Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author.
The sweet science of boxing has been prime household entertainment for over a century. To this day, it leaves us on the edge of our seats, craving more. However, past all the fun and fanfare, there are major safety concerns, as time and brute force have not been kind to their practitioners.
With the popularity of MMA rising, a lot of boxing fans are turning to MMA as an alternative. It is a sport that encompasses all the best elements of boxing and offers much more, but is much safer than boxing. This may not make sense to some because MMA fighting seems more brutal with kicking and elbow striking.
This is why I will illustrate surprising reasons why MMA is safer than boxing.
Is MMA Safer Than Boxing? (Data analysis)
MMA is safer than boxing when it comes to severe injuries that might impact your health in the long run. This primarily includes concussions caused by repeated blows to the head that may result in severe brain damage like CTE. Next are other facial injuries such as broken jaw, nose, orbital bones, and many others.
Boxing vs. MMA Injury Rate
MMA includes the highest rate of injuries out of all combat sports, which stands at 28 injuries per 100 athlete exposures. But since MMA fighters can grapple, fight on the ground, and strike using all limbs, including knees and elbows, the majority of these injuries are actually lacerations, arm injuries, neck injuries, hand/wrist injuries, knee injuries, and hematomas.
Boxing has a lower rate of 17.1 injuries per 100 boxing matches. However, these numbers only tell a partial story because severe injuries in boxing are far more common.
Boxing vs. MMA Concussion/Knockout Rate
Boxers are more likely to suffer severe injuries that will affect their health in the long run, which was confirmed by the University of Alberta’s Sather Sports Medicine Clinic research. Researchers looked into post-fight medical data between 2003 and 2013, and across this 10-year span, they have discovered that 59.4% of MMA fighters receive some type of injury in their fight, while boxers receive less, 49.8%. However, 7.1% of boxers got knocked out or lost consciousness, more than in MMA, 4.2%. So, in their conclusion, MMA is bloodier but less dangerous than boxing.
Another study carried out at the Central Queensland University in Sydney, Australia, discovered a higher rate of injuries in MMA. But the study also showed that head and neck injuries were more frequent in boxing (84%) than in MMA (64%). The concussion rate in boxing was 14%, much higher than in MMA, where it was “only” 4%.
Lastly, one study showed that approximately 90% of boxers will suffer a concussion during their career, and 12.8% of all injuries are attributed to concussions. This is much higher than in MMA, where concussions account for 1.8% of all injuries.
Boxing vs. MMA Deaths
Boxing also leads to more cases of death. According to the Association of Boxing Commissions, 30 boxers have died between 2011 and 2019 (3.75 per year). According to the “Manuel Velasquez Collection,” which has been recording boxing deaths since the 1720s, there have been 1897 deaths in boxing between 1720 and 2019.
The death rate is much lower in mixed martial arts as of 2023, where 26 fighters have died since 1981 (0.565 per year); 17 happened in sanctioned bouts, while 9 happened in unsanctioned matches. It’s worth noting that no deaths occurred in the biggest MMA promotion, the UFC.
In conclusion, it is fair to say boxing is more dangerous than MMA because it includes a higher rate of head injuries and also leads to more cases of death.
Reasons Why Boxing is More Dangerous Than MMA
To better understand why boxing is more dangerous than MMA, you have to take different factors into consideration.
Boxing Is All About Punching, But MMA Is Not
MMA is a mix of grappling, clinch fighting, and striking. Apart from striking on the feet with kicks, punches, elbows, and knees, MMA fighters also spend a good portion of time wrestling in the clinch and fighting on the ground with submissions.
According to data, UFC fighters spend 10% of their fight time on the ground with someone in control and 15% of the time inside the clinch. They also attempt around 2 takedowns over a 15-minute fight on average.
On top of that, 21% of MMA fights end via submission finish, which is a much safer method than knockout as it does not cause serious injuries like concussions, while 29.3% of matches end via KO or TKO. As far as striking is concerned, MMA fighters spend around 60% of fight time at a distance and land around 4 strikes per minute on average (punches, low/high kicks, knees, and elbows), or 12 per 15-minute match. Much less than Boxers.
Boxers spend 100% of their fight time on their feet, and the striking rate is much higher. Unlike in MMA, punching in boxing is not evenly distributed across the entire body because most punches land on the head area. It all revolves around 5–6 different types of punches, putting them together into combinations and mixing them with footwork and head movement.
As a result, boxers absorb far more full-blown punches to the head area and suffer more knockdowns and concussions than MMA fighters, who spend a lot of time grappling and ground fighting and absorb far fewer strikes to the head.
Boxers Absorb More Head Strikes
Boxing is all about punching the upper body area above the waist. As far as the body shots are concerned, they primarily target the rib cage and liver, but the main target is the opponent’s head.
On average, boxers throw close to 800 punches throughout 12 rounds.
Heavyweight boxers throw less, around 500 on average, while in the lower classes, they can throw as much as 1,200 punches per match. The accuracy of these shots could be anywhere between 30% and 45%, which means that a boxer, on average, absorbs between 300 and 400 punches per match. Again, this varies between weight classes as heavyweights usually take around 100 hits, while the ones in the lower classes may absorb up to 500.
MMA fighters, on the other hand, throw and absorb far fewer direct hits to the head because there is a lot of wrestling and fighting on the ground. Even if you focus solely on striking on the feet, a lot of significant strikes that land are actually kicks to the legs or knees to the body.
For instance, Max Holloway holds a UFC record for the most head strikes landed in history, 274 against Calvin Kattar, which is below average for a boxing match in the boxing featherweight division.
