What is a staph infection and why are MMA fighters at risk of contracting it?

Robert Whittaker was forced to pull out of his fight against Luke Rockhold due to a staph infection
Robert Whittaker was forced to pull out of his fight against Luke Rockhold due to a staph infection

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, which are primarily found on the ground, human skin, and in the nose. If left untreated, the infection can prove fatal.

The transmission rate of staph infections is extreme since the majority of staph germs are highly contagious. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one-third of the population is exposed to staphylococcus bacteria. These can develop into staph infections if the germs find their way through the skin.

Usually, anyone who is infected with staph will have their skin swollen and red. It will also produce a pocket of pus around the infected area.

Staph infection is a common occurrence for MMA fighters. The reason why mixed martial artists can easily contract the infection is the close-contact nature of the sport. Plus, some MMA fighters train in overcrowded gyms where the chances of staph being present on the ground are incredibly high.

In most cases, staph will usually develop on the skin, which is relatively less threatening than the second type of staph infection: invasive staph infections. Invasive staph infections spread at an exceedingly fast rate, which can be life-threatening.

Which MMA fighters have contracted staph infection?

UFC 243 Whittaker v Adesanya
UFC 243 Whittaker v Adesanya

One of the most serious cases of staph infection in the UFC was reported in 2018. Then-middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was infected with staph and was subsequently forced to withdraw from his fight against Luke Rockhold.

Commenting on Whittaker's condition, UFC president Dana White said:

"He had staph infection in his stomach. From what I understand, it wasn’t treated properly and started to eat away at parts of his organs. He’s in serious condition, so it’s going to be a minute before he’s back, I think. Hopefully it turns around quick but that stuff is life threatening if not treated the right way."

It took Whittaker more than a year to recover from the infection successfully.

UFC lightweight Kevin Lee also stepped into the octagon against Tony Ferguson with a staph infection - knowingly. Speaking to Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Lee said he didn't want anyone to know about the infection for fear of the fight falling through.


Kelvin Gastelum also contracted a staph infection ahead of his scheduled bout against Whittaker in 2019:

"I was fighting this staph infection on my face, on my body, the entire week. I was on antibiotics the entire week fighting this thing," Gastelum told MMA Fighting.

Staph infections can usually be prevented with the use of antibiotics and regular sanitization of floors.

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Edited by Avinash Tewari
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