Muay Thai and MMA are widely recognised as two of the very best combat sport on the planet. While Muay Thai has a long and illustrious history, MMA is very much a newcomer to the scene. But which one of these two is the more dangerous sport?
It’s very difficult to say as there are no official records kept on death in Muay Thai. But from the environment, it operates in compared to that of MMA. I would have to say Muay Thai is the more dangerous of the two and with good reason.
While the sport of mixed martial arts and Muay Thai can both be considered dangerous. We need to step back and take a birds-eye view of how the sports are run, where they are run. And what kind of information and data we can find on their current state.
For the most part, mainstream MMA has evolved in the western world. And along with that certain standards are generally maintained. While some promotions have been lacking in the past. Today we see a very different degree of attention to fighter safety than years gone by.
Muay Thai was birthed in the Asian subcontinent and since its inception has changed relatively little. While there have been improvements in how the sport is managed, it is still very much treated as a localised sport in Thailand. And with this comes a number of issues in this developing nation.
What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is a standup striking martial art that takes place inside a traditional style boxing ring. Two opponents fight in a series of three-minute rounds, either to a point or knockout victory. With no time limits in the previous iteration of the sport, the winner was determined by whichever fighter was standing at the end.
Fighters use a combination of kicks, knees, elbows and punches, along with clinch work to win the fight. Regarded as one of the toughest combat sports in the world. Thai fighters start their journey in their early teens and can amass several hundred fights in their professional careers.
History of Muay Thai
The martial art of Muay Thai has existed for at least 700 years. Originally developed as a fighting style for the battlefields of ancient Siam, now Thailand. Muay Thai evolved from the original Muay Boran, which also involved weapon-based martial arts.
But Muay Thai was specifically engineered for soldiers to fight hand to hand and kill their enemy without a weapon. Todays modern Muay Thai lacks some of the killer blows which were part and parcel of the style before its rules became standardised for worldwide consumption.
What is MMA?
MMA or mixed martial arts combines many elements taken from the worlds greatest martial arts and chains them into a singular fighting style. MMA actually contains an element of Muay Thai, along with boxing, grappling and submissions.
The main distinctive difference between MMA and Muay Thai is that fact that Muay Thai never goes to the ground. Sure we do see sweeps and throws, however, once one fighter is grounded, they are then separated by the referee and reset to a standing position.
In MMA once there are is a takedown, the fighters can continue and often finish the match on the ground. This can be done via strikes and referee stoppage or a submission, where one fighter taps out. This means that in MMA there is more than one way in which to end a fight.
History of MMA
Mixed martial arts has only been around since the early 1990s. Predated by the sport of Vale Tudo which originated in Brazil. MMA was originally a no holds barred style of fighting. This new sport broke into the mainstream when the Ultimate Fighting Championships first aired on US tv. And soon garnered a large and vocal fanbase.
However, due to its extreme violence, it wasn’t long before the politicians in the search for votes looked to stamp out the fledgeling sport. Through the 1990s the sport evolved, adding new rules and a more structure with new weight divisions.
When the company was bought out by Zuffa LLC in 2001, it looked for all the world like it would not be around for much longer. But the failing brand was turned around and grown into the biggest combat sports promotion in the world. Selling to WME IMG in 2016 for $4.025 billion. Making it the single biggest purchase of a sports company in history.
Today mixed martial arts is amongst the most popular sports in the world. With fighters whose faces have become household names. Along with the growth of the sport, it has also evolved in terms of how it approaches fighters safety.
Injury Statistics in Muay Thai
Although Muay Thai is one of the worlds most highly respected and regarded as striking martial arts. The ins and outs and internal politics of how the sport operates in its home country of Thailand can often be shrouded in some mystery.
While Muay Thai fighter starts in the sport from a very young age. Very little is known about the official death toll inside the ring or related to post-fight injuries. What we do know is that there have been some very public deaths both in Thailand and other countries. But still no official records on those deaths by the international governing body.
Thai fighters are known for having careers that usually end in their twenties. This is due to the sport being so harsh on their bodies and having many professional full-contact fights in a relatively short time period.
I have heard from coaches who would know, that there are several deaths every year, that they are aware of in the sport, that go unreported. If we were to extrapolate this out in a sport where many of the fights take place at a local level and are unsanctioned. I think it’s fair to say there is more going on than meets the eye.
Gambling is rife in Muay Thai and often dictates much of the fight. The first two rounds of the fight, neither fighter usually goes too hard as the gamblers need to set the odds. There are even stories of fighters being mildly poisoned so that they won’t be able to fight to their full ability. Allowing the fight to end as predicted and the bookies to clean up.
Factor in the what many people who have competed in Thailand will tell you. Being that there are rarely and physicians ringside or ambulances available at the fights. So if a fighter suffers any severe head trauma, as some do. There is no help nearby to ensure they are dealt with speedily. Really quite a worrying situation for any fighter to be put it.
