Health, MMA, and the risks of experimenting

William Watts of Open Note Grappling explores the overlaps of wellness, MMA and con-artistry.

By: William Watts | 1 month ago
Health, MMA, and the risks of experimenting
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Health, MMA, And The Risks of Experimenting was first published on Open Note Grappling on October 31, 2023.

Health, Wellness, And Dying Expertise

A disturbing story recently came across my timeline. The notorious influencer and MLM mastermind, Jessie Ward, died from complications of colon cancer. Ward’s death is tragic, but the more you learn about her circumstances and plan of action, the more upset you’ll get.

In her own words Ward claimed, “I didn’t even give my dog chemo when she had cancer. I took a holistic route.” Consciously ignoring the recommendations of her doctor, Ward used a menagerie of wellness tools.

Ward mixed a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, intravenous high dose vitamin C infusions, ozone treatments, a Biocharger, magnetic treatments, red-light therapy, and drinking 8-12 glasses of juice per day to treat her illness. When talking about her methods Ward noted, “I’m not telling anyone what to do. Do what you feel like is right for you.”

On September 5th Ward took to TikTok to tell her audience she was healing, her plan was working, and a recent PET scan revealed good news. Less than two weeks later Ward was dead.

The Problem With Feeling Better

My first job out of college was working for a retail health and wellness studio. We offered saunas, cryotherapy, hyperbaric chambers, and other tools. I have countless stories of working with middle aged men and women that used our tools to alleviate the symptoms of their autoimmune conditions. Many could not live a normal life without using something we offered.

We also had MDs overlooking our messaging and nurses in every location. We were careful about what we recommended, for what specifically, and why.

My job actually had me interfacing with executives from manufacturers of our devices and others we were interested in. Some of these devices we evaluated were used by Jessie Ward in her cancer quest.

I’m not going to beat around the bush. There were many times when I would ask someone on their end what the device’s mechanism of action was, a fancy way of asking, “How does this device do what you say it does?” I’d get a smile, a nod, and they’d defer to someone I never got more than an email from, or hand me a loosely crafted “science” deck to review on my own. On more than one occasion I was actually familiar with some of the studies cited in these decks ahead of time. When I asked about specific papers and how they related to the device I cannot remember getting a concrete answer.

To properly address the bullshit claims that I have sifted through would take it’s own dedicated encyclopedia. Let’s just say the bullshit was so fresh I could hear mooing.

A lot of these companies get away with what they do because their customers feel better. They feel something, they have disposable income, the sales pitch was convincing enough, and that’s that. These customers are happy to try something new and stay ahead of the curve. It’s advanced procrastination and high health level masturbation. It feels good, but you’re probably just wasting your time. This brings us to combat sports and how Ward’s story relates to how I spend most of my life these days, in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym.

One of the reasons I like combat sports is bullshit can get pushed aside pretty easily. You say you have a magic chi modifying technique that prevents you from being submitted? Cool, you still need to fight my hands before you pass out from a rear naked choke. Combat sports allows us to test our theories and techniques in ways that are uncommon in the modern world and are inherently grounded in reality.

Unfortunately, one of the highest bullshit artists in the health and fitness world has made their way into MMA at the highest level.

Functional Problems in MMA

In September Johnny Eblen defended the Bellator middleweight title by stopping Fabian Edwards. I have a particular interest in Eblen for how he spends his time training outside of the cage.

Eblen has been working with Naudi Aguilar and the system known as functional patterns for a couple of years now. Eblen, like their company likes to report, claims that Functional Patterns helped him “get healthy and get back to being an elite athlete when I was injured all the time”.

Eblen is the second high profile athlete to make their way to Functional Patterns. The first is Olympian and world champion wrestler, Kyle Dake. Both have made similar claims that mirror the case studies on Functional Patterns website, “I was hurt and now I’m healed.” What I’m interested in is the data.

One of my old bosses regularly said, “The plurality of anecdote is not data”. Stories are great but we need verifiable evidence to make claims. Upon going through Functional Patterns website, there is an overwhelming plurality of anecdote, but next to 0 data.

I don’t want to completely throw the baby out with the bath water. I have friends that are part of Functional Pattern’s plurality. I’m willing to grant that paying attention to your posture while standing, walking, running, and throwing like Functional Patterns forces you to do, could be parts of a balanced health and fitness routine, especially one that is focused on rehabilitation. I also grant that there might be a world where Functional Patterns is just another block of your training. All of that leads me to think that Functional Patterns might have a place as a rehabilitation tool.

What I don’t understand is Functional Pattern’s own claim to “train organisms in relation to their biological characteristics.” What the fuck does that mean?

We know the principles of fitness that tell us what works. We know that with progressive overload and specific adaptation to imposed demand humans will get stronger, faster, and more technical. More importantly if training organisms in relation to their biological characteristics, like Functional Patterns claims to do, is superior for performance then where is the evidence?

Where are the athletes native to the Functional Patterns’s system that went from newbie amateur to world champion? I can’t find them for the life of me.

There are unlimited athletes from basically every sport that bench, squat, and deadlift appropriately to improve their performance. Functional Patterns inheriting athletes like Kyle Dake and Johnny Eblen is like being gifted a Ferrari and being told not to scratch it. Dake is literally the only person to ever win four NCAA weight class titles across four separate divisions without a redshirt season. Dake was a freak before he ever heard of Functional Patterns. He built different.

