Mixed Martial Arts – How safe is MMA?

Abbott’s vicious right hands slammed on the head of the fallen Matua. Immediately the unconscious Matua’s body contorted in frightening convulsions. This was in UFC 6, in modern MMA’s early days. MMA has come a very very long way…

So is MMA a “safe sport”?

No doubt, MMA is a combat sport. It certainly has risks. The question is, how does MMA compare with other combat sports like boxing, Muay Thai etc.

Visually, MMA does look very dangerous. In particular, the “Ground & Pound” aspect of the game looks uniquely violent.  The science however, suggests otherwise.

MMA is probably one of the safest full contact sports out there today. MMA is much safer than even boxing in terms of the risk of serious injury.

MMA trainer Rudy Lindsey, himself a father explains:

A lot of people are worried about the kids safety. Mixed martial arts are safer than football or baseball. There is less severe injuries in mixed martial arts fighting than most contact sports.[1]

MMA champions last pretty long, many of the best have held belts well into their 30’s and even 40’s. (Randy Couture, Chuck Lidell, Anderson Silva,  Matt Sera, Sean Sherk, Fedor, Dan Henderson, Takanori Gomi, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, Lyoto Machida, Matt Hughes etc…)

I think the following factors explain MMA’s surprisingly good safety record:

1.   MMA allows for tapping-out or submitting, and this is a very common method of ending matches.

The submission, using locks and chokes, is central to MMA. In a submission, a losing fighter can concede by “tapping out” to stop the match before he gets hurt. In boxing, a fighter must inevitably get hurt before the match can be stopped early.

“There is zero shame in tapping out. In American culture it’s, ‘I quit,’ but in Japan and Brazilian jujitsu, it’s not quitting. You were bested and will live to fight another day.”

                   (creativeloafing.com article, 21 February 2007[3])

And from Dana White:

“And the difference with the tap out is that if I get you into a submission and you’re in a bad place – you can tap out with honour. It’s acceptable in this sport. In the Roberto Duran v Sugar Ray Leonard boxing fight, when Duran said ‘no mas’- he was ridiculed for the rest of his career…”

(Guardian Unlimited, 25 April 2007)

Johnson v Jeffries - classic boxing knockout

2.     MMA referees will stop matches, the moment one party is unable to put up a reasonable defence or once one party is so dominant that the other is at risk of injury.

In a boxing or kickboxing match, if a fighter takes a hit and gets knocked down and is unable to defend himself, the fighter gets 8-10 seconds to recover and try to resume fighting.

In MMA, once a fighter is unable to defend himself, the match is stopped immediately. No further hits will be sustained.

Barry Jordan, a neurologist and ringside physician, said, ”If a boxer is sustaining enough punishment to have to count to eight to assess his condition, then he’s probably suffered enough punishment to stop the fight.[2]

3.                  Strikes in MMA are directed at all parts of the body. In boxing, strikes are largely directed at the head.

At first, MMA looks more dangerous than boxing. Kicks, chokes, elbows, knees, those little gloves? When a fighter knocks his opponent down, he doesn’t go to a neutral corner, he attacks. But …With boxing, the goal in mind is to punch your opponent in the head as much as possible,”… “The accumulation of those blows is devastating. With MMA, you can win in a plethora of ways, and fighters don’t take a fraction of the blows to the head. You might go through a whole MMA fight without getting hit one time.”-Ross Kellin, gym owner

(creativeloafing.com article, 21 February 2007)

“In the UFC you and I can fight, and I can beat you and win, and never punch you in the head once. We can go right to the ground, start grappling, and pull off a submission. It’s not 25, 30 minutes of blows to the head non-stop. The misconception is, God look at these guys can kick, knee, punch, elbow, slam to the ground, this has to be more violent and dangerous. It’s not true.”

(Dana White, Guardian Unlimited, 25 April 2007)

The medical report “A neurologist’s reflections on boxing” by Unterharnscheidt F identified the number of blows received as one of 3 factors affecting the extent of brain damage suffered by boxers.

Boxers take up to 500 hits to the head per 12 bout fight. By comparison, an MMA fighter was estimated to take less than 20 hits to the head. That is 25 less head strikes!

And from a 2005 Time Magazine article:

It’s probably safer than boxing in terms of the chances of injury,” says David Holland of Virginia’s Professional Boxing and Wrestling Program, reflecting the UFC’s argument that the sport’s blows are more evenly distributed, whereas boxing focuses on debilitating punches to the head.

