There is a common belief that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a barbaric sport. The biggest argument used to condemn it is the position that the fights are excessively violent and dangerous. It has been labeled as human cock-fighting by politicians, even as images of scarred and bloodied fighters are used in marketing campaigns by MMA itself.
On the other hand, boxing is considered by many of the same people to be an American institution, while its detractors believe that in the boxing ring, fighters are allowed to take drubbings, sometimes round after round, for upwards of 10 to 12 rounds. There is also a widespread belief that those repetitive concussions increase the likelihood of brain damage among fighters.
These arguments both lead to the question: Which sport is safer?
Both the government and boxing’s controlling bodies have made attempts to put into place a number of regulations, such as the Muhammed Ali Boxing Reform Act, aimed at minimizing major injuries in the sport. However, head injuries are still a significant concern in boxing. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons says that 90% of boxers will have sustained a brain injury by the end of their careers. Couple that with eye injuries and dementia, which are both effects of being hit in the head, and you can begin to understand why boxing is a dangerous sport.
The Nevada Athletic Commission did a five-year study on injuries in boxing and concluded that the amount of padding used in boxing gloves is directly correlated to the injury rate in boxing. The study warned that more padding in gloves meant punches were easier to absorb, which means a fighter could be hit more times. The cumulative effect of constant hitting over the course of a fight can have a traumatic effect on a fighter’s head. In a typical boxing match, most punches are thrown at the head, since it’s difficult to achieve a knockout through blows to the body.
According to a study undertaken by the British Board of Sports Medicine from 2002 to 2007, the standing eight count is the primary cause of the most serious injuries in boxing because it gives fighters the option to worsen injuries they have already sustained. Continuing to box after receiving a concussion leads fighters to stutter, stumble and end up suffering what doctors call pugilistic dementia. Time and time again, boxers drop to the mat with such force that hitting the deck is what wakes them up. Being neurologically short-circuited or concussed once is sufficient reason to stop a fight right then and there. Instead, more often than not, boxers are given the protection count and if they are capable of fighting, the match resumes.
From 1998 to 2006, there were 70 recorded deaths caused by injuries related to the sport of boxing.
But how does MMA match up?
The average direct hit to the head that a boxer sustains is equivalent to being hit with a 12-pound wooden mallet traveling at around 20 miles per hour.”
Unlike boxing, MMA fighters are allowed to use different fighting styles — like punching, kicking and grappling holds — to knock their opponent out or get him to give up. Mixed martial arts include one or more of the following fighting styles: Muay Thai (a type of Thai boxing), judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, karate and variations of these. Oh — and boxing. Injuries suffered by MMA fighters include head trauma, musculoskeletal stress, joint dislocation and soft tissue trauma.
In 2008, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine published a study of injuries sustained during sanctioned mixed martial arts competitions. According to their findings, the most common reported injuries were lacerations and upper extremity injuries. Because of all the holds, slams, throws, and takedowns in MMA, lacerations to the body are the most common injuries reported by fighters to the Nevada Athletic Commission. Among these, the most frequent injuries are broken bones. These types of injuries occur often in the UFC octagon.
Injuries to the head are also frequent in mixed martial arts. Eye injuries, face cuts and face lacerations are all part of the sport.
There have been two recorded deaths in mixed martial arts. Douglas Dedge died in 1998 after a fight on an unregulated card in Kiev, Ukraine, and Sam Vasquez died from injuries sustained in a 2007 fight in Houston.
That conclusion should not surprise fans who understand and appreciate the sport. Research in the American Association of Neurological Surgeons’ 2006 study pointed out that the average direct hit to the head that a boxer sustains is equivalent to being hit with a 12-pound wooden mallet traveling at around 20 miles per hour.
It doesn’t take a doctor to understand why 12 rounds of hard hits to the head can cause serious damage to a boxer’s brain, skull and the surrounding blood-vessels. In contrast, only 25% of MMA fights continued, without knockouts, to their end without knockouts, which in the UFC, the premier MMA brand, occurs at only 3 rounds for non-championship fights and 5 rounds for title fights.
So the next time you watch an MMA event, consider that when a fighter is knocked out, the fight is over. In boxing events, fighters that are knocked out get a standing eight count, and their opponent continues to inflict blows to the fighter’s already damaged head.