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Myth-Busting: Is MMA Really ‘Safer Than Boxing’?

(“See, when boxers get knocked out, their eyes *close*. I rest my case.”)

By George Shunick

If you’re anything like me, chances are you’ve claimed that MMA is safer than boxing whenever some know-it-all claims that MMA is too dangerous to be legalized. (Well, I live in New York, so maybe I get into this argument more than most people.) But the case seems fairly logical; unlike boxers, a significant part of MMA training does not involve striking. Moreover, the type of striking found in MMA targets the full body of the opponent. Boxing only allows punches above the waist and takes place at a closer range, invariably guaranteeing more blows to the head. So it follows that since boxers are struck more in the head throughout months of training and in their fights than MMA fighters are, MMA is a safer sport for the brains of athletes.

Well, common sense and logic help a lot, but ultimately aren’t quite as authoritative as those pesky things called facts. Recently, conducted an interview with Dr. Charles Bernick, who is in charge of a study of the brain health of professional fighters titled the “Professional Fighters Brain Health Study.” (Creative, isn’t it?) The study is conducted by the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and is designed to last for four years. Its purpose is “to detect subtle changes in brain health that correlate with impaired thinking and functioning. If changes can be detected and interpreted early, there may be a way to reverse or soften trauma-induced brain diseases, like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The study could also point regulators to specific markers in fighters’ brain scans that indicate a problem.”

When pressed if there is a discernible difference between the brain health of boxers and MMA fighters, Dr. Bernick responds:

“We did look at this, because obviously it’s a common question. And so far — and you have to take our results as somewhat preliminary, probably now we have the full data on maybe 150 fighters — there isn’t a huge difference between boxers and MMA guys. If you kind of match them for the number of fights they’ve had, their age, education and number of fights, there’s not a huge difference. There are some minor differences between the two in certain things, but all in all there’s not a huge difference. And it may be the fact that the fight might not be the important part. It actually might be the training… You know, as we’ve talked to fighters, a lot of them say, well, when you train, we may hold back a little, but sometimes, on the other hand, it depends who you train with. You know, you may be going all-out.”

Well, that’s not encouraging. Maybe there is an issue with hard sparring. Then again, maybe there isn’t. Although Dr. Bernick is clear that “there’s no evidence [MMA is] safer,” he’s also clear that “we don’t have any evidence one way or another, to be honest with you.” This is because the four year study is only in its first year, and there is still the majority of the evidence that remains to be collected and analyzed in the coming years which could easily reverse the study’s findings thus far.

Even if the study’s preliminary observations stand, this doesn’t suddenly devalue the argument for legalization. Last time I checked, sports like boxing and football — which are, if not more dangerous, at least as dangerous — are still legal across the country. The most important consequence of this study will hopefully be a better understanding of the exact relationship between cranial impacts and neurological deterioration. Are brains damaged significantly after only a few hard hits? Are numerous sub-concussive blows more damaging than knockouts? Is there demonstrable evidence that practicing MMA leads to brain trauma, as it does in boxing? In answering these questions, this study might compromise a convenient talking point for the MMA community, but it will provide information that could make the sport safer and prevent more fighters from suffering life-altering brain damage.

