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Is MMA Dangerous?

If you’ve ever seen an MMA fight, then you know that it can be bloody, and gorier than boxing. Despite the fact that MMA fights are pretty short, you may be wondering just how much damage these MMA fighters take inside the octagon. In this article, I’m going to explain how dangerous MMA really is, especially when compared to other sports. Is MMA dangerous?

Yes, MMA is dangerous, as it is a combat sport where the two participants are actively trying to hurt each other. But despite how bloody MMA is, it is considerably less dangerous than both Boxing and Football, based on the severity of brain trauma. Due to the wide variety of attacks used in MMA, MMA fighters are less likely to suffer a significant head injury.

So yes, of course MMA is a dangerous sport, as you probably expected. But you probably still have more questions regarding training MMA, specific injuries, and its safety versus other sports. So in the rest of the post, I will be covering all this and more, starting with training MMA casually.

Is Training MMA Dangerous?

In short, no. Training MMA casually is not dangerous, even if you spar once or twice a week. If you properly warm-up and stretch, and wear protective gear when sparring, you can train MMA without any issue.

Training MMA in itself is not dangerous at all. Basic MMA training includes things like shadowboxing, hitting pads, hitting the heavy bag, and doing drills with a partner. Of course, as with any physical activity, there is the risk of pulling a muscle or something of that nature.

Shadowboxing is a common part of MMA training, as are hitting the bag and running drills.
Shadowboxing is a common part of MMA training, as are hitting the bag and running drills.

For this post, I’m going to consider something ‘dangerous’ only if it results in a significant or life-changing injury.

So yes, you might overexert yourself while hitting the heavy bag and hurt yourself. However, this is not a very debilitating injury, and you can easily avoid it through a proper warm-up.

MMA training starts getting more dangerous when we start making contact with other people, and one way this happens is through Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. All grappling in MMA can be dangerous, but BJJ is noteworthy due to its focus on submissions.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Of course, the most popular submission in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the rear-naked choke. You might wonder how dangerous this might be if you aren’t able to tap out in time. If you don’t tap out to a choke, you simply go unconscious, due to the lack of blood flow to your brain.

As long as your partner releases the choke shortly after you go unconscious, you should be fine, as there is no evidence that suggests that being choked unconscious has any long term negative effects. You simply wake up when the choke is released, as blood flow returns to the brain.

BJJ is made safer by the tap out rule. As you can see above, the girl in blue is readying her left hand to tap out to this armbar.
BJJ is made safer by the tap out rule. As you can see above, the girl in blue is readying her left hand to tap out to this armbar.

Of course, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in particular is made safer by the fact that you are able to ‘tap out’ of a submission once you feel that it is hurting you. This applies to chokes, locks, and even simply rolling with your partner. At any time, you can tap out, and your partner will release the submission.

Now of course, this rule requires that you trust your partners will release a submission when you tap, so just make sure your BJJ school is reputable and trustworthy.

MMA Sparring

Now that we’ve covered the potential dangers of BJJ, I’ll cover the dangers involved with sparring. Sparring can be more dangerous than BJJ, depending on your partners and training methods.

Sparring is an important part of MMA training, as it is the closest you can get to a real fight while training.
Sparring is an important part of MMA training, as it is the closest you can get to a real fight while training.

Always remember to wear a mouthguard when sparring, lest you lose any teeth in the process. Also, some gyms may encourage or even require you to wear headgear for sparring. However, the protective capabilities of sparring headgear have been debated, and the most important factor in sparring safety is how hard you are hitting each other.

In order to have a safe and productive sparring session, make sure you set clear rules with your partner(s). Usually, your gym’s coach will do this, but you should always make sure that your partner has the same expectations of the sparring session as you do.

For example, specify how hard you can hit each other and to what areas. Many professional MMA fighters like to spar hard, but only hit lightly when punching towards the head, as this minimizes brain damage. So figure out what works for you, and learn as you go.

Current ONE Championship fighter Demetrious Johnson says he spars with minimal contact to the head, to minimize damage.
Current ONE Championship fighter Demetrious Johnson says he spars with minimal contact to the head, to minimize damage.

Sparring is an important part of training, and should not be taken lightly. With that being said, it should not be as intense as a real fight, as this intensity can only result in unnecessary damage.

If you set these rules with your sparring partners, and minimize your sparring to one or two sessions a week, your sparring session should not be dangerous at all.

MMA vs Boxing and Football

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, MMA is actually safer than both Boxing and Football, based on the amount of head trauma received in the sport.

There are several reasons why MMA is the safest of the three sports, which I’ll explain shortly. But first, I wanted to point out some interesting stats I found in an article by the New York Times on this subject:

  • Around 40% of former boxers have symptoms of chronic brain injury
  • Only about 28% of MMA fights end from a knockout
  • There have only been 3 deaths in MMA history, while there have been 129 boxing deaths in the United States alone.
  • In just 2009, 55,000 hockey/football players were taken to the emergency room for head injuries.