In a 12 March 2007 article by Scrippsnew.com, it was pointed out that since 1997, at least 12 boxers have died in the U.S. from boxing related injuries and opined that boxing was deadlier than MMA, it adds:

 “…Reno, Nev. brain surgeon Dr. Joe Walker says that while injuries of all kinds from mixed martial arts fights are about three times that of boxing, knockout rates are half. Based on his knowledge of the physiology of brain injury, Walker guesses the relative safety might arise from mixed martial arts being about more than simply hitting an opponent’s melon over and over.”They’re able to hit other things, there are fewer rounds, and it’s not all about hitting…”

Boxing has a relatively low fatality rate, estimated at 76 deaths per million. Since 1998 there have been over 70 boxing related deaths worldwide. In sanctioned MMA events, there have only been 2!

Safer than American Football?

Herschel Walker, who won a Heisman Trophy (a prestigious trophy for the most outstanding collegiate player) and ran for more than 13,000 yards in 15 years in professional football said in a USA Today article:

People shy away from it because they think it’s a brutal, brutal sport, and I’ve said, ‘Guys, MMA is safer than football and boxing,… And people tell me they don’t believe it. Am I not the most credible person to give you the answer to that?

David Zinczenko, editor in chief of Men’s Health and editorial director of Women’s Health  explained in a NY Times opinion piece:

“… In fact, fighters who suffer knockouts are suspended and barred even from sparring for three months; in the N.F.L. and N.H.L., we cheer when a player leaves the game on a stretcher and returns the next week — and even louder if he comes back the next period.”

Photo by Martin Rhodes under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

What do the experts say?

We already quoted Dr. Joe Walker above.

Nick Lembo of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board which sanctions both boxing and MMA matches, says:

“In MMA, you’re going to see there’s more violence in their advertising and marketing, and to the casual observer it does seem more primitive and more violent…But in terms of serious injuries, it seems safer than boxing.”

A study by Bledsloe et al, ” Incidence of Injury in Professional Mixed Martial Arts Competitions”, published in 2006 by the prestigious Johns Hopkins physicians  concluded:

The injury rate in MMA competitions is compatible with other combat sports involving striking. The lower knockout rates in MMA compared to boxing may help prevent brain injury in MMA events.

Another Johns Hopkins study 2 years later by Ngai et al, “Injury trends in sanctioned mixed martial arts competition: a 5-year review from 2002 to 2007” concluded:

Injury rates in regulated professional MMA competition are similar to other combat sports; the overall risk of critical sports-related injury seems to be low.

The studies both found that relatively minor injuries like cuts, sprains and strains are common, but the critical injuries were not.

I leave this argument, quoting from AOL Sports Journalist Michael David Smith’s blog(after he concludes that MMA is safer than boxing):

 “Both sports can be brutal, but in terms of safety, if a father is going to encourage his son to get involved in either boxing or mixed martial arts, he’d be much better off choosing the latter.

Disclaimer: I’m not medically trained, or an expert of any sort. These are just my thoughts and I am most certainly open to hearing comments and opinions.

[1] http://www.carthagepress.com/articles/2007/05/21/sports/01fighting.txt

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3 Responses to Mixed Martial Arts – How safe is MMA?

  1. cynicwithagamepad says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I am doing a persuasive argument in my Critical Thinking course about MMA being safer than boxing, and the references you provide here will no doubt prove invaluable.

  2. cynicwithagamepad says:

    Thank you for writing this. I am doing a persuasive argument assignment in my critical thinking course about MMA being safer than boxing, and the references and statistics you provide here will no doubt prove invaluable.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Ive been looking at research on mma why it is safe the statistics say that mma is more safe than almost any sport but its not perfect there are injuries and fractures but there are in any sport football,soccer,hockey,wrestling,track whatever the sport injuries just come with the territory of doing a sport, i do mma and ive been knocked out but its part of the sport but ill tell you all this who read it i used to be bullied but when people around my school heard i trained in ufc type stuff no one really messes with me its very respected, mma is safe and respecte and techs you elf defense just think about this prents imagine your kid is in town one day and they get juped and come all boodied and bruise, guess what if they knew mma and you didnt say “no its to dangerous” he could came home saying i got jumped but i took care of it think about that

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