12th April 2021
Your average bloke would suggest, or perhaps even be convinced that MMA is a much more dangerous sport than boxing. This is not a common misconception. Surely the lighter gloves and the possibility of receiving a shin smack bang on your chin must equate to a higher mortality rate. Your average bloke would be mistaken. During the period of 1890-2011, there have been 1604 boxing-related deaths, averaging around 13 deaths a year, whereas there have only been 16 deaths since the formation of MMA in the mid-1990s. This may come as a mind-boggling statistic to those of you reading, and most certainly to your average bloke. But why is this? Let’s delve into the full story.
In terms of the anatomy of the sport, boxing is focused on damage being sustained to the body and head, whereas in MMA there is far more flexibility and creativity in the approach you can take. As with the current influx of UFC champions with a prolific wrestling background (e.g. most notably Khabib Nurmangomedov, Kamaru Usman and Jon Jones) who clearly underline that a fight can be won without knocking your opponent’s lights out. This is backed up by the fact that the highest proportion of neck and head injuries are in boxing, standing at 84%. In addition, MMA fights last only 3 rounds (potentially 5 in championship fights) reduces the time frame in which damage can be sustained, whereas boxing fights last 12 gruelling rounds.
CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) is a brain-related injury that is sustained in multiple contact sports, most notably in rugby, boxing, MMA and American Football. It is worth stating that the majority of boxing deaths do not come immediately after suffering a tough fight, but instead by enduring a cumulative amount of damage over the course of their careers. Therefore, it may be difficult to point the finger at the sport of boxing as an entity for the cause of death for many of its former athletes. There is no denying, however, that it plays a major factor.
Fans attending fights are always expecting grandstand knockouts in both MMA and boxing executed in brutal merciless fashion. This is clearly incentivised in the UFC in which a fighter is given a $50,000 bonus for “knockout of the night”. On the other side of the spectrum, we want our beloved fighters to be able to live to fight another day. But can we have our cake and eat it?
How can a fighter go for that illustrious crowd-pleasing finish, whilst also minimising the risk of potentially life-altering harm? This has been a debate circulating the network of fight fans for decades that has yet to be answered.
There is certainly a societal stigma around fighters, and men in particular, having to go out on their shield. The translation to this being, fighters sustain extra damage instead of calling a fight because they do not want to be seen as “pussies” by the public. Referees are also guilty of letting fights go on, especially in boxing where a referee will allow a fighter to continue as they have made the count to 10, although they are clearly not in the right state of mind to continue to compete. This, therefore, increases the likelihood of fighters contracting CTE and being affected later in their lives.
Accountability most certainly must be taken by the biggest organisations in the fighting business to protect their athletes from unnecessary harm, and potentially take steps to minimise the risk in the ring. As science continues to develop, the hostile truth of brain-related injuries in fighting are getting revealed, and action must be taken soon.