These are just some of the figures that show the outcomes of the various sports. Now of course, MMA has its fair share of brain injuries as well, and I am not saying that it is an injury-free sport, or anything close to that. But of the three sports talked about here, MMA is by far the safest.

Because MMA fights can be ended by submission as well as TKO, they are less likely to result in a traumatic brain injury.
Because MMA fights can be ended by submission as well as TKO, they are less likely to result in a traumatic brain injury.

There is one issue plaguing both Boxing and Football that doesn’t often apply to MMA, and that is repeated concussions in a short period of time. First, let’s talk about what this looks like in Football.

Football

In American Football, two teams face each other, with one trying to advance on the field, and the other trying to prevent that from happening. Players are lined up prior to a play, and often run straight into each other, smashing their heads together.

This may seem like no big deal, especially considering the big helmets they wear. Unfortunately, the helmets are not very useful in the prevention of brain trauma, as the brain is still subject to the forces hitting the helmet. However, even worse than brain trauma received on the field is the process for dealing with it.

Despite the big helmets worn in Football, the brain is still susceptible to blunt trauma.
Despite the big helmets worn in Football, the brain is still susceptible to blunt trauma.

Often times, players may be suspected of having a concussion, and are taken off the field for medical clearance. However, the procedures here are a lot less strict than those in boxing and MMA, as the player usually returns at their own discretion. According to ESPN reporter Kevin Seifert, there’s no mandatory waiting period before a concussed player can return to action.

In contrast, a boxer or MMA fighter will usually receive a suspension of a few weeks to 6 months.

Additionally, football players may feel the need (or may even be encouraged) to return to play as soon as they can, in order to help the team. Sometimes this means returning to action later on in the same game that they were pulled from for concussion-like symptoms.

The repeated trauma to the brain, especially after having already received a traumatic impact, can lead to chronic diseases such as CTE in the future.

Boxing

Now let’s talk about boxing vs MMA. On paper, the differences are very obvious: number of rounds, round length, methods of ending a fight, types of attacks allowed, etc. But let’s cover why exactly these factors can make a sport more dangerous.

The most dangerous part of boxing by far, is the count by the referee. This may seem surprising, as the count is supposed to determine if the boxer is in a good enough condition to continue, right? Well, yes. But what exactly does “good enough to continue” even mean?

A boxer can be confused and dazed, and yet can still be subjected to the count and allowed to continue fighting.
A boxer can be confused and dazed, and yet can still be subjected to the count and allowed to continue fighting.

In many cases, a boxer will be able to stand for the count after a knockdown. However, despite still being shaken and confused, the referee will allow him to continue.

The problem here is that a boxer can potentially be concussed and yet allowed to continue the match! And because boxing matches can go up to twelve rounds, the boxer will likely sustain more brain damage before the end of the match.

The lack of a count in MMA actually benefits the fighters. If a fighter is knocked out cold, then there is almost no possibility of the fighter continuing the match, as the referee waves it off immediately.

Similarly, if a fighter is knocked down and is taking shots without defending themselves, the referee will again wave the fight off. If the fighter who got knocked down was allowed to get up, and given a short amount of time to recover, they would only take more damage, especially since they will likely not fully recover anyway.

Once a fighter is knocked down in MMA, the fight is often stopped shortly after, and declared a TKO.
Once a fighter is knocked down in MMA, the fight is often stopped shortly after, and declared a TKO.

Add on top of that the fact that MMA fights are much shorter than boxing matches. A championship MMA fight contains 25 minutes of scheduled fight time, while a 12 round boxing match contains 36 minutes. This shortens the amount of time in which fighters can inflict traumatic injury on each other.

Also, the ruleset of the respective sports can make them more dangerous. Boxing strikes are limited to the head and body, and fights can only end by KO or decision.

In contrast, MMA strikes can be landed anywhere except for the groin and the back of the head, and there are many ways a fight can be stopped. Some examples are chokes, liver kicks, leg kicks, and joint locks, none of which involve strikes to the head.

Many MMA matches end in submission, saving both fighters unnecessary head injury.
Many MMA matches end in submission, saving both fighters unnecessary head injury.

The shorter scheduled fight time, plus the various methods in which fights can end, make MMA the safer sport.

I hope this post helped you learn about the relative safety of MMA when compared to other sports. Of course, MMA is still a dangerous sport, and injuries are unavoidable.

But this shouldn’t deter you from training MMA if it is something you enjoy. As long as you train smart, and have good training partners, you should be safe. If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out some similar ones on the Training Tips page. Thanks for reading!