My point with all of this, and any other weird health and wellness intervention, is it works until it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it can be really really bad, and you have to pay with your time and money the whole way through.

Combat sports is about mitigating risk. Everything you do in individual camps and over the course of your career should make you better at controlling and hurting your opponents so you can survive, prevent them from hurting you, and win prize money. What makes more sense:

  1. Giving some of your limited time away to work on something that should, could, and might work?
  2. Leveraging the decades of sports science literature that tells us how you can train to improve performance and hiring a qualified medical professional (like a physical therapist) that has read that literature so they can coach you on what we understand to work?

I’d rather learn from the failures of others than repeat those failures myself.

The common pushback you’ll get to this question is that these mainstream medical professionals don’t have access to the same information. They haven’t had their eyes opened to the truth about how you can best prepare your body. And some of them are even conspiring to keep you weak and unhealthy.

Conspirituality And A Lack Of Evidence

Functional Patterns infiltrating combat sports and the death of a prominent influencer may seem disconnected but I can assure you they’re not. There is a growing distrust in conventional knowledge, institutions, and expertise generally that needs to be addressed. This disturbing trend is being fueled by social media telling you, they don’t want you to know the truth about something and everything needs to be questioned, particularly in how we take care of our own bodies.

The problem with questioning everything is twofold:

  1. If you spend all of your time rediscovering the world you’ll never be able to live your life and continue progressing
  2. Most people don’t have the tools nor information to accurately test what they want to

Again, learn from others’ mistakes, aka you don’t have to try to use magnets to treat cancer.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that there are organizations whose own incentive structures don’t line up with the vast majority of people, let alone my own. I also believe some organizations’ operate under the assumption that the ends justify the means, and that can have harmful consequences.

We can recognize that and still believe we need high quality evidence before we adopt a new behavior, product, or person’s guidance. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

I also recognize that the country I live in is teetering towards illiteracy. With an inability to read combined with the pervasiveness of social media health influencer culture, many are operating according to inaccurate recommendations from people that aren’t qualified to provide any in the first place. That’s bad.

You might be wondering, what does “work”? How can I know?

Wellness, What “Works”, And the Dunning Kruger Effect

The truth is that we are very lucky that things like strength, speed, and endurance are simple metrics. Generally speaking, we can put people on specific fitness plans, test and retest, and have a reasonably clear idea of which one works better. It doesn’t matter how you define “functional”, if you’re not improving strength, speed, and endurance while avoiding injury your fitness plan isn’t working.

With most other health information, getting highly specific concrete answers is much trickier, and you’ll see this in the way that technical people speak about these topics. Every answer is nuanced and thorough. The sentences have error bars around them.

Conversely, less technical people or people with a murkier view of the subject will give confident, concrete answers. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, that is “people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general”. The least informed is often the loudest. The least informed can be due to their own lack of information, or, there being a general lack of information surrounding the topic, thereby making it harder to acquire information. Now let’s zoom out and go back to where we started.

Jessie Ward openly spoke out against the agreed upon medical consensus, ignored the opinion of experts, and likely shortened her own life by doing so. I have no idea why she thought the way she did, but I cannot help but see a direct connection between the social media-ification of health information and the lost life of this influencer. And it makes me profoundly sad.

Health and fitness, like much of our day to day lives, is boring. Like really fucking boring. We know what gets us 90% of the benefits; sleeping a lot, eating nutrient dense food, and regular exercise that gets harder over time. For the overwhelming majority of people, everything else is only going to carve out slight, negligible improvements. That slim minority of people is best suited working with trained experts to find the weird shit that could, should, and might give them an edge because those experts have learned from the mistakes of others and are qualified to make recommendations.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the tools Ward mentioned are promising for specific conditions. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers have a lot of data that shows they can be helpful in managing traumatic brain injuries. Again, that’s a specific use case for a specific condition and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will confer general health benefits, let alone help cure cancer. Maybe it will, but, to be the best of my knowledge, we can’t make those claims, especially if someone is sacrificing other generally health promoting activities, like sleep, to use a Hyperbaric chamber more.

Whether you’re preparing for a world title or just trying to live a better life, success in health and fitness largely comes from the experts’ consensus. The other stuff is just fluff, high level masturbation. Yeah it’s fun to use magic magnets, special lights, and spin around with kettlebells and cables, but if that fluff is getting in the way of what has more evidence for working then you have a serious problem on your hands.

Why Should I Listen To You?

You shouldn’t just listen to me. But that’s kind of my point.

You should be seeking opinions from several people that have a blend of professional, anecdotal, and scientific experience. See what they agree on, and then try that. And then retest against what you originally got. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. And if you can’t manage it, you’re better off forgetting it.

We only have a limited amount of time to improve our health and fitness, get ready for competition, and live a fulfilling life. Does it really make sense to spend that time trying the brand new thing that’s been marketed to us by some random pretty face to improve something that we can’t even objectively measure?

It might work until it doesn’t, but can you afford the consequences of when it stops working?

If you enjoyed this piece, please head on over to Open Note Grappling on Substack.

And check out Watt’s previous piece, GOATs in sports like MMA & Grappling: Gordon Ryan, and athletes’ asterisks here.

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About the author
William Watts
William Watts

BJJ black belt coaching in Austin and writing online. Get better at BJJ & MMA faster by reading my work at

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