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[EXPLAINED] Is Boxing Safer Than MMA?

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This is a question many fans of combat sports have long wondered about: Which is more dangerous, mixed martial arts or boxing?

MMA has a reputation for being one of the most brutal and bloody of all contact sports.

The blood seen in MMA is from bloody noses or facial cuts, and it looks a lot worse than it actually is.

MMA is a total body workout, and therefore you can injure basically any part of your body,

Injuries like bulging discs in the neck and spine, tearing your ACL, damaging your shoulder, etc. could have an effect on your career or could even be life-changing.

In boxing, you typically only see injuries to hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.

You can suffer broken ribs, but that typically heals very quickly and doesn’t reoccur in the same way muscle, tendon, and ligament damage does.

It’s hard to tell how much brain damage MMA causes, simply because MMA was only invented in the early 1990s. .

In this article, I’m going to go through the dangers of each sport.

Boxing vs MMA
Credit: The Journal

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Which Has More Deaths, Boxing Or MMA?

Although deaths in MMA and boxing are rare, there has been a few recorded cases.

There have been zero deaths in any of the major MMA promotions, unless you consider Yang Jian Bing in ONE FC. His death was caused by weight cutting. I’ll go through that in the weight cutting section of this article.

Deaths in Boxing  and  MMA
Credit: ABC

There have been 7 deaths in sanctioned fights and 9 unsanctioned fights.

Most of the causes of death were due to brain damage which was caused by the fight.

Some of the causes of death are unknown.

Donshay White who competed at Hardrock MMA 90 in Kentucky in 2017 died from hypertensive heart disease backstage, after the referee stopped the fight due to White being too exhausted.

As far as I am concerned, this is more of a case where someone should not be competing in MMA at all, as hypertension or high blood pressure is an extremely serious health issue.

But nevertheless, he was cleared by the commission to fight.

Rondel Clark died after collapsing during his fight in 2017, and died three days later in hospital from severe dehydration and kidney failure.

This is definitely a case of extreme weight cutting and poor rehydration causing his unfortunate death.

Professional boxing has been around since the late 19th century and has a far bigger participation rate than MMA.

Boxing has some of the same injury risks as other sports, but because the main target areas of punches are the chest and head, boxers are at high risk for brain injuries

It’s estimated that between 1800-2000 people have died from injuries sustained in bouts.

The main cause of death would be brain injuries.

This is likely due to the fact that you have the standing 10 count in boxing.

Where once you are knocked down you have 10 seconds to return to your feet.

This definitely leads to fighters receiving multiple concussive blows during fights.

Whereas in MMA, once you’re knocked down you only have a couple of seconds to respond and recover to a good position before the referee stops the fight.

MMA involves grappling, leg kicks, and clinch work. 

You’re most likely to get injured if you participate in mixed martial arts, but the injury is not as severe as in boxing. MMA has more facial cuts but less brain trauma and fewer eye injuries despite the bloody facial cuts, which aren’t harmful in the long term.

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Typical Boxing Injuries

Typical boxing injuries
Credit: John Erickson MD

Not all injuries in combat sports involve head trauma, though they are by far the worst and most life-changing injuries you can have.

In boxing it is expected to have concussion caused from hard sparring or a fight.

Of course, you would want to avoid brain injuries. Other common injuries are injuries to the hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.

Obviously, in a combat sport like boxing, where your only weapon is your hands, there is going to be a lot of wear and tear on your joints.

Dislocated shoulders, elbow tendonitis, broken wrists, and fingers are injuries that most boxers will experience at some point in their career.

These injuries could be career-ending but certainly not life-changing.

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Typical MMA Injuries

MMA Injuries
Credit: Fansided

Due to the variety of techniques and positions found in MMA, the list of injuries to the human body in MMA is much larger than in boxing and can be far worse.

Considering the amount of wrestling and grappling done in MMA, you see a lot of injuries to the knees, spine, and neck which can be far more damaging to a fighter’s career and quality of life than what you typically see in boxing.

Herniated disks and a torn meniscus can be very difficult to recover from, even after rehab, and therefore can be career-altering

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Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
Credit: Very Well

CTE or Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is caused by repeated damage to the brain.

The symptoms are memory loss, confusion, and impaired judgement.

CTE is a concern in all contact sports, not just combat sports.