As a result, around 66% of boxing matches end in a knockout, much more than 29.3% in MMA.
Boxing Gloves Cause More Severe Injuries
In professional matches, boxers wear either 8 or 10-oz gloves, which are heavier than the 4 oz used in MMA matches. At first, you may think that open-fingered gloves that offer less padding are more damaging. Ironically, heavier and more padded gloves actually cause more severe injuries.
MMA fighters have to be very careful and strategic when throwing hard punches while wearing thin gloves like MMA gloves. This is because there isn’t much padding inside the gloves to protect their hands, so they can easily break their hands while throwing hard punches.
Boxing gloves are heavier than MMA gloves, but boxers don’t worry about breaking their hands because the gloves provide enough padding to protect their hands during punching. Consequently, boxers tend to throw far more powerful shots without fear of injuring their hands during the fight due to padding, which can inflict more harm on their opponents.
Not All MMA Fighters Are Strikers
MMA is a sport dominated by wrestlers and skilled grapplers from various martial arts. According to statistics, wrestling has produced the most UFC champions in history, with Brazilian jiu-jitsu taking second place. Being a striker is just one of many styles, and knocking the opponent out is one of many ways to finish the fight.
These grapplers are all-around fighters, and they all know how to strike. However, their game primarily revolves around taking the fight to the ground, controlling the opponent from the top position, and finishing with submissions or ground and pound.
As a result, the entire UFC roster, which includes over 700 skilled MMA fighters, is split between grapplers, strikers, and hybrid fighters who mix both elements together. Training time is evenly split between striking, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and cardio and strength workouts. The majority of MMA fighters spend more time grappling than striking in training because this aspect is technically more demanding and, in terms of injuries, much safer.
On the other side, every boxer in the world dedicates every single second of their training time to learning how to knock someone out using their hands effectively. Everything they do is aimed at improving their punching skills and power, and as a result, boxers absorb far more head strikes both in training and competition.
Boxing’s 10 Count Rule Can Be Harmful
Boxing and MMA are two completely different sports. One rule in particular makes boxing more dangerous, and this is a 10-count rule. When a boxer receives a hard punch and gets knocked down, the referee starts counting to 10, and downed boxers can use this time to get back to their feet. The referee will then check if they have recovered enough and give a green light to continue.
This is one of the most dangerous aspects of boxing because a boxer is often knocked out twice within a round. Two concussions in less than a few minutes are terrible in terms of brain injuries.
Boxers are known as super durable; for most of them, 10 seconds is more than enough to recover from a bad knockdown. Deontay Wilder famously knocked Tyson Fury out cold, but he somehow managed to get back up.
However, 10 seconds is insufficient for a fighter to recover from a concussion. Instead of giving up and going through the concussion protocol, the 10-count rule enables a concussed boxer to continue on and, in a lot of cases, get knocked out even worse the second time shortly after. And this second concussion significantly increases the chances of a brain injury.
MMA is different because there is no 10-count rule. When a fighter gets knocked out cold, the referee will immediately step in and stop the match. When a fighter gets knocked down and is still conscious, their opponent will usually follow up with ground-and-pound strikes, and the referee will stop the match as soon as the hurt fighter is no longer defending intelligently.
Longer Rounds Hurt Boxers Oore
According to the rules, professional boxing matches have between 4 and 12 rounds. The majority of high-level matches have between 10 and 12 rounds, with each round lasting 3 minutes in duration. This means that a boxing match lasts between 30 and 36 minutes in total, which is much more than MMA, which lasts 25 minutes at the maximum.
According to the unified rules adopted by all major promotions, MMA matches include 3 rounds, with each round lasting 5 minutes. The only exceptions are championship fights and main events that last 5 rounds, with each round lasting 5 minutes. In total, a regular MMA match lasts 15 minutes, while championship bouts last 25 minutes.
The math here is simple — boxing matches last almost twice as long as the ones in MMA, which further means more time for the fighters to absorb cumulative damage, get knocked out, and suffer severe injuries. Combine total fight time with the fact that boxers absorb much more head-strikers, and you get why MMA is safer.
Longer Boxing Careers Damage Bodies More
Boxing has a much longer history and tradition, and it is more popular worldwide. It has also been a part of the Olympic Games, so the amateur competition is very strong.
In order to succeed and reach a high level, most boxers begin training at a very young age. The age limit in amateur boxing is between 13 and 39 years of age, and the competition is strong.
During their teenage years, young boxers spend a lot of time competing in amateur leagues and tournaments, and until they turn pro, they can have anywhere between 50 and 100 amateur matches on their record. This is on average. Bear in mind that there are successful boxers with over 400 amateur bouts on their records, like Gennady Golovkin (440 amateur fights).
The MMA world is completely different. First, amateur competition is not so important because the sport is not included in the Olympics, and winning titles at the amateur level is not considered a significant achievement like in boxing.
In contrast with boxing, MMA fighters can start competing in amateur competition only when they turn 18 and can stay at this level up until 40 years of age. And they usually have much fewer amateur bouts before turning pro, around 10 fights, for example, but this may vary.
The same stands for professional competition, where boxers tend to compete more often. In the early stages of their pro careers, boxers compete between 4 and 7 times each year, while the majority of MMA fighters compete around 3 times. UFC fighters, for example, rarely compete more than 3 times at any level.
So overall, boxers have much longer careers, and they compete more often both on the amateur and professional levels and are very likely to absorb more damage compared to MMA fighters in the end.
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