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MMA vs. Boxing: A Doctor’s Analysis on Safety

Sports take human capabilities to the extreme. They demand speed, power, endurance, strength, and there is always the risk of injury in their practice; however, it is not the goal.

There is one exception, and that is contact or combat sports. In these sports, a physical confrontation intends to defeat the opponent using specific techniques and a lot of physical strength, which implies imposing oneself on the opponent and hurting them.

Like all other sports, combat sports require physical and mental preparation, technique, and discipline. And, although many people consider them a channeling of the inherent violence of the human being, they offer the practitioner an adequate knowledge of self-defense methods. Some examples of contact sports are:

  • Boxing
  • Mixed martial arts (MMA)
  • Karate
  • Taekwondo
  • Full contact
  • Kickboxing
  • Wrestling
  • Judo
  • Muay Thai

In this sense, contact sports have their risks, some more than others. That is why many scientific studies have tried to determine which brings more dangers to the health of those who practice them, and the results were precise.

Boxing is the contact sport that tops the list, followed by MMA. But, this begs the question, is MMA safer than boxing? To answer this question, we must first understand what each discipline is about.


This discipline comprises two opponents facing each other in a ring using only their fists protected by special gloves. One of its primary rules is that the boxer can only hit his opponent from the waist up, including the head.The goal is to reach the knockout (KO) or out of combat.

The KO occurs when the boxer cannot get up from the canvas for a specific period, because of fatigue or because the blows he has received cause him to lose consciousness. The bout may also end with a technical knockout when the referee decides that one boxer cannot continue the fight.


It is considered the discipline with the most physical contact. It combines several combat modalities and includes submission techniques both standing and on the ground and punches, kicks, elbows, knees, keys, chokes, and throws. Here, the fighters use gloves that leave the fingers free to allow grappling.

The bout may end by KO or technical KO as in boxing, and by submission, when one of the two fighters makes his opponent give up or faint by strangulation or key, or the judges’ unanimous decision.

So, when making the comparison at first glance, MMA is much more dangerous because it includes many more techniques that can cause multiple physical damages to the opponent than boxing. And it is essential to answer a question:

Are head punches more dangerous than head kicks?

In boxing and MMA, blows to the head, whether with punches or kicks, are a severe risk. The most feared and problematic is brain contusion. With these fighting modalities, concussions are the order of the day. The result will depend on the force, repetition, and type of blow.

On the one hand, we have subdural hematomas that can cause death, short and medium-term damage, besides a disease known as “pugilistic dementia” generated in the long term. The latter is a neurodegenerative disease that can affect both boxers and MMA fighters and fighters of other modalities at risk of brain contusions.

Its symptoms include frequent headaches, forgetfulness, dementia, tremors, slowness of movement, language difficulties, diminished mental capacity, depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

As for hitting while the opponent is passed out, the consequences will be the same, death or damage in the short, medium, and long term. However, this is considered a foul in both modalities, so fighters should not do it.

What does medical research say?

A study conducted at the Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic, University of Alberta (Canada), during 2003-2013, collected information from 550 boxers and 1,181 MMA fighters. The results of the research were published in 2016 in the specialized journal Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, showing that:

  • Almost 59.4% of MMA fighters suffered some injury during fights.
  • 49.8% of boxers suffered some injury during the fights.
  • MMA fighters are more likely to suffer visible damage during the fight and in the short term.
  • Boxers are more likely to suffer medium- and long-term injuries.
  • 4.2% of MMA fighters were knocked unconscious during the fight.
  • 7.1% of boxers were unconscious during the bout.
  • Boxers suffer more concussions, head injuries, loss of consciousness, and eye injuries than MMA fighters.
  • MMA fighters suffer more sprains, fractures, cuts, wrist and finger injuries than boxers.

They concluded it is more likely to suffer injuries to any part of the body in MMA fighting, including the head. But in boxing, the injuries are more serious, bringing with them more significant consequences.

Statements from the UFC

UFC President Dana White

In 2013, UFC president Dana White said, “mixed martial arts is the safest sport in the world.” This statement is incorrect from a medical point of view for all the above.

Mixed martial arts ranks second on the world’s most dangerous combat sports list, with the most significant short-, medium- and long-term repercussions. In the first place, boxing remains because of the number of deaths registered in the boxing ring and complications from brain contusions.

Between 1998 and 2013, four verified cage deaths of MMA fighters were detected (three regulated fights and one in South Africa). In contrast to 60 deaths in professional and regulated boxing bouts between the years 1998 and 2011. Not include deaths that have occurred days after the fight, after being in a coma because of contusions and subdural hematomas.

An example of this was what happened a few days ago, when 18-year-old Mexican boxer Jeanette Zacarías Zapata, who was defeated by knockout in combat, presented convulsions in the ring. She was later taken to the hospital, where she was declared dead.

In short, combat sports represent a high risk for those who practice them. Boxing and MMA are the two most dangerous, each with its particularities. All the injuries generated by combat can represent a significant risk. Especially the cranioencephalic traumatisms that produce subdural hematomas and repeated cerebral contusions that create long-term complications.

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