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How Dangerous is MMA Fighting? Here’s a Closer Look

Photo by BagoGames

Although Mixed Martial Arts(MMA) is a very popular sport, there are people who still see it as too brutal and violent. But, how dangerous MMA fighting actually is?  

MMA fighting is dangerous in spite of being a sport. Its primary goal, unlike most other sports, is to inflict bodily pain on the opponent to win the bout. For this reason, the risk of suffering an injury during an MMA match is really high.

That being said, fighters can and will do anything to hurt their opponent or knock them out using the techniques that are within the rules of the sport.

Keep reading this article to find out more about the risks of MMA, what are the most common injuries, and is it safer than other sports like boxing or football. 

Is MMA Training Dangerous? 

MMA training is not dangerous and you don’t have to worry too much about injures. Of course, this also depends between the schools as some gyms put more focus on safety than some others. But overall, the risk of getting hurt is really low in MMA training, and here is why.

First of all, the number one priority in all good MMA gyms is on safety and keeping the injury rate low. Students must wear the following protective gears while they are sparring or doing drills where they are exchanging strikes:

  • Full-padded boxing gloves
  • Shin pads to protect the legs
  • Headgear
  • Mouthpiece
  • Groin cup (optional)

When students are trading strikes in training, for instance, they throw with 50% or less power. This is because the focus is on learning how to carry out the techniques, not on hurting the training partner. It’s really hard to suffer any injury if you are doing things this way.

MMA training gets even safer if we move to the grappling aspect of the sport. Rolling on the mats in BJJ classes is very safe because it doesn’t include any striking. If the partner catches you in an armbar or rear-naked choke, for instance, you just need to tap out to get out of it and avoid any injuries.

The thing is, MMA training differs a lot from the pro fights you watch on TV that may look brutal. You won’t go through those types of brutal fights in training, not even close. You can end up with few bruises on your body now and then after a couple of rounds of sparring. But these “injuries” are a part of every other sport, not just MMA.

Is Competing in MMA Dangerous?

Yes, fighting in MMA matches is dangerous just as in any other combat sport out there like boxing or Muay Thai. It differs a lot from training since the goal is to hurt the opponent as much and as fast as possible. Pro MMA fighters throw each punch or kick with violent intention to knock the opponent out cold. And they are also much more aggressive during the grappling as well.

In fact, the risk of suffering an injury during an MMA match is really high. Scientists at “Phys Sportmed” did a really good and detailed study on the rate of injuries in MMA. They used UFC injury reports from “Nevada State Athletic Commission” ringside physicians.

From 2016 to 2018, they recorded 291 musculoskeletal and head injuries in 285 fights. The most common injuries reported were head injuries (67%), followed by upper limb injuries that were higher among females (40%) than in males (14%). But, on the other side, lower limb injuries were higher among men (19%) than among females (5%). The results clearly show that the risk of injuries is really high in MMA fighting.

Unlike in training, fighters don’t wear any gear apart from a pair of 4 OZ MMA gloves. They don’t have to think much about safety as long as the techniques they are using are within the rules of MMA. Once the cage doors close, they use violent kicks, punches, knees, and elbow strikes to do damage. These strikes often lead to deep cuts, broken bones, brutal KOs that lead to concussions, and even brain damage in the long run.

What are the Most Common Injuries in MMA Fighting?

The UFC’s “Performance Institute” did a study on how often and what type of injuries fighters suffer in training and while competing. They did this by collecting all the injury reports from the training camps and UFC events.

Out of all injuries recorded, fighters suffer 77% of them in a fight, 10% in training, and 12% during the other activities.

The data shows that strikes cause most injuries during the training and UFC fights. Out of all injuries covered by UFC PI, head and face make up over 75% of fight injuries. Still, these injuries are not that serious and fighters can quickly recover from them in most cases. But grappling and takedowns often lead to more serious injuries and fighters take, on average, from 112 days to 129 days to recover.

Here is a list of body areas that suffer the most during MMA fighting, and the most common injuries:

1. Head/face(77.8%)

Fighters suffer most head and face injuries from receiving hard strikes like punches, elbows, and kicks to the face. The most common ones are:

  • Fractures (broken nose, orbital bone, or jaw)
  • Facial abrasions
  • Deep cuts
  • Concussions

2. Wrist and hands (19.5%)

Most common wrist and hand injuries happen when fighters are throwing strikes or grappling on the ground:

  • Torn muscles
  • Joint dislocation
  • Fractures

3. Knee injuries (15.6%)

The knee joint suffers a lot every time an MMA fighter steps on the mats in training or enters a cage to compete. Certain joint locks like “kneebar” can also cause serious knee injuries like:

  • Patella dislocation
  • Torn Meniscus
  • Torn ACL 
  • Torn PCL

4. Feet (10.7%)

One of the ways fighters can hurt their feet is by landing a kick with their foot. This can lead to:

  • Ankle sprains
  • Fractures
  • Contusions

5. Shoulders(9.7%)

Shoulder injuries in MMA are quite common and often happen during grappling exchanges. For instance, joint locks that often lead to shoulder injuries are armbar and kimura:

  • Anterior shoulder dislocation
  • Rotator cuff tear
  • Pectoralis major tear

6. Lower leg-(5.3%)

Leg kicks play a big role in MMA when it comes to injuries like:

  • Fractures
  • Lacerations
  • Abrasions

7. Elbow- (4.8%)

Most elbow injuries in MMA happen during the grappling exchanges. Some arm locks like the armbar often lead to elbow injuries like:

  • Sprain of the ligaments
  • Tendinitis
  • Bursitis

Is MMA More Dangerous than Football?

