Sanford MMA athletes see great benefit in partnership

Medical team makes sure athletes are in good shape before bouts and long after

Logan Storley works out with a punching bag and gloves

For mixed-martial arts fighters like Logan Storley, aligning his career with Sanford Health makes perfect sense.

Storley was a high school wrestling legend in Webster, South Dakota, who went to become a four-time All-American at the University of Minnesota. He remains undefeated after more than three years as a professional MMA fighter.

His affiliation with Sanford Mixed Martial Arts is a natural one based on Storley growing up in the region, but the bond goes well beyond geography.

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In his own way he’s the answer to the question: Why would Sanford get involved in mixed martial arts?

It is because this rising MMA star wants to compete at the highest level with the help of a team of expert coaches, athletic trainers and health care providers who have his best interests at heart. Athletes in every sport want performance-based guidance within the framework of their own health and safety. Storley is no different.

“Sanford got into this to help us and help the sport,” he said. “There is a lot of research — they’re trying to make the sport of MMA safer and they’re using their expertise to help us day-to-day. It is going to make a big difference with our training and our recovery.”

Sanford MMA to open clinic

Sanford Health announced in September it was forming a partnership with a team of mixed martial artists. These athletes are now surrounded by the science, technology and training methods needed to maximize performance, while also implementing injury reduction and recovery methods.

The team’s training facility is home to around 40 MMA athletes, 25 of whom compete within the largest three MMA promotions (UFC, Bellator and ONE). Located in Deerfield Beach, Florida, Sanford Health will be opening a supporting clinic adjacent to the team’s training facility in 2020.

Veteran Sanford Health orthopedic surgeon Brad Reeves, M.D., serves as the team’s exclusive medical director and physician. He will staff the clinic and often travel with the team. Sanford Health will be the team’s exclusive health care sponsor and preferred provider.

This translates to a healthier team and it applies to both the up-and-comers and the established veterans.

“This can be a game-changer for my longevity and how prepared I am,” said Aung La Nsang, 34, who is currently the ONE middleweight and light heavyweight title-holder. “I’m going to come in fresher and sharper and stronger. Every single little thing plays a big role. Every little edge can increase everything. We’re going to reap the benefits of having this one full medical team.”

A loyal expert

Reeves’ guidance and commitment to the health of the mixed martial artists has made an impression. He accompanies them to their fights — many MMA team doctors do not — and gets to know them personally.

“He’s a huge benefit for us,” said Robbie Lawler, a 37-year-old former UFC Welterweight champion who has been with the team since 2017. “We have a doctor onsite who is going to make sure everyone is healthy. Any nicks and bruises, any little issues, we can talk to a doctor day or night and he’s going to guide them on the right path. He’s going to make sure everyone is healthy before they go into a fight and then again after a fight. That’s a blessing.”

Dr. Reeves has served as team physician for the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State athletes in the past, but his familiarity with MMA is distinctive. He’s not just the guy fighters visit when they’re dealing with an injury.

A case in point was the October night Nsang broke his thumb while winning a bout in Tokyo. Nsang was not immediately aware he’d sustained a significant injury but Dr. Reeves, who made the trip, detected a problem.

An X-ray confirmed it and surgery quickly followed. Hence, an elite fighter has made a full recovery from an injury that could have led to long-term ramifications.

“Doc Reeves just gets it,” Storley said. “He understands us and he works with us. He understands us as people, not just athletes. He truly wants what’s best for us.”

Sanford MMA backed by research

What makes Dr. Reeves and Sanford Health’s oversight unique is that while they’re taking care of the MMA athletes in their own camp, they are also collaborating with the Sanford Sports Science Institute on the sport’s future.

For more than two years, Thayne Munce, Ph.D., and Daniel Poel, M.S., with Sanford Sports Science Institute have studied the effects the sport has on fighters. It is similar to the Institute’s research in finding better ways of diagnosing and managing concussions.

Athletes from Sanford MMA are not part of that study, though information gathered could help all fighters in the future by helping establish standardized protocol for those returning to competition following a concussion or brain injury.

“Guidelines for when it is safe to return (to fighting) for fighters who have been knocked out, or fighters who have incurred any damage, are inadequate from a brain-health perspective,” Munce said. “The NFL has a concussion protocol, a step-by-step plan for return to play. MMA doesn’t have that, even though there is a high rate of concussion and brain injury.”

Munce and Poel evaluate changes in brain function of athletes before and after fights. They want to know if there is a measurable impairment in athletes after the fight. This includes all fighters — those who have been knocked out and more likely to experience a brain injury, but also fighters who have escaped fights with minimal damage to their bodies.

Elevating MMA health care

“We do an evaluation that includes a variety of balance, reaction time, eye tracking and brain wave activity assessments to establish baseline values,” Munce said. “We then retest athletes after their fight, then after a week and then after 30 days to compare measurements.”

The study is part of a comprehensive integrated effort to make MMA as safe as it can possibly be. In doing so, the Sanford MMA support staff aspires to provide a model for the rest of the sport.

“We’re going to be taken care of as opposed to fighting through injuries,” said Michael Johnson, a 33-year-old who began competing in the UFC in 2010. “We, as fighters, really have not had access to great health care in the past. So this is a huge partnership. People are always looking for the next big thing. Well, this is it.”

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Posted In Orthopedics, Sports Medicine

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