Greg Banks, M.D., always has been passionate about boxing and mixed martial arts. But being a doctor is what forced him into a corner — literally.
An intimate knowledge of the dangers of ring competition, as both participant and spectator, inspired the family and urgent-care physician to moonlight as a guardian of these combatants.
Banks has been a Washington, D.C.-area ringside doctor at boxing and MMA events for a decade. He is driven by his love of these sports and his commitment to help people.
“I would see these guys ringside in a corner and wonder: ‘Who’s that with a stethoscope?’ he asked.
That curiosity ultimately led Banks to secure his license through the Association of Ringside Physicians. He soon became that guy ringside, with the stethoscope.
“It’s a very significant job because of the physical nature of the sports,” said Dr. Gregory Pleasants, who has served for 15 years as a Richmond, Virginia-based ringside doctor. “I have worked some fights with Greg and he has a real passion for the sports to go with his passion for service.”
“For me,” said Banks, 52, “as someone who loves the sports and studied taekwondo, too, it’s a great opportunity to have a great seat to see the matches. Most important, though, it’s very dangerous to compete in these sports, and the ringside doctors are there to help minimize injury — especially brain injury.”
The native Washingtonian and Howard University College of Medicine graduate said his job is both entertaining and gratifying.
“The doctor is mostly in the shadows — until something happens,” he said. “It’s scary sometimes. But, most of the time, the injuries are cuts or maybe a broken bone, sprains. When I’m not worried about the fighter, I’m actually having a great time because I have the best seat in the house.”
But Banks said there are many factors in boxers or MMA fighters who suffer serious brain damage — and it’s not just because of hard punches. Participants often undergo dramatic weight loss just before fights to meet weight requirements. Banks explained that quickly losing and regaining weight can spell trouble.
“Dehydration comes with weight-cutting,” Banks said. “Their whole goal is to come into the fight as big and strong as possible, to inflict as much pain as possible. But with weight-cutting, you lose weight all over.
“In the brain, there is something called CSF [cerebrospinal fluid] that helps cushion the brain. But when you’re dehydrated, there is less of that cushion, that fluid. Quick weight gain won’t allow you to function at your premium and you won’t be as protected. So, your brain can get hit with the first blow and then bounce off the other side of the skull. So that’s a double concussion that can cause tearing of the blood vessels in the brain, causing bleeding, which is never good.
“It’s a big science. [Doctors are] looking at it each year: ‘What can we do to prevent [traumatic brain injuries] from happening?’ One thing we’re looking at is dates, so boxers have a deadline to make the weight that’s not so close to the fight, giving the body enough time to replace that fluid.”
Banks said that doctors continue to seek ways to detect performance-enhancing drugs. They contribute to severe injuries because they “allow guys to train longer, get more muscle mass on their bodies and withstand more injuries. And they are able to inflict more injuries on their opponents because their strength is off the scales.”
Banks started his medical journey as a teenager. He hoped to become a marine scientist. But when that discipline bored him, Banks’ physician father asked him several questions and then said: “You want to help people? Then maybe you should be a doctor.”
“Then he walked away,” Banks said. “No pressure.”
But the idea took root. At age 18, he began the trek that led him to his family-medicine practice in Front Royal, Virginia. His service as a ringside doctor has been just as rewarding.
“Back in the day, getting your residency was like going through war,” he said. “And with that, you got something ingrained in your character: Everyone’s a patient. When you see someone who looks like they are about to get into trouble, that stuff from my training kicks in. … And trouble is where the ringside physician steps in. No. 1, above all, is to protect the fighter. That’s more of a thrill than watching the fights.”