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The Importance Of Pain: Sports Illustrated Considers Tim Sylvia's Brain

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At UFC 48, Tim Sylvia had his arm snapped by Frank Mir. Yet he kept fighting. Sports Illustrated attempts to explain how.

Photo by Josh Hedges, Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images.
Photo by Josh Hedges, Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images.

He fought off a menagerie of goons, went plummeting out of a window, even got sliced in the side with a knife. But you'd have never guessed he felt it at all.

"Pain," the world famous bouncer from Roadhouse tells his gorgeous young doctor."Don't hurt."

It turns out Patrick Swayze was a wise man indeed. In a new feature in Sports Illustrated, writer David Epstein explains that if you're wired the right way, pain is an obstacle that can be carefully moved out of your path - for a time. Epstein tells the story of Petra MajdiÄ, an Olympic skier who competed through broken ribs and a pierced lungs, mostly because she believed she wasn't seriously injured.

The body is capable of amazing things, and for high level athletes, pain tolerance is among the most spectacular. It's the difference, often times, between a high school player and a college player, a solid collegiate and an Olympic contender. Pain is a factor, not just during competition, but in the hard, grueling months leading up to the event.

It's easy to forget these physiological and psychological differences, the things that separate athletes from the fans that watch them and the media that cover them. Easy to forget, that is, unless you are married to one. My wife was a high level college athlete. When we work out, things that make me quit, muscle pain and fatigue that make it hard to get out of bed the next day, are things she routinely pushes through.

"I forget," she'll tell me. "This isn't how you lived."

In The Greatest Show on Earth, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes a handful of aberrant individuals who feel no pain at all. You'd think, at first glance, that there is great potential in this pool for athletes. After all, it would be handy if a cage fighter or boxer felt nothing as blows glance off.

The opposite, according to Dawkins, is true. Pain, it turns out, is a handy evolutionary device that teaches us to avoid danger. It's the consequence for reckless or unsafe activity. Without it "burns, breakages, multiple scars, infections, untreated appendicitis and scratches to the eyeballs" are not just likely - some or all of them are inevitable.

There are times, like in MajdiÄ's run to the bronze medal, where an athlete is momentarily above the pain. Where they push themselves to extremes that are seemingly unendurable in pursuit of victory. Epstein believes former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia was this kind of warrior. At UFC 48, Frank Mir broke Sylvia's arm - and the champion kept right on fighting. He didn't even seem to notice he had been crippled:

An angry Sylvia asked Dean, "What the f--- do you think you're doing?" and argued for the fight to go on. Sylvia was distracted by thoughts other than his injury; he was mad that he'd let himself get caught in an arm bar and that he would lose his chance at the title because of it. When Mir approached to console him and promise a rematch, Sylvia said, "We'll fight now, man. It's not over." But it was.

"I heard it break," Sylvia says today of his arm. "But during the fight it didn't hurt at all." The first real pain came when he high-fived a fan on the way out of the arena. Later, as he sat alone on a gurney waiting to go to the hospital, the pain rushed in. Sylvia's arm was found to have multiple fractures that required three titanium plates to fix. "[The ref] probably saved my career," he says.

It's a startling reminder of the difficulties MMA referees face every time they step in the cage. In this case, Herb Dean made a brilliant call to stop the fight. You can't always judge a situation by how a fighter reacts. The fighter is an athlete accustomed to pain, an evolutionary warrior who can withstand what others cannot. Sometimes, as Epstein explains, an athlete has gone beyond pain - transcended it for a time.

It's still the official's obligation to protect the fighter. Because pain always catches up with you, whether it's later that night, like in Sylvia's case, or many years later like a bevvy of crippled ex football greats. Dalton, it seems, was wrong. Pain does hurt - eventually.