Boxing and MMA are sports that deal in the drama and athleticism of combat. Though combat sports encompass a wide range of competitions based around fighting, boxing and MMA are arguably the most popular and culturally relevant of the bunch.
All combat sports come with a heightened level of danger and risk of injury, especially compared to non-contact sports, yet these two sports are often misunderstood in terms of their relative safety.
Is MMA More Dangerous Than Boxing?
While both MMA and boxing present an elevated risk for injury, MMA is safer than boxing when looking at severe injury and death. Though there is limited hard data to certify MMA as a safer sport, certain rules and techniques exist in MMA that allow for an overall safer approach, whereas boxing’s track record for safety is comparatively abysmal.
There are a number of surprising factors that go into making MMA a safer sport than boxing. Keep reading to find out why MMA has a growing reputation as a less risky alternative to boxing and about how safety is handled in combat sports more generally.
Why Is Boxing More Dangerous Than MMA?
Boxing was once America’s pastime. The popularity of the sport has sustained itself in the U.S for more than a hundred years, but its heyday is widely considered to be long gone. In recent years, boxing has seen a stark decline in mainstream popularity, while MMA has been on the rise.
A reason for the decline in boxing’s popularity could partially be blamed on the fact that boxing is a more dangerous sport, even though MMA may look more brutal on the surface.
There are a number of reasons why boxing is more dangerous than MMA:
- Boxing promotes repeated hits to the head, which drastically increases the risk of traumatic head injury.
- Boxing matches are longer, allowing for more opportunities for injury.
- Boxing has rules and regulations that make the sport more dangerous.
- 13 people die each year from boxing, far more than what is reported for MMA.
Before diving into these factors, it is worth noting that MMA is a much newer sport than boxing, and the research and statistical data that has been collected on its general safety offers a far less conclusive picture about the risk of injury or death.
Since boxing has been around longer, we have more robust data on injuries and deaths, which may point to why boxing is seen in a grimmer light.
Boxing and Head Injury
The main culprit for boxing’s unsafe reputation is the prevalence of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in fighters. CTE results from repeated punches or strikes to the head, something that is commonplace in both boxing and MMA.
CTE has become a hot-button topic, and not just for combat sports. The effects of CTE are life-threatening, and it is shown to cause Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s as well a host of other cognitive issues like depression, suicidal behavior, aggressiveness, and dementia.
According to a decade-long study done at the University of Alberta, boxers were 4% more likely to sustain a serious head or eye injury, resulting in the loss of consciousness.
The study found that MMA fighters were more likely to sustain injuries in general, but these injuries were typically cuts and bruises, with serious injuries being far less common.
Boxing has some troubling statistics associated with its long-term practice. The Association of Neurological Surgeons cites that almost 90% of boxers sustain a brain injury in their career, and a study of the Velazquez Fatality Collection found over 300 fatalities from boxing occurred from 1950 to 2007.
Is Boxing’s Inherent Danger an Issue of Rules?
Data suggests that serious head injury like CTE is more typical in boxing than in MMA. This is largely due to rules and techniques in the sport that normalize repeated hits to the head.
Let’s look into what rules put boxers uniquely at risk for head injury:
- Where hits land: Boxing only allows for hits above the waist.
- What gets points: Judges give higher points for hits landed on the head or face, which incentivizes boxers to make headshots.
- Where the action is: Boxers are not allowed to grapple on the ground. Grappling-centered combat sports that use little to no punching have been found to have lower rates of injury.
- No headgear, in some cases: Title fight boxers are not required to wear protective headgear.
- Banned techniques: Boxing outlaws chokeholds, armbars, and other submission techniques that are less centered on striking the head.
- Length of the match: Professional boxing matches can last up to 36 minutes, where MMA matches can only last 25 minutes. More time means more opportunities for injury, especially when fatigue is factored in.
How MMA Rules Differ from Boxing
MMA rules allow fighters to hit anywhere on their opponent (except for certain areas like the groin and throat).
This means that in MMA, the blows can be spread throughout the body and not centered on the head. While headshots do occur with some regularity, they are not the sole focus.
Some MMA fighters take advantage of the rules that allow for grappling on the floor to gain advantages over their opponents, which leads to less big hits to the head.
Royce Gracie utilized floor grappling techniques to win the first major competition in UFC history without throwing a punch, showing how brute force punching is not the only strategic option to win a fight.
What Is the Safest Combat Sport?
While combat sports are known for being aggressive and violent, it is wrong to assume that every combat sport is dangerous. There are a number of combat sports that have relatively low risk for serious injury. These safer options are:
- Competitive Karate
- Greco-Roman or Freestyle Wrestling
There is no way to definitively qualify which combat sport is the safest, but all of these options have certain rules and techniques that improve safety. Combat sports that are centered on grappling have fewer chokehold injuries than ones where punching and striking are common.
Taekwondo and Judo are full Olympic medal sports, as are Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. High-level competition in these sports requires the use of protective headgear, pads, and gloves, which is an obvious nod to safety.
They also restrict (or, in the case of Judo and wrestling, completely forbid) striking the opponent with direct punches or kicks. This all but eliminates the likelihood of repeated blows to the head.
How to Protect Yourself in Combat Sports
The ability to protect yourself from serious injury in combat sports is important for even the casual fighter. Again, many combat sports are not inherently dangerous, and through practicing these tips, you will develop good habits for safety.
- Wear Protective Equipment
This one seems obvious, right? Wearing headgear, mouth guards, padded gloves, protective eyewear, and proper footwear is a must for safe fighting.
- Practice Correct Form and Technique
Combat sports require complex movements that should be practiced at low intensity when first starting out. It is important to learn the correct way to punch, kick, and grapple to protect not only your sparring partner but also yourself. Guidance from a trainer or coach is necessary to learn any combat sport.
- Understand Your Body and Know Your Limits
Preventing injury in any physical activity requires stretching, warming up, cooling down, and proper hydration. When engaging in training or competition, listen to your body and know to stop if you are too fatigued or unable to continue.
However potentially dangerous a sport may be, practicing good habits is a smart way to increase personal safety.
Through analyzing the data that is presently available, it is clear that one of these two sports is more dangerous.
Boxing is a more dangerous sport than MMA. This is largely due to the high rate of repeated blows to the head in a boxing match, a rate that is much higher compared to other combat sports including MMA.
Despite their violent reputation, combat sports like MMA and boxing are immensely popular and are a great way to merge physical fitness, competition, and self-defense training into a single activity.
Combat sports do come with an inherent risk for injury, but there are plenty of safe options that pose little threat of danger.
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