The jolting motion of being hit, and continual hits to the head, can do damage to your brain.

CTE can only officially be diagnosed after a person has died.

Often one can tell if someone is suffering from CTE, because the symptoms are severe.

Many high-profile cases have been recorded, including Chris Benoit, and at this point 100s of former NFL players.

CTE is becoming a major concern in contact sports

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CTE In Boxing

CTE in boxing
Credit: Boston Herald

In terms of CTE, I believe what separates boxing from MMA the most, is the amount of fights a boxer takes in comparison to MMA fighters.

Particularly if the boxer went down the amateur route first. It is very common for amateur boxers to take upwards of 200 amateur fights if they are good enough to handle them

However, in MMA, you are unlikely to have more than ten amateur fights in your lifetime.

While many amateur boxers never become professionals, they still fight an insane amount of fights, which means that there is a high probability that they are likely to suffer brain injuries.

An extremely high level boxer might only receive a few decent shots to the head while participating in over 100 fights.

Another thing to mention is tomato cans. These are fighters who are solely there to pad an up-and-comers record and get easy experience.

These guys often fight every weekend and have insane records like 7 wins and 130 losses.

They don’t get knocked out very often, but they fight almost every weekend for a decade, taking alot of punch, only to fight again on the following weekend.

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Due to MMA being a relatively new sport, and very few high profile MMA fighters have died or shown symptoms of CTE, the number of MMA fighters confirmed to have CTE, is very low.

The most notable is, Gary Goodridge who started back in 1996 at UFC 8. The former kickboxer and MMA fighter had suffered 10 knockout losses in MMA and 14 in kickboxing.

Though he stated in an interview, that he believed 90% of his head injuries came from K1, and not MMA.

The first MMA fighter to be diagnosed with CTE post mortem was 13-fight Bellator fighter Jordan Parsons who was killed in a hit and run, back in 2016.

Parsons was just 25 years old and had only suffered 1 knock-out defeat and finished with a record of 11-2.

Parson showed no outward symptoms and had only made his pro debut back in late 2010.

The second and most notable case of CTE found post mortem was Tim Hague. He was the former UFC heavyweight who had died in a boxing match in 2017.

After being knocked out in the 2nd round, Hague returned to the dressing room where he went into a coma and died two days later.

The autopsy had shown that Hague had early stages of CTE.

CTE will definitely become more prevalent with participation in MMA growing each year and the sport becoming mainstream.

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What Is Weight Cutting?

Weight cutting

Weight cutting is the process of inducing rapid dehydration, so a fighter can temporarily lose an extremely large amount weight. A fighter can lose anything between 7-17% of their body weight.

So a fighter who fights in the 155lb lightweight division will typically weigh around 180lbs during fight camp diet, down to the low 170s and cut the last 15-20 lbs on fight week.

They will only weigh 155lbs for at most 1 hour then start the process of rehydration.

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Difference In Weight Cutting Between Boxing And MMA

Weight cutting in MMA and boxing

Boxing and MMA follow the same model of doing the weigh-in the day before, meaning that fighters can cut an extremely large amount of weight and still be healthy to compete the next evening.

The California State Athletic Commission has enacted a rule that fights can be cancelled if the fighters weigh more than 15% above the weight limit on fight day.

Notable at UFC 270 Bantamweight fighter Cody Stamman ballooned all the way back up to 159lbs on fight day, a massive 17.3% increase in body weight.

ONE FC has tried to combat the issue of weight cutting by making fighters take hydration tests after they have weighed in.

This came after fighter Yang Jian Bing died in 2015 from cardiopulmonary failure, after failing to make weight at ONE FC 35 Spirit of Champions.

At this point, weight cutting seems to be an ingrained part of the sport. I doubt we will ever see the elimination of weight cutting or even see fighters implement smaller weight cuts of no less than 5 pounds.

Simply because most fighters will do anything to get an advantage.

Boxers will also institute a weight cut, but will cut a smaller portion of their weight.

This is because boxing has far more weight classes.

In boxing, there’s only a 3-8 pound difference between each of the lighter weight classes.

Whereas in MMA, there is at least a 10-pound difference between weight classes and a 20-pound difference between middle, light and heavyweight.

In boxing, heavyweight doesn’t have a weight limit, whereas MMA has a 265lbs limit. A rule most people think should be cancelled.

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