For many MMA fighters, surgeon Frank Stile offers the ultimate combo: more fighting and less bleeding.
Watching the blood drive known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship one evening in 2007, Las Vegas plastic surgeon Frank Stile sat talking to his guests about the unfortunate nature of cuts. Eventually, the question was posed: Wouldn’t it be something if he could take out the raw hamburger — OK, scar tissue — that often predisposes skin to lacerations and replace it with something that would have a fighter looking less like a Fangoria cover?
His guests agreed wholeheartedly. one of them happened to be MMA, or mixed martial arts, fighter Nick Diaz, who had just suffered his first professional loss by stoppage in a fight against K.J. Noons.
With the sharp hands of an athlete dabbling in pro boxing, Noons had sliced Diaz’s face to ribbons. it was skill, but it was also the result of dozens of improperly sutured cuts Diaz had previously suffered in his fighting life. they had only healed superficially, leaving behind ground chuck underneath.
Stile had a suggestion: what if he dug out the gunk and replaced it with the “fresh” tissue of a cadaver? Sure, the procedure had been used for cosmetic purposes, but never for athletic performance. And if Stile’s hunch was correct, the stronger, reinforced skin might be better than Diaz’s baseline — as good as someone who had never been cut at all.Diaz would be his first attempt, and Stile would do the procedure for free.
Diaz, whose entire livelihood is tied up in his ability to withstand violence long enough to dish out his own, agreed. even better, the procedure happened without a hitch. Diaz was supposed to wait 90 days before sparring, but Stile figured he wouldn’t listen. still, in the nine fights he’s had since, Diaz has barely bled an ounce.
In “Steel,” Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story, the author described a future in which fight fans cheered ravenously as large robot athletes engineered to bash one another’s CPUs in. (The tale was adapted into a Twilight Zone episode with Lee Marvin, and it’ll be reworked again for the Hugh Jackman-led Reel Steel in the fall.)
In the pre-steroid, pre-creatine era, Matheson didn’t realize how provocative his idea would become: that audiences would expect athletes to be something other than human, and that many millions of dollars would be spent in pursuit of that goal.
In the case of prizefighting, we want athletes healthy enough to get hurt. And the scalpel is rapidly approaching the steroid, supplement or loaded glove as the new edge.
This is where Stile comes in. Bulky, broad-shouldered, with the features of a B-movie heavy, his Las Vegas practice is in the nucleus of the country’s exploding MMA scene. Since his success with Diaz, he’s performed the scar-tissue removal surgery on six other fighters. Some semi-pros have even come to him after a single cut in sparring, nervous they might be predisposed to career-altering lacerations.
“When these guys have their original injuries, whether it’s in training or in an amateur fight or a pro fight, it all hinges on how well these wounds are addressed,” Stile says. “usually, they’re closed by non-plastic surgeons, by emergency room physicians or some guy at the event.”
Instead of being shut in layers, only the epidermis (the outermost surface) is stitched. the next time a set of knuckles strikes that area, it’s like punching through tissue paper; the skin is closed again, poorly, and the cycle repeats. It’s unstable material, and it has cost Diaz, as well as many others, not only fights but also the winner’s share of the purse.
In Diaz’s case, the issue was compounded by his bone structure.
“Wherever there’s a bony prominence or a sharp ridge on an anatomical area on their skull that creates a sharp edge — on the cheek, the orbital rib on the eyebrow, the bridge of the nose — you’re going to get cut,” Stile says. “if you notice a guy like Oscar De La Hoya, he’s a handsome guy still, but it’s not because he hasn’t been hit.
“It’s because he doesn’t have the predisposition to [get] cut like some of these other guys.”