sport where far too often the first call is to satisfy the machismo fans and media demand from the fighters.

Retire on your stool after receiving too many blows? Youre branded a quitter. Having an off-night and simply losing, though not in any brutal fashion? Dont give in, or your reputation will be shot to tatters.

But in a day and age in when NFL players are retiring before they even reach the age of 25 citing health reasons, and awareness of the damages of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is ever-growing, just maybe, Holloways removal from UFC 226 is a sign of progress, and not based around an outlier who simply has something very wrong with him.

After all, these guys are routinely absorbing elbows, knees, punches and kicks to the cranium from well-trained athletes, and surely, Holloway isnt the only combat sports athletes who has experienced such symptoms in the lead-up to a major fight.

The differential diagnosis could include possible metabolic, toxic, inflammatory or even infectious causes if there had been no evidence of concussive or subconcussive blows, Dr Margaret Goodman told the Guardian. Shes a Las Vegas-based neurologist who has examined thousands of fighters and is the former chief physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Goodman also is the co-founder of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, the agency which oversees drug testing protocol for many of the biggest boxing matches, and she was the chair of the commissions medical advisory board.

She believes Holloway will undergo extensive blood tests in addition to perhaps a Pet scan (positron emission tomography) depending on changes to his condition. Even if his condition resolves, its crucial to still determine the possible etiologies in order to protect him from recurrences or worsening especially if related to prior concussions which can be additive.

So Holloway wont compete Saturday, and his absence from the events co-main leaves the UFC with another gaping hole on a major card.

As Thursdays news conference wrapped up, light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier slipped off the stage and crashed onto a speaker before he limped away, and White surely couldnt believe what he was seeing. Cormier is set to challenge heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic at UFC 226, and White could ill afford to lose one half of his main event, too.

But Cormier was deemed OK. What fate awaits Holloway is a different matter.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/jul/06/ufc-223-preview-max-holloway-concussion

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