As the UFC pushes Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) into the mainstream, an age old question remains: Is MMA safer then boxing? The main premise behind the argument has always been that unlike boxing, in MMA, there are more routes to victory than striking your opponent. Highlighting the obvious, there are less painful routes to victory, therefore making some losses in MMA less damaging on a fighter’s body and brain. The Unified Rules of MMA make it possible for an MMA fighter to win a bout by judges’ decision or by possibly submitting their opponent. The resulting notion is that MMA athletes suffer fewer traumatic injuries and the chances are lessened that they may become punch drunk. However, proponents of boxing are always quick to point out the smaller gloves implemented in MMA and the fact the rules allowing for leg strikes and elbows. Therefore “it’s time” to take an in-depth look to both sides of the argument. Before getting into the thick of this argument, I’d like to highlight one of the key reasons I decided to write this article. Shawn O’Sullivan, a retired boxer who I’ve met many times, lives in my hometown. On paper, his life seems like a success story. However the real truth is his boxing career killed his chances of having a successful life after his career was over. A brief documentary on his story can be found below.
Many would consider O’Sullivan’s career somewhat illustrious as he was the 1981 World Amateur Champion, 1981 Canadian Athlete of the Year and 1984 Olympic Silver medalist at light middleweight. Also many consider his gold medal bout against Frank Tate very controversial as it seemed like the fix was in. Despite scoring two standing 8 counts in round two the judges awarded that round to Tate. Upon going pro, he found himself quickly retired in 1988 with failed comebacks in both 1991 and 1997. Shawn’s overall record of 23-5-0, with 16 knockouts passed him by without accomplishing his dreams of competing in a world title bout. After four more fights in 1997, a neurologist refused to renew the license he needed to continue boxing due to brain damage he saw during a CAT scan. Today, O’Sullivan is living with the difficulties of brain damage, however, he does not regret his career in boxing. During my many conversations with O’Sullivan, he almost always slurred his speech and had difficulties remembering parts of his life. Sadly, his ability to share his story is all he has to show for his illustrious career. However, that’s hindered as a result of the culmination of blows to the head he endured during his boxing career. O’Sullivan suffers from boxer’s dementia, commonly known as being “punch drunk” brought about partly as a result of his fighting style and gruelling sparring sessions in the gym. If you’d like to see what I mean, take a few minutes and watch his bout against Armando Martinez. What remains untold to many, and something that highlights the relevance of this article is that O’Sullivan was pushed into boxing by his first coach: his father. Rumors are his father was letting his son spar against heavyweights and much larger men as part of the daily reality check for O’Sullivan. As parents, one may feel uncomfortable recommending that your child partake in any combat sport out of the fear of the long term consequences. Therefore signing your child up to either boxing or MMA training can become a question of which is safer? Is there a chance that you could help choose the lesser of two so-called evils. Until recently the entire argument behind MMA is safer then Boxing was entirely theoretical. There remains to be little scientific facts and findings to support the claim. Most recently the University of Alberta’s Dr. Shelby Karpman led a review of more than a decade’s worth of medical exams from approximately 1,700 fighters in Edmonton, Canada. According to the study, Fifty-nine per cent of MMA athletes sustained some form of injury, compared to 50 per cent of boxers. However, boxers were more likely to lose consciousness during a bout: seven percent versus four percent for MMA fighters. Regardless of the facts to as which sport is safer, The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban on both MMA and boxing. By highlighting a 2014 University of Toronto study showed an MMA fighter suffered a traumatic brain injury in almost a third of professional bouts. It’s not my intention to cast doubt onto the safety of a sport, however both boxing and MMA have had cases of fatalities that are well documented. Recently a MMA fighter died due to complications cutting weight. John McCain, who once labeled the sport of MMA “human cockfighting,” sat ringside at the 1995 boxing death of Jimmy Garcia. However, very few serious life threatening injuries in MMA come to mind as none have happened on its main stage. A fighter’s death inside the Octagon has never occurred and hopefully it never will. But