Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

Why Do UFC Fighters’ Ears Look Weird?

So you’re watching the UFC fights, and everything’s going great right? But then you notice something. Specifically about the fighters. More specifically about their ears. Why do they look like that?

Why do UFC fighters’ ears look funny?

UFC fighters have weird looking ears to due the trauma the ears receive during grappling training, such as wrestling or jiu-jitsu. As they use their head to lean on their opponent during grappling training, the outside of their ear develops a pool of blood known as a hematoma, which grows to give their ears that bulbous look.

Let’s look at why exactly cauliflower ears develop in the first place, and how you can avoid it happening to your own ears.

Why Exactly Cauliflower Ears Develop

So as I just mentioned, the short explanation for cauliflower ears is that trauma to the ears creates a pool of blood, which basically bubbles up and creates the cauliflower ear.

Cauliflower is caused by trauma to the ears, usually due to grappling exchanges, such as in wrestling.
Cauliflower is caused by trauma to the ears, usually due to grappling exchanges, such as in wrestling.

However, this short explanation doesn’t give us all the answers. For example, we still don’t know exactly what type of trauma actually causes the cauliflower ear. How come, for example, cauliflower is less common in boxing? Surely boxers also receive trauma to the ears right?

Well no, not really. First, let’s talk about how cauliflower ear develops in the most common grappling disciplines: wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

So you probably already know this, but grappling in martial arts is pretty much any form of combat that does not include strikes. This means training techniques such as takedowns, throws, pins, and submissions. This is very different from striking, because the two combatants are constantly in contact, whereas when striking, you only make contact when you hit.

In grappling martial arts, the combatants are almost always in direct contact, increasing the chance that the ears get hit inadvertently.
In grappling martial arts, the combatants are almost always in direct contact, increasing the chance that the ears get hit inadvertently.

The increased contact is relevant in this situation because the ears won’t necessarily become puffy after a couple of strikes. It is constant and repeated pressure and trauma, which is what you find in wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

You see, head positioning is very important in grappling, because it can be used to control your opponent. Because the two combatants are fighting for control of the other’s body, they must use any limb they can to maneuver and impose their will on their opponent.

As the grapplers work towards gaining the dominant position, their ears are exposed to a lot of friction due to its importance in controlling an opponent. A perfect example of this is when two wrestlers have single collar ties, and are fighting for control, while their heads are ear-to-ear. A single collar tie is when you have one arm wrapped behind the opponent’s neck.

Although it’s hard to see here, these guys are wrestling ear to ear because they each have a single collar tie.

Another way the ear gets hit is during takedowns. When a wrestler goes in for a single leg, their ear is hitting the leg of their opponent, sometimes against the hard bone of the shin. Also, if a scramble occurs during the takedown, the wrestler could end up with his ear against the mat, or in another unexpected position.

The NBC Olympics website has a great video where Olympic wrestlers explain what cauliflower is, and how it is caused. Of course, there are many positions in which the ear will be hit during grappling exchanges, as these exchanges are closer and more dynamic than striking exchanges.

So now we know the actions that cause cauliflower ear, but what is the scientific reason it happens?

As you likely know, the ears are made of a soft tissue known as cartilage. Because it is soft, it doesn’t offer much protection to the ear, the small blood vessels that run blood through the ears are at risk when they get hit.

Many MMA fighters (such as Rafael Dos Anjos shown here) have cauliflower ear, due to the extensive grappling training they go through.
Many MMA fighters (such as Rafael Dos Anjos shown here) have cauliflower ear, due to the extensive grappling training they go through.

According to MedicineNet, when the blood vessels are struck, blood clots form inside the ear, which prevents vital nutrients from being supplied to the cartilage. As the ear cartilage dies, it shrivels up, creating the trademark cauliflower ear look.

How To Prevent Cauliflower Ears During Training

Now, some wrestlers and fighters say that cauliflower ear is a sort of “badge of honor”. But putting that aside, we can all agree that it looks pretty ugly. So here are some tips on how to prevent cauliflower ear while you are training.

Really there is only one way of avoiding cauliflower ear during training, and that is by wearing protective headgear. This type of headgear is most common in wrestling, and so you can easily find it by looking for “wrestling headgear”.

Here you can see two boys wrestling, both of them wearing protective headgear.
Here you can see two boys wrestling, both of them wearing protective headgear.

Basically, this headgear consists of two hard shells that are held together by a few elastic bands. The shells go over the ears, protecting them from trauma as the shell takes hits, keeping the soft cartilage safe. The elastic bands keep the ear shells in place.

There are different varieties of wrestling headgear, but pretty much all of them do the same thing. For example, some of them use fabric instead of elastic bands, making the headgear seem more like a helmet. This is to make the headgear more comfortable for the wrestler.

Regardless, any type of wrestling headgear will help prevent cauliflower ear, by keeping the ears safe while grappling.

Treatment For Cauliflower Ears After Training

Cauliflower ear is usually simply seen as a minor issue, mostly due to the deformity of the ear. However, it can develop into something more serious if not treated properly. Usually, it is not too bad though, and the worse that can occur is infection.

To treat cauliflower ear, wrestlers/fighters go through a procedure known as “draining the ear”. This refers to the process in which a doctor removes the blood clot that caused the cauliflower ear in the first place.

Professional fighter Ryan Bader (holding syringe) demonstrates how an ear is drained to his female teammate.
Professional fighter Ryan Bader (holding syringe) demonstrates how an ear is drained to his female teammate.

If the trauma causing the cauliflower was recent, then the ear can be saved from permanent deformity, as the skin can be reconnected to the cartilage. When this happens, the cartilage continues to receive the nutrients it needs as normal.

The blood clot is removed through an incision that is created in the ear. The skin and cartilage are then compressed to connect them, and reactivate the blood supply. Delaying this procedure after the ear is hit increases the chances of permanent deformity.

If the deformity has already occurred, there are cosmetic procedures administered by plastic surgeons that can help the ear look more normal.

Conclusion

That’s pretty much all there is to the weird ears of UFC fighters. Just remember to wear your headgear and you should be good. So to summarize this post:

In short, UFC fighters have weird ears because the ears constantly get hit during grappling sessions. As their ears get hit during takedowns and scrambles, the ear develops a pool of blood known as a hematoma, which gives their ears that disfigured look, also known as cauliflower ear.

I hope this post helped explain the causes of cauliflower ear. If you enjoyed the post, please consider checking out some similar posts on the Martial Arts History Page. Thanks for reading!

Ready To Start Training?