Research finds ‘dangers’ of MMA overstated


Patuxent Publishing

Mixed Martial Arts is erroneously considered more dangerous than boxing. Photo: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office (CC BY 2.0)

Combat sports are inherently dangerous but mixed martial arts (MMA) is notorious for its brutality and is sometimes called “human cockfighting”.

MMA is still illegal in some countries and despite their respective injury and fatality rates, boxing is still considered the “safer” combat sport.

These misconceptions by the media and public aside, research indicates that MMA is a safer sport than boxing when it comes to brain injury, as boxers primarily target the head, causing brain injuries including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – better known as concussion.

A wider range of targets

As the sport’s name suggests, MMA is a mixture of martial arts and fighters are permitted to use an array of striking techniques such as punches, kicks, elbows and knees.

Even though MMA fighters are permitted to strike to the head, they’re also permitted to strike to the body, torso, and legs, which lowers the percentage of strikes aimed above the shoulders.

A Boston University study of 51 former professional boxers found that 80% of them had evidence of CTE while at the amateur level, a University of Toronto study of 84 boxers showed that regardless of protective headgear, constant blows to the head still increased brain damage and signs of CTE.

A 2016 peer reviewed research article found that through nearly 6 thousand boxing and MMA bouts, boxers had a higher incidence of head injuries (23.5%) compared to MMA fighters (4.2%), and boxers had a higher incidence of loss of consciousness (7.1%) compared to MMA fighters (1.9%).

Similarly, a Boston systematic review paper found that 80% of reported cases of CTE were from boxing, with MMA accounting for only 6% of reported cases.

Overall, the evidence suggests that MMA is a safer sport than boxing when it comes to brain injury.

MMA fighters have lower occurrences of head injuries and fewer signs of neurological damage compared to boxers.

While both sports involve physical contact and potential injury, the broader range of striking targets in MMA reduces the focus on the head and mitigates the risk of severe brain injury.

Rules designed around safety

The MMA rulebook is designed around safety.

In MMA, when a fighter is knocked down, the other fighter is permitted to go down and finish the fight immediately and have the referee stop the bout.

But in boxing, when knocked down, boxers are permitted to continue fighting granted that they make a ten count (often longer than ten seconds), and act as if they are fit to continue the fight.

The boxer is then permitted to continue fighting in a concussed state where the opponent will continue to land heavy blows to an already injured fighter.

This happened in the case of Richard Colón in 2015, who was knocked down several times because of illegal shots to the back of the head.

Making the ten-count, he was allowed to continue fighting.

He suffered life altering brain damage and also later became paralysed for the rest of his life.

Colón is considered lucky as there are many cases of boxers losing their lives in the ring.

From 2007-2019 there have been 7 MMA related deaths compared to 21 in boxing.

Throughout the lifetime of the sport of boxing there have been more than 900 deaths.

Different fight times

Professional MMA fights last for either 15 minutes (for non-championship bouts) or 25 minutes (for championship fights), while professional boxing matches consist of 12 three-minute rounds, resulting in a total fight time of 36 minutes if all rounds are completed.

This means that boxers fight for a much longer time, further risking their health.

Another reason the rulebook makes MMA safer is around the gloves which – although much lighter than boxing gloves provide a very small surface area compared to a boxing glove.

When applied to the head, boxing gloves impact a larger percentage of the opponent’s face.

While all combat sports have risks, the evidence indicates that MMA is a safer alternative to boxing, particularly when it comes to brain injury.

MMA’s emphasis on a range of striking targets and quick fight stoppages, along with the use of smaller gloves has contributed to a lower incidence of head injuries and fewer signs of neurological damage among fighters.