it’s something that has to be in the back of everyone’s mind when we see fighters getting knocked out lifelessly. Rendering an opponent not only defenceless but unconscious remains to be the name of the fight game whether it be MMA or Boxing. That’s where a fighter’s fanfare, bonus money and continuous hype derives. UFC President Dana White declared MMA the “safest sport in the world, fact.” The idea that MMA is the safest sport in the world is crazy. Tennis, golf, track and field, swimming… Are all “safer” sports in that they lack head trauma all together and present little risk of death. Touting up safety should come with a responsibility to fully study the effects of your sport. The construction on what will be known as the UFC Athlete Health and Performance Center begins this shortly and will take 15 months to complete. Next to medical insurance for training injuries, this is MMA’s second most significant step towards taking on more of a leading role in sport safety. With that said, Dana’s end game is that Scientific research will eventually brand MMA as a “safer” alternative for fight sport athletes compared to boxing. However, it would just further the sport’s inverse relationship. As MMA increases in popularity, boxing’s visibility in the national consciousness continues to fall and it’s easy to finger point. It also can’t be stressed enough that the first generation of fighters are just getting out of the game over the past few years. Science has an incredibly small sample size to look at in terms of aging MMA fighters right now, although UFC originals like Gary Goodridge are already feeling the effects. We probably still need a few more “generations” of fighters to retire and grow old to get a true feel for the impact of the sport on them as they age. And by that I mean fighters who have had to compete with other high level athletes, not fighters who were the best of a sport that was still very much in the developmental stages. Fighters like George St Pierre, Demetrious Johnson and Ronda Rousey are unlikely to face any longstanding effects of brain trauma primarily because of their runs of dominance and their ability to avoid significant damage. Johnson recently stated on the Joe Rogan Experience that “There’s not enough money in the world for me to risk brain damage.” Johnson, like many other educated fighters, knows that taking too much damage in his career will hurt his longevity both inside and outside the sport, and that’s why he’s so conscious of his safety in the Octagon. Perhaps that’s the reason why he’s never lost consciousness in the Octagon. Whatever the case, it is difficult to use findings of the past to determine the safety of the sport today. So much constantly changes within the sport of MMA that trying to compare between eras is essentially the same in trying to compare completely different sports. Perhaps then a better approach is not to look at the sport’s past, and instead on its present and foreseeable future. The argument as to which sport is safer because of the glove size is moot. The amount of punishment a fighter takes over their career is individualistic and highly dependent on a fighter’s style. The main selling point as to why MMA is safer than boxing is actually the glove size. The boxing glove was made to protect the hands, not the person being punched. However MMA practitioners argue that they use the bare minimum in hand protection. Any argument surrounding the fact that a hand will break before the head isn’t exactly the most appealing approach to advocate for a safer sport. The same goes for the standing eight count. Arguing that allowing a concussed fighter to continue in a fight after being knocked down only furthers brain trauma. In MMA we witness a lot follow up punches after a fighter is rendered unconscious – maybe equally damaging to allowing a boxer to continue after receiving devastating blows. There are so many variables in determining the devastation of a landed punch—from technique to timing, to whether or not the receiver saw the punch coming—that it would be virtually impossible to determine in a live match which glove size would have caused the most damage. Furthermore, there are a number of other elements and rules that determining which sport is safer. The average duration of a Boxing match is generally longer then that of an MMA fight. There are so many variables that are individualistic to the fighter. I’d like to declare each sport equally as dangerous, but until further research is done, one can’t make such a statement with much confidence. The inherent risks in both sports are intrinsically linked. The ability of a fighter to achieve longevity in the sport is more dependant on the abilities of the fighter themselves then their respective sports parameters alone. Generalizing which is safer without the scientific evidence to support such a claim remains to be a matter of opinion.