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Is MMA Worse On The Brain Than Boxing?

Last Updated: 04.07.22



There are plenty of things about MMA that make people like the sport, but it is clear as day that while the MMA clothing might help the fighters in the ring move unencumbered and sweat less, it cannot provide real protection against hits to the head. Also, as much as someone trains with an MMA punching bag, there’s no telling what will happen in a real fight, when the opponent strikes back.

Some say that MMA is a safer sport than boxing as a whole. Others insist that actually, MMA can be worse on the brain than boxing. A study even supports the latter opinion, and that will be what we will focus on in this article.


What does the study say?

In MMA, about one-third of all fights end with KO or TKO. Since the essence of the sport is to beat the opponent into submission, this happens more frequently than in boxing. However, to give the other party a chance, it is also true that in boxing, a beaten opponent can get up and continue to fight, which can increase the possibility to receive hits to the head.

The American Journal of Sports Medicine published the results of this study. Specialists from the University of Toronto watched images and videos from 844 bouts carried on UFC tournaments between 2006 and 2012. 108 fights of the total of 844 ended in KO. Another 179 matches completed in TKO.

These matches had to be stopped by the referees after the beaten opponent had already received up to 10 hits to the head repeatedly. That says plenty about how fights in the cage are carried on. The 13 percent of matches ending in KO, and 21 percent of those ending in TKO, amount to a total of 34% of all the games.

Scientists focused on what happens during the last 30 seconds of a fight

The matches ending in TKO were considered more interesting by the researchers. They noticed that the last 30 seconds of such a fight tend to be more brutal than others. It is during this time that a fighter, usually the one who loses, receives a high number of strikes to the head area. Referees must choose when to stop the fight and declare the technical knockout.

But, during that time, a lot of damage can happen. Since MMA is a combination of various sports, the fighters wear minimal equipment. There is no headgear to protect them against hits to the head, and they wear only fingerless gloves.


What UFC representatives say

The risk of injury is not something to take lightly, and that is why UFC, the organization in control of MMA, has been called repeatedly to reinforce more restrictive rules. Over the last two decades, the sport has evolved a great deal, and gone are the days when MMA was all about beating the opponent into submission by all means necessary.

Today, there are many rules in place, and now there are mandatory suspensions in case of concussions. The UFC representatives insist that MMA is safer than boxing, as no traumatic brain injuries have been reported so far, as well as no fatalities. Not the same thing can be said about boxing, and that is something to bear in mind.


The Cleveland studies

In response to the research carried on by the University of Toronto, Lawrence Epstein, COO at UFC, initiated a series of studies with the help of specialists at the Cleveland Clinic. The studies involved 400 active and retired MMA fighters, for more certain reports.

So far, the preliminary results of these studies showed that a higher number of hits to the head, favored by factors such as the number of years spent in the ring, number of fights fought, and so on, could be correlated with lower cognitive skills.


Other details

The Toronto studies identified essential differences between matches finished by KO and those ended by TKO. In the case of a KO result, the loser is hit a few times in the head throughout a few seconds. This number increases dramatically for TKO scenarios, when, over half a minute, the loser gets hit 18.6 times on average, with the vast majority of the hits being aimed at the head.

The difficulty comes from the inability of establishing when an injury happens after a TKO. As said earlier, referees decide to stop the match once they see that the loser can no longer defend himself. From such difficulties, no clear and cut and stone conclusions can be drawn.

While the possibility of sustaining brain injury exists, the number of concussions and other similar trauma registered for MMA bouts cannot pinpoint, with the highest accuracy that MMA is worse on the brain than boxing.

The risk of injury exists

Without a doubt, fighting in a ring, against an opponent, comes with a significant risk of injury. MMA ranks higher than football and hockey, as far as the number of injuries is concerned.

More stringent rules are called for reinforcement in the sport. For instance, there are calls for introducing the same 10-second count that exists in boxing. Others say that amateur events and popularizing the sport among young athletes should be stopped.


A difficult debate

In the US, many states have regularized and made MMA legal, but there are also some that decide to remain silent on the matter at the moment. Seeing how increasingly popular the sport is, more studies are needed to identify the risk of injuries, including to the brain, and also to establish a set of measures that can be taken to make the sport safer.

There is also the argument that adults know well what risks they take when they engage in various types of behavior, and practicing MMA is no different. However, the need for stricter legislation will undoubtedly transform the face of the sport in the upcoming years.



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