Skip to content

How To Prevent Cauliflower Ear | Critical Info

Preventing cauliflower ear like Conor McGregor.

Table of Contents


If there were a group of random, fit-looking people standing in front of you and you were asked if you could tell which was a fighter. The first thing you would do would be to look to see if they have cauliflower ears.

The distinctive deformation common amongst many competitors has this signature look. But if you are an MMA fighter, how do you prevent it from happening in the first place?

Cauliflower ear is the direct result of repeated trauma and impact on the outer surface of the ear. In order to prevent it from happening, fighters need to use protective equipment that covers that area during training. However, this is not always possible during a fight or grappling match.

Many fighters and grappling specialists do not use any protective headgear while in training. And for some lifelong practitioners, the effects can be seen across the board.

Speaking from personal experience, I have in my many years of training in multiple gyms. Seen only a handful of people who actively use any kind of head guard when training in MMA gyms.

How Does It Happen

So while we know what it is, how does cauliflower ear actually happen? And it’s a good question, as we know that it is a result of the ear surface being repeatedly traumatised. But what effect does that have in terms of the ear’s biology?

Frankie Edgar entering the UFC octagon.
Frankie Edgar’s cauliflower ear.

Well, when force and friction are applied to the ear. What happens over time is that small clots of blood are created in the affected area. Which in turn leads to blockages and blood no longer flowing freely.

This then creates the swelling and pooling of blood called a haematoma. And this is where we see the bumps which appear under the skin that form what we now call cauliflower ear.

And over time if untreated, these bumps can form into solid lumps. Becoming permanent fixtures and forever changing the appearance as well as the functioning of how the ear works. As it is no longer in its original shape and leads to hearing problems for those afflicted.

Mandatory Ear Protection

Where we do see protection being worn all the time is amongst collegiate wrestlers, especially in the US. As back in 1969 – 1970, the NCAA or National Collegiate Athletic Association made a ruling that protective headgear must be worn during all wrestling activities.

But over the years, moves have been made to have mandatory wearing removed from the rulebook. But as of right now, there are no clear signs that this will be happening at any time in the near future.

As with arguments being made for and against on both sides of the aisle. The jury is still out on whether or not wrestlers will eventually be able to train and compete without it.

Two amateur collegiate wrestlers wearing their ear protection during a match.
Two collegiate wrestlers wearing ear protection.

As recent as 2017, the wrestling rules committee made a number of recommendations to the Playing Rules Oversight Panel. Who implemented all proposals they were given except one, the removal of mandatory headgear.

“In some cases, the ear protection may irritate or be abrasive to the athlete’s ears and promote cauliflower ear. We felt our collegiate athletes are mature and educated enough to decide what is best for them and their particular situation.”

Mark Branch, the wrestling rules committee chair

So you would think they have some very valid reasons for maintaining its use. But with no solid science proving it helps in terms of concussions. Many are pushing for it to be removed from the official rules in the years to come.

How To Prevent Cauliflower Ear Happening

But the question people really want to be answered is how do you prevent cauliflower ear in the first place? With those US wrestlers who do wear headgear still getting their ears disfigured. What is the best-known way to stop it in its tracks?

Well, as of this time of writing the only preventative measures currently being utilised is the use of different ear protectors, as well as another more recent invention. Slightly different in their appearance to the headgear you would see boxers wearing.

Khabib Nurmagomedov following a win inside the octagon.
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s cauliflower ear.

Ear protectors have a specific design that encases the ear in a protective case. That in turn is held in place by straps that go over and behind the head. As well as a strap under the chin that holds everything in place.

And this is the main design that is being used by wrestlers, some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and MMA fighters. To help try and save their ears from further damage and a build-up of scar tissue that leads to cauliflower ear.

However, they are not the perfect solution to the problem. As many athletes will tell you that the protection can often exacerbate the situation. Because when they compete, the equipment tends to move around during matches. Often rubbing against the ears, sometimes making the situation even worse.

