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Why Do MMA Fighters Have Disfigured Ears?

UFC Fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov

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Even if you are not a combat sports fan, you have likely heard about the famous street rule that says “Never mess with a person who has cauliflower ears.” The persons having those have likely paid their dues in MMA or other fighting sports. 

This type of ear defect is very common among MMA and fighters competing in grappling arts whose ears are frequently injured. And, you can see athletes from other sports like Rugby having disfigured ears as well. 

Even though cauliflower ears may look risky, they are not. This is not a terrible injury and you can heal it fast if you get medical care on time. But if you left the injury untreated, it can lead to bad and permanent deformity of the ear.

And, we have to make one thing clear. Not all MMA fighters have cauliflower ears and training MMA doesn’t mean you will deform your ears. Generally, wearing a headgear greatly reduces the chance of you disfiguring your ears

So if cauliflower ear is the reason that holds you back from joining the MMA classes, I have great news for you! In this article, we will bring you closer to why MMA fighters get cauliflower ears and how you can prevent it. We will show you how you can train MMA without worrying much about disfiguring your ears. 

Why Most MMA Fighters Have Cauliflower Ears?

The reason is simple; MMA is a sport that involves striking to the side of the ear and grappling exchanges that rub off the ear, which are the two main causes of cauliflower ears.

Let’s see how the four most important fighting styles in MMA contribute to the development of cauliflower ears:   

  • Boxing – as we know, boxing is a striking art in which fighters are punching each other to the side of the head all the time. A couple of hard punches can easily damage the external part of the ear. And to prevent this, boxers wear headgear which is a padded helmet that protects their ears and head. 
  • Muay Thai – the art of eight limbs is perhaps the most brutal standup style in the world because it includes elbow and knee strikes as well as kicks to the head. Moreover, most of the head kicks and elbows actually land to the side of the head, directly hitting and damaging your ear. 
  • Wrestling – cauliflower ears are common injuries in wrestling. The sport is just too hard on your ears, and you can deform them in a very short time. This is because wrestlers are often smashing their ears while battling for head control and position. That’s why you can often see them wearing ear guards that look more like headphones. 
  • Jiu-Jitsu – just like wrestling, BJJ is a grappling art and many BJJ fighters have cauliflower ears. BJJ training includes a lot of rolling on the mats with the partner. During the rolls, your ears rub on the mats or against the partner which can damage your external part of the ear. And some submissions like the famous “triangle choke” may damage your ears as well.

The Cause and Symptoms of Cauliflower Ear

The process of developing the Cauliflower ear is very simple in combat arts. The main causes of this type of ear deformity are frequent hits (strikes) to the ear or when the ear gets rubbed during the grappling exchanges.  

A small blood clot gets created each time you get hit in the outer part of the ear. This blood clot forms between the connective tissue of the upper ear and cartilage. The clot stops the blood flow to the cartilage, which damages the tissue, causing it to die. As these tissues die, the ear will start healing itself by forming a much tougher fibrous tissue which results in an ear that looks like a cauliflower. 

The medical explanation of what causes cauliflower ears may sound complex. But, spotting the early symptoms is not. The first sign of cauliflower ear may be the swelling of the ear. The damaged area of the ear can also become red or bruised which is a sign of the lack of blood flow.

If you spot these changes on your ear, don’t panic. Make sure to call a doctor and get medical care as soon as you can. 

Here are the most common symptoms of cauliflower ears: 

Pain in the ear
Swelling on the outer part of the ear
Headache or severe bleeding
Ringing in the ear

Why Some People Prefer Cauliflower Ears Instead of Treatments

You may find this hard to believe, but there are MMA fighters who want their ears to look deformed. Some of them go even further by damaging their ears on purpose just so that they can have cauliflower ears and here is why.

In most MMA/Martial Arts circles, cauliflower ears are a sign of toughness and battle experience. And, many fighters wear them as a badge of honor, conveying a clear sign to the people around them they train MMA/Martial Arts and that you shouldn’t mess around with them on street. 

Cauliflower ears have also become a somewhat popular trend among teenage martial arts students. Many of them who train BJJ or wrestling left their ears untreated on purpose just so they can look tougher in the eyes of more senior students. 

Further, even some of the most famous UFC fighters proudly wear cauliflower ears. The most famous ones are the former UFC champs Randy Couture and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

(Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia)

For instance, Randy’s ears are so damaged that you can’t escape but asking yourself how he even hears anything?

What Is The Best Way to Prevent Cauliflower Ear? 

Most people think that there is no way you can avoid damaging your ears training MMA. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth as you can train and compete in MMA without worrying too much about your ears.

The most important thing is to wear headgear or ear guards during the training sessions.

Ear Guard

Further, wearing protective gear is not enough. You must be extra cautious that this type of gear fits well with your size of the head. This is a common mistake MMA students make and one of the reasons why they often damage their ears despite wearing headgear. Wearing headgear that is too big or below your size doesn’t mean your face and ears are protected.

If the headgear you wear is too tight and below your head size, it will always rub against your ears. Even though this may not hurt much, it will deform your ear over a certain period of time.

And, wearing a headgear that is above your head size won’t prevent cauliflower ears either. A headgear that feels loose may slip out of place during the training, leaving ear exposed. So instead of wearing a headgear that feels loose or too tight, get the one that fits with your size and is comfortably secured around your head. 

The Treatment For Cauliflower Ears To Avoid Deformity

If you spot any changes in your ear or you feel any pain, there is still a good chance you can avoid a cauliflower ear. The first thing you can do is to take the ice and apply it to a damaged area of the ear. Ice is good for all types of injuries since it reduces the swelling and lowers the pain. Yet, this is just first aid; you must go to a doctor for medical care as soon as possible.

A doctor can treat the injury much better by draining the collection of blood inside your ear that stops the blood flow to the affected tissues. The process is not painful or complicated. He/she will make a small incision so that the blood can drain out of the injury. Or in some other cases doctors may use a needle to drain the blood out of the damaged area of the ear.

Once that’s over, they will use stitches to reconnect the tissues and place a special bandage to ensure the ear heals in the correct shape back again. Here is a great video of how MMA fighters get their ear drained:

After the treatment is over, doctors might prescribe you antibiotics therapy to prevent infections. You should avoid training or doing any type of activity that may damage your ear once again. The rest period really depends on the injury, and you shouldn’t make decisions on your own. You should return to training and other activities once the doctor approves it. 

Can Cauliflower Ear Be Cured Or Is It A Permanent Deformity?

Unfortunately, the cauliflower ear is a permanent deformity in most cases. If you don’t take medical care on time, there’s a big chance the deformity is just too big to heal or reshape back to its normal condition

The only thing that may help you, in this case, is the cosmetic ear surgery called Otoplasty. This is a medical procedure that repairs or reshapes the outer ear and it is widely considered a non-risky procedure. 

Otoplasty is not a complex surgery and you won’t feel any high pain. The doctors will first give you a local anesthetic before making a cut behind your damaged ear. They will remove some part of the cartilage or reshape your ear by using stitches. 

These stitches may stay permanent to hold the back of the ear in place and the scar usually fades over time. The surgery lasts around 1-2 hours on average, and you may expect to be back in training in six weeks.