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Posted: Monday July 20, 2009 3:50PM; Updated: Wednesday July 22, 2009 9:56AM
Josh Gross Josh Gross >

Escovedo's triumph sheds light on staph infections in MMA

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For athletes competing and training in close quarters, MRSA has grown particularly loathsome over the past decade.

Similar to other staph infections, MRSA is an "opportunist," said Jeff Hageman, epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Predominantly entering the body through cuts or abrasions, MRSA, which moved beyond healthcare settings into the general population in the late 1990s, is best treated early by the trio of incision, drainage and antibiotics.

Key to avoiding the trouble of stuffing gaping wounds with gauze are common sense preventions. Maintain good hygiene. Wash workout clothes rather than stuff them into gym bags (the moist climate can act as a breeding ground for bacteria). Stop sharing personal items like towels and razors. These and other simple steps should considerably lower chances of falling victim to staph. Yet, the ease with which it spreads, particularly for those in MMA's high-contact world, and its adaptability make MRSA a brutally tough foe to put away.

"It's dangerous," said Michael Popp, Escovedo's trainer of 10 years at Pacific Martial Arts in Fresno, Calif., who's seen groups of fighters become casualties to staph multiple times a year. "Our rule is if you think you have an ingrown hair, you give it one day. If it hurts any more, you go to the doctor."

Even when symptoms remain barely visible, MRSA sometimes progresses so fast it can knock the healthiest person out of action before they realize what happened.

In the bout following Escovedo's return, his first fight at 135 pounds in 15 professional appearances, promoters put together a five-round middleweight championship. Brazil's Leopoldo Serao went to bed the night before the event with a small bump on the middle finger of his right hand. The following morning Palace Fighting Championship promoters postponed the fight because Serao's hand had swollen to four times its normal size. Three slice-and-clean treatments and a month off the mat were required before Serao could legitimately think about getting back into the gym. He should consider himself fortunate.

Eight months after Escovedo began his battle with MRSA, former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman became the next victim. Randleman released photos on the Internet of a gruesome, baseball-sized hole beneath his right armpit that offered a small window into his musculature. While two of his organs shut down as he battled to remain alive, pictures of the extensive damage to Randleman's appearance drew the most attention.

In some MMA camps, such as Las Vegas-based fight factory Xtreme Couture, the mere mention of MRSA is enough to reveal a cache of mops and bleach-spiked water. While maintaining clean training environments helps combat skin infections common to MMA gyms and wrestling rooms, being overly cautious about the environment won't matter if proper attention isn't paid to personal hygiene and skin-to-skin contact, Hageman said.

Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, said the impact of MRSA on combat sports will be brought up for the first time to the group's assembled membership during next week's convention in New Orleans.

Nick Lembo, who oversees the ABC's MMA committee and has long been a proponent of the sport during his time as counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, periodically mails out an article on communicable diseases published by one of the commission's licensed ringside physicians, Dr. Sherry Wulkan.

"It's a tough problem for a commission to oversee because all it takes is one person and it can spread like wildfire," said Lembo, who takes regular visits to licensed gyms where he supplies fighters with information on how to keep clean.

In response to the influx of MRSA, a growing industry of gels, soaps and lotions are currently being marketed directly to 12 million active wrestlers, jiu-jitsu players and martial artists in the U.S.

Guy Sako, a 33-year veteran of amateur wrestling in Ohio, invented Defense Soap in 2005 as a way to combat common skin diseases. Though the full-time police officer designed the first bar soap of its kind with wrestlers in mind -- namely his kids -- Sako believes the problem of infection is worse among mixed martial artists.

"We're not in wrestling season and we're setting records everyday for sales," said Sako.

Despite Sako's objections, CDC endorses basic soap and water.

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