Mixed martial arts less dangerous than boxing, but bloodier

Which is bloodier, mixed martial arts or boxing? The answer is mixed martial arts. However, boxing is more dangerous. Boxing poses a significantly greater risk of serious injury than mixed martial arts, even though the latter has a reputation for being one of the most vicious, brutal and bloody of all contact sports, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Alberta’s Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic gathered and analyzed one decade’s worth of data from medical examinations following boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) matches.

Their findings have been published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.

Muhammad AliMuhammad Ali, considered among the greatest heavyweight boxers in the history of sport, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, a disease that is common to head trauma from activities such as boxing.

They found that MMA fighters’ risk of minor injuries is marginally higher, compared to boxers. However, there were more cases of serious harm suffered by boxers from concussions and other head trauma, eye injuries, broken bones, smashed noses, and loss of consciousness.

Most blood seen in MMA from minor injuries

Lead author, Shelby Karpman, a sports medicine physician, explained:

“Yes, you’re more likely to get injured if you’re participating in mixed martial arts, but the injury severity is less overall than boxing.”

“Most of the blood you see in mixed martial arts is from bloody noses or facial cuts; it doesn’t tend to be as severe but looks a lot worse than it actually is.”

Mixed Martial ArtsAlthough mixed martial arts bouts are famed for their bloody brutality, they have a lower serious injury rate than boxing.

Ringside research

The study is the first to offer a glimpse into the dangers of the two contact sports in Canada. In Canada, post-fight medical exams are mandatory in both sports, and Dr. Karpman has been examining competitors after matches for 25 years.

In this research, Dr. Karpman, alongside Leah Phillips, Ziling Qin and Doug Gross, from the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, and Patrick Reid, who works at the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission, reviewed the post-fight records of 550 boxers and 1,818 MMA fighters who took part in matches between 2003 and 2013 in Edmonton.

Overall injury rate higher in MMA matches, but…

They found that 59.4% of MMA competitors suffered some kind of injury during their matches, compared to 49.8% of boxers. This is a statistically significant difference.

The majority of injuries were contusions (bruises). However, 7.1% of boxers suffered loss of consciousness or serious eye injuries during their fight, compared to just 4.2% of MMA fighters.

A higher percentage of boxers also received medical suspensions because of injuries suffered during matches.

Is MMA stigma unjustified?

Dr. Karpman said there is a risk of injury in any contact sport, but MMA, more than any other, faces stigma from physicians and the medical community overall, who see the sport as too violent and bloody – and therefore dangerous.

As a result “fighters have become an undertreated athletic population,” the researchers explained. These latest findings should help them understand the risk of climbing into the ring, they added.

Dr. Karpman said:

“These guys do not get the respect they deserve for what they’re doing–or the medical treatment–because the medical community doesn’t want to deal with such a bloody sport with head injuries and concussions.”

Victor Valimaki, a 14-year MMA veteran, who says he has suffered virtually every injury imaginable, commented:

“There are definitely risks. I’ve been pretty messed up. Most injuries happen during training. Injuries during an actual fight are superficial–typically black eyes, cuts and the odd broken hand.”

Banning combative sports not the solution

Dr. Karpman says it is puzzling that hokey stars such as Scott Stevens and Chris Pronger are worshiped by millions of fans, while MMA and boxing professionals are vilified with frequent calls for the sport to be banned. Hockey, with its catastrophic blows to the head, is one of the most dangerous sports around.

Dr. Karpman said:

“I always say if you’re going to ban a sport, you need statistics. Just watching mixed martial arts twice on TV does not cut it. And even if you ban a sport, you’re not going to stop it. You’re just going to take it underground where they’re not going to receive medical care.”

Citation: Combative Sports Injuries: An Edmonton Retrospective,” Karpman, Shelby BSc, MHA, MD, DipSportMed; Reid, Patrick PhD (Cand), MA, BSc (Hons); Phillips, Leah PhD, MA, BA (Hons); Qin, Ziling BSc, MScRS; Gross, Douglas P. PhD, BScPT. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. DOI: 10.1097/JSM.0000000000000235.

Video – Sparring in the MMA research ring

University of Alberta physical therapy student Curtis Demarce, 27 (left), spars with retired MMA fighter and coach Cody Krahn, 31, at a UFC gym in Sherwood Park, under the watchful eye of Victor Valimaki (referee).