Injury Statistics For MMA
In terms of MMA, we have some definitive data in regards to injuries incurred during a fight. According to a study undertaken by the Faculty of Science, Macquarie University, Sydney. The overall chance of receiving an injury in MMA stands at 23%.
Next and head injuries in MMA stand at 64%, while a full-contact standup striking martial art like Karate it stands at 74% and boxing at 84%. When it comes to concussions in the sport te rates in MMA stood at just 4%. While in kickboxing, the very close relative of Muay Thai, concussions are as high as 19%!
While injuries like bad cuts, broken bones are obviously not good and we would hope to avoid them as much as possible. The most dangerous aspect of combat sports is damage to the brain, or CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. What is widely referred to as when a fighter becomes punch drunk. Slurring their words, losing memory and in the worst cases, depression, mental health issues and brain chronic diseases.
So if we just take the example of kickboxing, which I doubt many would argue is not as brutal a sport of Muay Thai. Then it does not look too good for which of these combat sports is safer. Thai fighters fight more, from a much younger age and often is unsanctioned unsafe environments.
MMA offers the ability to win the fight in several different ways and not all of which include strikes. That along with the levels of medical attention now readily available cage-side offer a level of safety unparalleled at many Muay Thai events.
So Is Muay Thai or MMA More Dangerous?
When we take into consideration both sports, outside of the potential for damage that can happen during competition. Perhaps what we maybe should be asking is what is more likely to be dangerous when we consider the operating environment itself.
Muay Thai in Thailand is a poorly regulated and often a poorly sanctioned sport. The fact that medical staff are in many instances an afterthought, that many fights happen outside the main circuit in local venues. And are run by local business people and gambling rings. It doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence that your health and well being are at the forefront of the minds of the promoters.
You get the impression that the sport of Muay Thai is still very much a wild west of almost anything goes competition. Outside of the professional fights that take place you also have the inter-club and outsider fights. Where people from completely different weight brackets will fight it out, without so much as a signed waiver.
And all of this takes place under the noses and sway of the gamblers. Often with a lot of money on the line, the environment breeds corruption and illegal activity. And entering into that type of situation without being fully aware of what is going on and how things work on the ground may not end very well.
Is Mixed Martial Arts Any Safer Than Muay Thai?
We have looked at the data in terms of the injuries and fatalities in MMA, so we have a pretty good idea of what we are dealing with. The sport can be quite dangerous and injuries do occur. But generally speaking, deaths have historically been few and far between.
The data tells us what we need to know about serious injury. And we can see how the safety of the competitors involved is taken nowadays by the officials. I am not saying that there aren’t some one-horse town promotions where the on-call medical care is nothing to write home about. But generally speaking, fighters safety has become the main focus for many.
When you go to an MMA event today, you are likely to see several medical staff as well as an ambulance, sitting ready and waiting. All of which costs money, but is something the promoters must now do for their events to be sanctioned. This in itself, outside of the damage endured during the fight is enough to tilt the scales in its favour.
There can be little doubting both Muay Thai and MMA can be dangerous sports. What we don’t often see in these sports is the aftermath. The fighters backstage having their injuries seen to. Whether they are cuts that require stitches or bones that require setting.
Aside from that, we have the lesser talked about concussions that fighters endure. With medical suspensions that can last from weeks to months. It’s the longer-term damage, especially to the brain that most people need to be worried about.
What often strikes me is when people comment on how after years of competing, a fighter still has all their faculties. It’s as though it’s to be expected that they won’t quite all be there once their career is over. And if they are, well then that is a win, right?
A fighters health and well being should be front and centre, no matter what. And from following these sports for many years now, I do honestly feel like mixed martial arts has made great strides in doing exactly that. Whereas Muay Thai is still somewhat languishing in its rough and ready bygone years.
How much of there being very little data on deaths in Muay Thai is down to the Thai authorities themselves? Is it something they actively look to hide, I do not know. But I do know that the National Human Rights Commission’s panel in Thailand is extremely worried about the effect of offering money to under 15-year-olds to compete in the sport is having on their developing brains.
For me, I would have to say that from the data, first-hand information and insight from those in the know. That in terms of long term damage, Muay Thai does look like the more dangerous of the two sports. Poor regulation and often poor oversight, coupled with a gambling environment steeped in local corruption. It all adds to an already dangerous sport by simply making it less transparent and less safe for its fighters.
In contrast, MMA has come a long way in a very few short years. Led by the UFC, who have blazed a trail for fighters safety which has filtered down to the lower-level promotions. Both sports can be bad for your health, but MMA has made huge strides in minimising the long term effects on fighters health.
I hope this has offered you some insight into the inherent dangers of both combat sports. And that you will take into consideration what your next step might be on your own personal journey. I wish you all the best no matter what choice you make, I’m sure you will have plenty of fun.