Both football and MMA are sports that carry a lot of risks when it comes to injuries and brain traumas. For instance, the data shows that brain injuries occur in 23.6% of MMA fighters, while in NFL, that number is 25% according to their data. Still, this is just the tip of the iceberg as we are talking about two separate sports.

But there have been a couple of fighters who came into MMA after playing football in college and even played for NFL teams. UFC fighters Eryk Anders and Ovince St. Preux both played football before MMA, and they both think MMA is a safer sport  than football when it comes to brain traumas and here is why. 

When MMA fighters suffer a KO in a match or even in sparring, they must go through a concussion protocol. Once that’s done, fighters get a time off or medical suspension that can go up to 6 months. They use this time away from the sport to heal their bodies and recover from concussions the right way. They can also go back and train in the gym to work on the heavy bag, hit the pads, but they won’t do hard sparring.

In football, on the other side, players get knocked out unconscious all the time. According to one data, collisions in a single football match have a similar force to 62 car crashes. But in the words of Anders and OSP, players don’t take a time off to recover every single time they get a concussion. No, they just play through it. Their head and bodies continue to absorb hard hits in training, and even harder in a match each Sunday.

This increases the risk of brain damage since players don’t have enough time to recover from concussions.

Is MMA More Dangerous than Boxing?

The short answer is no, MMA is not more dangerous than boxing. If we look at the data, MMA fighting causes much more injuries than boxing. But in most cases, these are not the injuries that will affect your health in the long run. Since MMA fighters use all limbs to do damage, we see a lot of facial cuts, broken fingers, noses, and orbital bones. Boxing, on the other side, leads to more severe injuries like concussions due to repeated blows to the head area.

Researchers at the “University of Alberta” did a detailed study on injuries in both MMA and boxing. They used post-fight medical reports from 1,181 MMA fighters and 550 boxers that fought from 2003 to 2013. The study showed that the injury rate in MMA (59.4%) was much higher than in boxing (49.8%). But the study also showed that boxers suffer more knockouts (7.1%) than MMA fighters (4.2%).

Reasons why Boxing is more dangerous than MMA:

  • Boxers use just their hands to strike above the waist only which means boxers are receiving far more head strikes. MMA fighters receive less as the sport is more versatile and includes kicks, clinch, grappling and ground fighting.
  • Boxers wear full padded gloves that are much bigger than the ones in MMA. This means they can throw punches with full power without thinking much about hurting their hands.
  • Boxing fights are longer as they include 36 minutes of action. This is a lot more than in MMA where non-title bouts are 15 minutes or 25 minutes if the title is on the line.
  • When a boxer gets knocked down, he/she has 10 seconds to recover and continue to fight. This means that a boxer can suffer a concussion and continue on fighting which can lead to CTE in the long run. In MMA, it’s really hard to recover from a knockdown as the action doesn’t stop. If a fighter suffers a hard knockdown and goes down face first, the referee will instantly stop the fight. 

Has Anyone Died in an MMA Fight?

Over the years, there have been a couple of deaths in MMA matches. But, we must say that not a single fighter has died while fighting for a big promotion like the UFC or Bellator. As of April 2019, there have been seven deaths in sanctioned MMA bouts and nine deaths in unregulated fights. Here are all seven deaths that happened in MMA and the causes of these tragic losses:

  • Sam Vasquez— was the first American fighter to die in an MMA match. He died on October 20, 2007, shortly after suffering a heavy KO loss against Vince Libardi. The cause of his death was a “Subdural hemorrhage” caused by the repeated strikes to the head.
  • Michael Kirkhan– died two days after suffering a TKO loss in his pro-MMA debut at “King MMA” in 2010. The cause of his death was “subarachnoid hemorrhage”.
  • Tyrone Mims– died on August 11, 2012, shortly after losing consciousness in the second round while fighting in an amateur MMA match. The cause of his death is still a mystery as the autopsy didn’t show any signs of brain trauma, heart disease, or the presence of alcohol and drugs.
  • Booto Guylain– died on March 5, 2014, after suffering a head injury in the third round at “EFC Africa”. He died due to the swelling and bleeding of the brain due to the repeated strikes he received in a fight.
  • Donshay White– died on July 16, 2017 moments after losing his amateur fight against Ricky Muse. The autopsy revealed that White suffered from high blood pressure but was not taking medication.
  • Rondel Clark– died on August 12, 2017, while competing at the “Cage Titans XXXV” event. In the third round, Clark was too fatigued to continue fighting which forced the referee to stop the fight. He died three days later in the hospital due to dehydration caused by the extreme weight cutting.
  • Mateus Fernandes– died on March 30, 2019, after suffering a KO loss against Obed Pereira at the “Remulus Fight” event. He suffered four heart attacks in the hospital caused by the drugs he took the night before the bout.

Do MMA Fighters Get Brain Damage?

MMA is a sport in which fighters have a high chance of getting brain damage. In their careers, they receive a lot of hits to the head while both training and competing. The years of fighting, being hit too hard and knocked out can affect the brain and lead to permanent damage. 

One study has shown that around 23.6% of MMA fighters suffered from a brain injury. But, this also depends on how long they have been fighting, and how much damage they have taken over the course of their careers. The longer they compete, the more likely they are going to suffer from brain damage in the end.

One of the most common brain traumas associated with combat sports is “CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)”. This type of brain disease is associated with traumatic brain injuries (TBI). MMA fighters can get TBI from concussions or by receiving hard strikes to the head. Once this type of brain injury develops into CTE brain trauma, fighters experience symptoms like:

  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Aggression

But, the long-term effects of MMA fighting and how it affects the brain is still unknown. MMA is still a young sport and we are yet to see scientists coming up with more studies on brain damage and traumas like CTE.