Combat sports: Safety first

By Darren Ching


The sudden death of veteran bodybuilder Pradip Subramanian in a celebrity muay thai boxing match at the inaugural Asian Fighting Championship (AFC) last month has cast a spotlight on the local combat sports scene and the safety of these events.

After losing a fight against YouTube personality Steven Lim, Pradip was rushed to the Singapore General Hospital where he reportedly died from a “cardiac arrest respiratory failure episode”. He was a last-minute replacement for former Singapore Idol contestant Sylvester Sim, who had to pull out due to insurance issues.

Pradip’s death has since raised questions over the safety protocols of the event. It has also sparked safety concerns among students, given the growing popularity of combat sports at universities.

NTU’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and muay thai clubs combined in 2013 to form the NTU Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) club. From slightly over 100 members before the merger, the club currently has more than 500 members.  

Experienced MMA fighters said that while they suffer from the usual array of injuries, from minor sprains to dislocations and fractures, the sport is safe when members do not stray from the safety guidelines and instructions from coaches.

Glen Lee, 23, a second-year Sports Science and Management (SSM) student, who is going into his ninth year of fighting, said: “It just takes discipline. Make sure you have your safety equipment like mouth and groin guards in place before training.”

Aside from having the appropriate protective gear, combat sports athletes also have to go through rigorous training before they are allowed to spar.

“Before novice judo athletes can fight, they are drilled with the basics of falling and throwing,” said Adam Chua, 23, also a second-year student from SSM.

“Our coaches pair experienced players fight with less experienced ones as the former knows how to control the strength used and not go overboard,” said Chua, who has a decade of experience in judo.

Still, athletes run the risk of incurring severe injuries as long as they participate in contact sports.

According to Dr Swarup Mukherjee, an Associate Professor from the the faculty of Physical Education and Sport Science at the National Institute of Education, athletes who participate in MMA are unique as they have a higher chance of sustaining acute traumatic injuries like head injuries or concussions.

“MMA athletes do not wear any protective headgear and repeated concussions can lead to degenerative brain disease.

“As the determination of the severity of a concussion differs from individual to individual, it is important for the athlete to be aware of the symptoms of a concussion and stop when needed,” said Dr Mukherjee, who is also a trained physician and regularly lectures on the understanding of sports injuries.  

There are inherent risks involved in mixed martial arts, however.  

Unlike his older brother who has broken bones during judo school training sessions before, Chua has only sprained his tailbone, shoulder and knee the result of choosing to err more on the side of caution, even if it comes at the expense of winning, he explained.

“Acute injuries occur when athletes don’t want to get thrown as they lose a point.”

“For me, I’d rather get thrown than avoid it, in the event I get an injury that affects me for life.” He aded that his brother, now 25, also fights more conservatively now to reduce the chance of injury.

When it comes to mitigating the likelihood of injuries, the NTU MMA club and other combat sports clubs in on campus have coaches present to supervise all trainings.

Elrond Choa, 22, a second-year School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student, said that during breaks, the president of the club goes around to check that everyone has their protective gear on and that no one is feeling unwell.  

When approached by The Nanyang Chronicle, the President of NTU MMA (who declined to be named) said: “Members cannot exert full strength during training. Instead, proper techniques and controlled should be applied. As long as they feel unwell, we will make them sit out.”

Long Wei Liang, 23, a third-year School of Material Science and Engineering student, said: “During BJJ training, we have two coaches who goes around when we spar. They actively call out to members to tap out. It’s not just about winning.”

Besides the NTU combat sports club, safety measures are also well-implemented at other MMA classes outside the University.

Lim Ming Tao, 21, said strict safety protocols are put in place at Fortitude BJJ, where he has been training for one and a half years.

“When someone is caught in a submission, we are made to tap out immediately. My coaches always restrict members from training so long as they have a minor knock,” said the third-year SSM student, who has competed in regional competitions on his own.

Though injuries in sports are unavoidable, it should not deter anyone from taking up a sport, said Dr Mukherjee.

She added: “Sport is a choice. If someone is excited about it, then by all means, pursue it.

“However, every sport has its own demands. Athletes should train and be completely ready to deal with them, consult a doctor when injured and avoid premature return to training following an injury.”