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linzhandf- June 21, 2012 at 10:21 am
Mr_Misanthropy- June 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm
MMA is certainly more EXCITING than boxing these days. Oh snap!
cdub- June 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm
The correct answer is "yes" :)
mcw89138- June 20, 2012 at 11:44 am
One aspect overlooked by this debate is MMA is probably more dangerous for the spine. I'm only aware of one boxer who has suffered a compression fracture while sparring (I'm sure there are more stories out there, I'm just not aware of them). Meanwhile, there are TONS of MMA guys with herniated discs and/or compressed nerves - Florian, Aldo, Carwin, Ortiz, T. Silva, Nover, Cro Cop, Sexyama, Serra, Arlovski, Edgar, Quarry, etc. Ortiz and Quarry have even undergone fusion operations. Unfortunately, in twenty to thirty years, many MMA fighters are going to be suffering from chronic and disabling back conditions. I personally would MUCH rather be a boxer with some memory loss and slurred speech but able to walk around and function without pain than a MMA fighter who has no cognitive disabilities but is stuck in bed popping loritabs and hooked up to a morphine pump and spinal chord stimulator due to failed back syndrome.
Vrax- June 20, 2012 at 11:12 am
Excellent article.
GrandShamrock- June 20, 2012 at 11:10 am
In training you could attempt a 500lb lift, preparing for an MMA fight, that means you could get hurt or splattered against the ground, that means MMA is more dangerous than boxing, swimming or soccer? The same applies when they train boxing for an MMA fight, if they get injured training boxing, that means MMA is more dangerous? Training is another thing.
GrandShamrock- June 20, 2012 at 11:06 am
MMA is safer. First of all, training is not boxing or MMA, training is training. MMA is the sport in which they COMPETE not in which they train. MMA is safer, you could fight 10 fights in boxing, 10 fights in MMA, fights in boxing could go 36 minutes, in MMA, 25. In MMA you don't face A level strikers in all your fights, not everyone knows how to punch, not everyone punches or kicks you in the head. There's more than strikes to the head in MMA, and that means Wrestling, Kicks to the body and the legs, submissions, and the thing that you don't always face an A level striker. So considering the combat sport, the real fights, it's safer. No one bans "MMA" training, so we should focus in the real fights, and not in training, that's another subject.
Lingus- June 20, 2012 at 10:24 am
Has anyone ever heard of Kimbo Slice? Boxing is obviously more dangerous.
remeadial- June 20, 2012 at 10:23 am
This was a great article and it will change the way I "defend" MMA in the future. I won't say it's "safer", what I will say is that it's "at least as dangerous" as Boxing or Football but may be safer due to no standing counts, no hits with helmets, etc. It is a good point however about the training and KOs from head kicks and elbows. I'm sure Brandon Vera and Koscheck can attest that contact sufficiently powerful to break your face can't be good for your brain either.
LargeMidget- June 20, 2012 at 9:17 am
MMA is more dangerous on a fight to fight basis, because you can get your limbs broken.

But in the long run, boxing takes a greater toll on the brain and spinal cord than MMA. - But then again who knows, MMA isn't really old enough to be able to tell yet.
Ricardo Guitardo- June 20, 2012 at 9:10 am
The only difference I see is than in MMA people get to kick and knee and elbow and in boxing they punch only. That is the big difference to me.
Stak40- June 20, 2012 at 8:38 am
What about head kicks, knees and elbows? In my own mind, i would think they would be more likely to cause permanent damage to the dome than a punch. Head kicks aren't as frequent as the knees and elbows but getting KO'd by a head kick has to do more damage than getting hit by heavyweight boxer. Maybe not but i sure as shit rather be punched by Tyson in his prime than get kicked in the dome by cro cop or overeem.
knucklesamitch- June 20, 2012 at 9:08 am
The difference is most times, a single devastating head kick ends a fight ... So what's worse for the brain, a single head kick, or 36min of heavyweight punches in a boxing match?
Stak40- June 20, 2012 at 11:10 am
Well if its a heavyweight fight(nowadays) than 30 of the 36 min is spent hugging, so I would say a single head kick. I get your point. I really think it could be a toss up because we have seen in sports and life that even seemingly mild blows to the head can have fatal consequences even if its just one.
angry little feet- June 20, 2012 at 8:33 am
poor, poor Andrei. He should've never cut his hair. Bad juju I tell you.
Viva Hate- June 20, 2012 at 8:33 am
The myth is not 100% busted though, this is focusing on the long term affects on the brain but we should also consider short term. Things like the standing 8 count in boxing make the sport more dangerous as well, as we all know in MMA when a fight is over it is over. But boxers are allowed time to clear their heads and get their brains knocked around over and over. Go look at the number of boxers who have died in the ring. I am still sold that overall MMA is a safer sport.
Viva Hate- June 20, 2012 at 8:39 am
And I know the standing 8 count has been done away with, but fighters are still allowed to get up clear their heads when the fight should be stopped. Boxers are allowed to keep taking loads of punishment that can be deemed unnecessary and MMA moves to stop unnecessary punishment.
intercept440- June 20, 2012 at 8:30 am
all you really need to do is ask bob sap...i mean really he has taken so many hits to the head you dont even have to hit him just fake a punch and it tricks his brain into thinking you knocked him out...
knucklesamitch- June 20, 2012 at 8:05 am
The only difference I see in boxing compared to MMA is that in MMA, generally the most devastating strike leads to the end of the fight, in boxing, you've got 10 seconds to stand up so you can take more punishment. Would be interesting if there was a way to determine when concussions actually happen. I'm sure plenty of boxers continue fighting past a concussion as long as they stand up, in MMA, chances are the fights over around the time you sustain a concussion.
Fried Taco- June 20, 2012 at 7:46 am
Yeah, I don't buy the whole argument for MMA being safer. It may be safer for the brain, but that is like saying getting in a car wreck at 90mph is safer than one at 100mph. Just ask Gary.