New Preventative Methods

There is however at least one new invention on the market which claims to help protect the ear during sports activities. Designed by an Irish dental technician by the name of Brenda Philips.

While watching her son playing rugby saw another player getting an injury to their ear. And it spurned her to develop a new system of protection. Using her skills would help protect athletes’ ears during their desired sporting activities.

And the idea was to create individual bespoke silicon shields which are fitted to the specific ear of the athlete themselves. By sending a kit to their home, where the athlete then creates a mould of their ear.

Sending it back to the company, who in turn create an ear protector which fits precisely. Helping to protect the helix area of the outer ear.

And while the product is relatively new on the market. It does offer a new type of solution to an age-old problem that has plagued several sports for so many years.

Painful Draining Of The Damaged Ear

For those who have let cauliflower ear go too far and now have fully formed haematoma. One of the most common ways in which to treat them is by draining the swelling of their contents.

A man with cauliflower ear has it drained using a needle.
Cauliflower ear being drained with a needle.

Now it sounds gruesome and it is, as we are talking about an invasive procedure that is all too often carried out by untrained medics. And by this, I mean that it’s usually done by an experienced person at the gym. Someone who for whatever reason over time has become to go-to guy for draining the ear.

And they do so by first cleaning the area around the swelling using some alcohol wipes, trying to remove bacteria. Then take a new sterile syringe and insert it into the haematoma at an angle.

From here they proceed to draw out the blood and liquids trapped inside until the swelling is all but gone. But this doesn’t entirely fix the situation, as the layer of skin is still separated from the underlying cartilage.

And so unless the person has some type of compression tool, of which there are many on the market. Then the same issue will come back again the next time you train or even before.

But a secondary worry from this procedure is infection. As when we are dealing with germ-filled sweaty gyms. Who knows what may end up getting into the now-open swelling.

So from a painful bump on the ear, things can change very quickly. To someone spending time in the accident and emergency department of the hospital. As the infection spreads and you have quite a serious problem.

Ear Surgery Is The Last Option

So over time as this goes unchecked, MMA fighters and other athletes are eventually left with deformation that cannot be resolved, other than by some localised surgery.

And here is a perfect example of what I mean. As former UFC strawweight champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk was kind enough to film herself going under the knife. To do some reconstructive surgery on her badly damaged cauliflower ear.

So if you want to end up under the knife like Joanna at some point in the future. By all means, feel free not the try and protect those lobes. Because this is the potential outcome for any athlete who doesn’t.

And while the surgery may not phase you too much. You have to remember that this is most likely all done privately. With no insurance company willing to cover the costs and a large bill to pay at the end.

Considered A Badge Of Honour

Now don’t get me wrong, as not everyone hates cauliflower ear. In fact, many of the MMA fighters who have it, love it. Very much see it as a badge of honour for all those years they have spent toiling on the mats.

Alexander Gustafsson shows his cauliflower ear.
Alexander Gustafsson’s bad cauliflower ear.

Kind of like a physical embodiment of their past history. And a way for them to differentiate themselves from the regular guy or gal on the street. And while this might seem strange to people who don’t train or compete.

You have to realise just what these athletes put themselves through for the love of their sport. So to them, it’s a little price to pay as a reminder both for themselves and for others.

And no doubt when they are old and grey, it’s a look which will create all manner of conversations in the old folks’ home.

In Conclusion

So we have run through both ways to prevent cauliflower ear from occurring. And ways in which it can be treated when it gets to a certain point.

So the question is, are you one of those people who train and who like the look? Or are you someone who would rather keep their ears looking somewhat normal? While a the same time getting in their time on the mats?

It’s up to you to decide how you would like things to play out. And as I can tell you from personal experience, even just a little cauliflower ear is too much for me. When it started, it hurt a lot and I thought, Nah.

With these great big radar dishes on my head already being too big. Just imagine what they will look like when they are twisted and inflamed. So I took better care and made sure the ears did not continue to take the same amount of unchecked punishment.

You may have a different opinion on it, which may change over time. But at least for now, you know what to expect somewhere down the line. Now all you have to do is make your decision.