To viewers, the bloody, head-to-toe violence of mixed martial arts (MMA) can make cage-fighting events look like the most dangerous sport on the planet. But a new study finds that it's actually safer than at least one sport: boxing.
Researchers at the University of Alberta's Sather Sports Medicine Clinic discovered that while MMA fighters are more likely than boxers to experience minor but visible injuries like bruises or contusions, they are less likely to receive the injuries that matter long-term in one's health; things like concussions, head trauma, unconsciousness, eye and facial injuries and broken bones.
"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," Dr. Shelby Karpman, a sports medicine physician and the study's lead author, said in a press release.
Researchers studied post-fight medical data of 1,181 MMA fighters and 550 boxers who competed between 2003 to 2013 in Edmonton, Canada. 59.4 percent of MMA fighters and 49.8 percent of boxers suffered some form of injury during their bout. However, 7.1 percent of boxers lost consciousness or suffered serious eye injuries compared to 4.2 percent of MMA fighters. Additionally, boxers were "significantly more likely" to receive post-bout medical suspensions for their injuries.
Karpman is hopeful that her team's research will bring more medical attention to MMA fighters, who she says have become "an undertreated athletic population," Karpman believes fighters aren't getting the deserved medical care for the damage they're inflicting on each other.
To those familiar with the mechanics of each sport, the results of this study aren't wholly shocking. One could argue that of course boxing, a sport whose only object is to bludgeon your opponent over the head with one's fists, will lead to more head injuries than MMA, where fighters attack different parts of the body in a variety of ways.
If more research eventually brands MMA as a "safer" alternative for fight sport athletes compared to boxing, it would further the sport's inverse relationship: As MMA increases in popularity, boxing's visibility in the national consciousness continues to fall. Whether each trend is linked is debatable, but what's happened isn't.
Over the past two decades, MMA and its highest-level league, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have emerged as fierce competitors to boxing for combat sport fans. MMA is also winning the superstar fight with the emergence of stars like Ronda Rousey and the retirement of notable boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
"My honest opinion of boxing is that boxing will go away," UFC president Dana White said during an ESPN Radio interview in July 2010, citing how boxing's fractured business model has irreparably damaged the sport. The heightened dangers of boxing compared to MMA, however, may serve to damage boxing on a talent level -- while a generation of fight athletes grew up idolizing Muhammad Ali, the next generation may look to Rousey or fellow UFC star Conor McGregor for professional inspiration.
MMA bouts yield bloodier optics than boxing matches, but for fighters, it seems to be a bit safer. With the way combat sport athletes put their bodies on the line, every sliver of safety matters.
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