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Is MMA Safer Than Boxing | Some Shocking Statistics

We find out if MMA is indeed safer than boxing.

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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, is MMA safer than boxing for its athletes?

The numbers are in and it is an undeniable statistical fact that despite some of the gruesome injuries involved. According to statistical data, MMA in terms of long-term damage is indeed 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 their 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.

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.

Two MMA fighters sparring on the mats.
MMA fighters sparring.

This difference can be seen in the following chart compiled by Fightmatrix, valid as of December 2019, which takes the statistics for all UFC fight 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 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 knockout ratios. This makes obvious sense when dealing with larger human beings, yet it still needs to be pointed out.

The Problem With Boxing

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 to damage these areas of the major organs and most importantly the head and brain.

Two male boxers punching during their fight with one landing a right-hand punch.
Two male boxers exchange blows during their fight.

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. That boxing does not allow any other forms of attack other than high-impact strikes, which mainly target the head.

The Outcome Of UFC MMA Fights By Percentages

However, it is the submissions category that is the decisive difference when comparing the two sports. There are anywhere between 17.8% and 24.4% by which a fight has been stopped using a technique that did not involve a knockout or technical knockout of the opponent.

Division Total Fights (T)KOs Submissions Total Decisions No Contests DQs
Heavyweight 659 49.9% 24.4% 24.1% 1.1% 0.5%
Light Heavyweight 579 42.7% 20.0% 35.2% 1.4% 0.7%
Middleweight 724 35.8% 23.3% 39.8% 0.7% 0.4%
Welterweight 1026 32.1% 20.1% 46.9% 0.7% 0.3%
Lightweight 1012 26.5% 23.4% 49.1% 1.0% 0.0%
Featherweight 478 26.6% 17.8% 54.2% 1.3% 0.2%
Bantamweight 404 24.3% 23.5% 50.7% 1.5% 0.0%
Flyweight 194 22.2% 19.1% 58.2% 0.5% 0.0%
Women Featherweight 16 31.3% 25.0% 43.8% 0.0% 0.0%
Women Bantamweight 128 28.1% 14.8% 56.3% 0.8% 0.0%
Women Flyweight 69 13.0% 21.7% 65.2% 0.0% 0.0%
Women Strawweight 154 9.7% 20.8% 69.5% 0.0% 0.0%
Results in UFC fights by percentages.

This is not to say that damage may not have already been incurred during the fight itself. But this additional category in MMA offers its fighters 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 which does appear to make MMA safer.

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. The best-known and most widely referenced statistic is The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection titled Death under the Spotlight.

Nigerian boxer Young Ali against Barry McGuigan.
Barry McGuigan killed his opponent.

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, it’s 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 a lack of interest or unwillingness by those involved to publicise the event.

Boxing Trainer Turned MMA Coach Speaks Out

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.

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
MMA fighters spar in the gym prepare for a fight.
Two MMA Fighters sparring.

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 the School of Medical and Applied Sciences, Central Queensland University, Australia titled Epidemiology of injuries in full-contact combat sports.

The research showed that 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 and again pointing to the fact that MMA is safer.

The Facts vs Speculation

As boxing is the more senior sport, it has been around for much longer and is 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 year several members of Congress have been involved in the ongoing debate about the inherent dangers involved in the sport of boxing. And the long-term effects on its participants.

Two amateur boxers without headgear at the Olympic games 2016.
Amateur boxers fighting.

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 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.

In Conclusion

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, its 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 the 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.