It’s the debate played out time and time again amongst fans and pundits alike across forums and Reddit. Between mixed martial arts or MMA and boxing. Which combat sport is safer for its athletes?
Well, the numbers are in and the math has been done. And it is an undeniable statistical fact, that despite some of the gruesome injuries involved. MMA is a safer sport than boxing.
The truth of the matter is that all combat sports have a degree of risk for the health and well being of its athletes. When there are full-contact sports and the opponent’s goal is to hurt or stop the other, then injuries will be inevitable.
The sport of boxing has a long and illustrious history in combat sports, being, of course, the most high profile martial art for the longest period. But along with that long history, also comes an unequivocal history of deaths inside the boxing ring.
Well, it’s not that boxing itself has a problem apart from the obvious exploitation of its fighters down through the years. But boxing is a standup striking hands-only combat sport, that requires its competitors to strike only to the upper body and head.
That focus on the upper half of the torso means that fighters train specifically to damage these areas of the major organs and most importantly the head and brain.
Of course, you could argue that all full-contact combat sports allow the very same thing, but there is a glaring difference in this discernment. In that boxing does not allow any other forms of attack other than high impact strikes, which mainly target the head.
Is MMA Safer Than Boxing?
When it comes to boxing vs MMA in the range and diversity of ways in which a fighter can win their bout. There are no leg kicks in boxing, there are no submission attempts in boxing. This variation between MMA and boxing offers a huge window of opportunity for fighters to win in many ways other than knockouts.
This difference can be seen in the following chart compiled by Fightmatrix, valid as of December 2019, which takes the statistics for all UFC fights outcomes by percentages. Including all weight classes in both male and female weight divisions.
Firstly, what’s most apparent is the discrepancy in the ratio of knockouts between the lighter and heavier weight divisions. As the females have even lower weight classes, for the sake of accuracy we will take a look at only the male divisions, sorry ladies.
And we see that between the flyweight and heavyweight divisions, there is a huge 27.7% difference in the knockouts ratios. Which makes obvious sense when dealing with larger human beings, yet it still needs to be pointed out.
Final Outcome in UFC MMA Fights By Percentages
|Division||Total Fights||(T)KOs||Submissions||Total Decisions||No Contests||DQs|
However it is the submisisons category which is the decisive difference when comparing the two sports. There is anywhere between 17.8% and 24.4% by which a fight has been stopped using a technique that did not involve a knock out or technical knock out of the opponent.
This is not saying that damage may not have already been incurred during the fight itself. But this additional category in MMA offers it’s fighters the room in which they can finish a fight other than by KO! And this additional set of tools takes away that necessity which is an inbuilt part and parcel of boxing.
These blatantly obvious facts were brought home to me even more so when I read a very interesting Fighters Only article. Where former professional boxing trainer, turned mixed martial arts coach Trevor Wittman opened up about why he had made the switch between the sports.
Wittman was very candid and honest in his assessment and spoke about specific first-hand instances when he had some quite shocking interactions with his own stable of fighters. Where on several occasions Trevor would not only have his fighters pissing blood. But oftentimes completely unaware of their surroundings and not having any memory of the fight itself.
“Because of the repercussions of the head attacks in boxing, it was, to me, clearly the more dangerous of the two.”Trevor Wittman
When comparing the two, relative to boxing, MMA deaths are quite rare. And this has been backed up by a comprehensive 2015 study undertaken by School of Medical and Applied Sciences, Central Queensland University, Australia titled Epidemiology of injuries in full-contact combat sports.
The research showed that while there is a higher probability of being injured while competing in MMA. Standing at 84%, the highest percentage of injuries to the neck and head were in fact due to boxing. With MMA falling 20 percentage points behind at 64%.
The results also showed that boxing had a higher rate of concussion at 14% with MMA 10 percentage points behind at 4%. Displaying a very clear difference in the critical area of head trauma.
Former World Boxing Champion Barry McGuigan
If anyone should know better than most it would have to be someone who has been in the ring and seen their own actions result in the death of another fighter. And in the same Fighters Only article ex-world champ Barry McGuigan discussed his thoughts on whether boxing is more dangerous than MMA.
In 1982, when McGuigan took on a fighter by the name of Young Ali. The devastating accumulation of punches, followed by a knockout blow in round six of their fight saw the Nigerian fighter never recover from his injuries.
Looking back on the tragic events of that night, a now-retired McGuigan stated;
“You get more brain damage and tearing of membranes inside the skull from boxing than in UFC (MMA).”Barry McGuigan
When compared with boxing, Barry also added that it is the additional tools available in MMA that help minimise the chances of trauma inflicted on the brain during a fight. As MMA fighters are able to grab and hold, they do not punch as hard and have lighter padding on their fists.
McGuigan says that rather than be more dangerous, less padding on the MMA gloves vs boxing gloves leads to much faster knockouts. In boxing with the additional padding and harder punchers, fighters are able to inflict much more long term damage on their opponent.
When you then also consider the 10-second count rule in boxing, which allows a downed fighter the opportunity to regain their senses and continue to fight, something which is not part of the MMA ruleset. Right or wrong, this again opens the boxer up to even more sustained punishment.
Deaths in Boxing
Although widely known that many deaths occur in boxing. What is less accurately known are up to date exact numbers for deaths inside the ring. With the best known and most widely referenced statistic being The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection titled Death under the Spotlight.
Established in the 1940s, the collection documents the death of boxers with a 2011 total record standing at 1,865. Over certain decades seeing some large spikes in fatalities, its obvious that the amount of deaths is indeed high.
Another fact that we need to take into account is that these statistics are not fully accurate. And are only an estimate of known deaths throughout the given time period. As we must be cognitive that boxing is a global sport where many deaths no doubt pass under the radar with little to no coverage. Either through lack of interest of unwillingness by those involved to publicise the event.
The Facts vs Speculation
As boxing is the more senior sport, in that it has been around for much longer and so widely prevalent around the world. It makes sense that over the years a growing number of voices have sought some answers to the questions surrounding what damage is done to the human brain, during a boxing match.
None more so than in the United States where throughout the years, several members of Congress have been involved in the ongoing debate about the inherent dangers involved in the sport of boxing. And it’s long term effect on its participants.
One such resolution in 1983 by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, sought to prove that up to 15% of professional boxers suffered ongoing dementia, loss of memory, slurred speech, physical tremors and an abnormal gait.
More recently a study in 2014 by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, undertook what was titled the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study. In which over a four year period, once per year, some 600 fighters underwent a series of two-hour-long brain scans and tests.
The idea was to determine any notable changes in brain function amongst the sport’s participants. In an effort to try and determine if or even when a fighter might be advised to stop competing. While also helping to shape future regulations in the sport, in an effort to help protect the lives of its competitors.
Accountability By Promoters and Sports Authorities
Another notable statement was made by the former Nevada Athletic Commission chief physician Margaret Goodman, in which she commented that;
“I think on too many occasions, they’re getting back in the gym too soon and sparring too soon after a knockout,”Margaret Goodman
While commissions and promoters play a key role in the safety and promotion of fight events. The lines often become somewhat blurred when large sums of money are involved.
During hearings for infractions within the sport, depending on their status, one fighter may be dealt with more leniently than another. This may be down to a combination of their legal counsel as well as as the infraction at hand.
But its widely assumed that Athletic Commissions do not want to see their cash cows sidelined for too long, or moving to another district where they will be allowed to compete. In effect losing them and their state potential income. Leading to some fighters being allowed to compete under somewhat dubious circumstances.
What Else Can Be Done?
One of the critical factors in determining how to maintain the sport in its purest form. While at the same time maximising the efforts to protect the fighters involved, is one that has raged for many decades.
As technology improves, so too do the early warning systems available which allow the parties involved to intervene where necessary. This may result in a career being abruptly ended, but rather a career than life, right?
Although knowing quite well how some of these fighters think. I would estimate that there are those who would rather die doing something they love than live a life where they do not realise their dreams.
It’s this fine balance between assuring the safe continuation of combat sports which have no sign of ever disappearing and the safety and sanctity of life itself. And trying to strike a balance between those two with all the parties involved will always be a very tough ask.
Fighters are fighters and for this reason, we feel connected and for some people, live their lives vicariously through them. Often with wild fantasies of what it would be like to be in their shoes, while unwilling or unable to try stepping in, even for just a moment.
In sports whose very purpose is to dominate your opponent with a given set of tools at your disposal. Often where inflicting the most punishing and destructive form of attack is the winning option.
Ask most fighters and they will tell you how they get paid the same no matter how long they are inside the ring. And so it makes sense that they get in, then get out as quickly as possible.
In boxing this can only mean a stoppage by body shots or punches to the head, rendering the opponent unconscious or unable to continue. In MMA this can be and is often the outcome of the fight. But the addition of leg kicks and submissions gives its fighters that extra options with which they can win, while at the same time lessening the volume of punches to the head.
It’s a debate that will no doubt rage for many years to come. But in terms of pure numbers, there can be little doubt. Long term life-changing injuries are more prevalent in boxing, no question. And despite its blood and guts appeal to some, MMA is, in fact, a safer sport.