Is Mixed Martial Arts really a Dangerous Sport?

Photo: IMMAF.

Mixed martial arts is a young sport. Since its conception in the late 1990s, it has grown to be the most popular combat sport in the world. 

During its rapid rise, a significant misconception took hold: that it is exceptionally dangerous to practise. This simply isn’t true. 

When two human beings agree to compete against one another in a martial arts contest, there are inevitably going to be injuries. Kicking, punching and grappling will result in damage to the human body – this is unavoidable.

The important distinction, however, is the type of injuries sustained. 

Injuries occur in every sport – even darts. But what we must focus on is the severity of the injuries to the competitors. 

A severe injury would include any damage done to the central nervous system (spinal cord etc), damage to the brain, broken bones, dislocations or ligament damage.

A minor injury would be a contusion (bruising), laceration (cut), strain, sprain or abrasion. 

So, let’s first compare MMA to another combat sport: boxing. Boxing has been massively popular, cross-culturally, for thousands of years. Until MMA came along, it was the most popular combat sport in the world. Many would consider boxing to be a safer sport than MMA. After all, fewer injuries are sustained, and athletes are only allowed to punch. But a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found:

“The overall injury incidence in MMA competitors appears slightly higher than for boxers, but MMA fighters experience more minor contusion/bruising injuries. Boxers are more likely to experience serious injury such as concussion/head trauma involving loss of consciousness or eye injury such as retinal detachment.” 1

So, boxers suffer fewer injuries, but the injuries they do sustain are more severe than those of mixed martial artists. 

How does MMA compare to non-combat sports? Well, let’s take two massively popular, mainstream sports: rugby, and horse-riding. For a parent considering a sport for their child, the general consensus would likely be that horse-riding or rugby would be a safer option than mixed martial arts, but is this true?

Concussions in amateur rugby are one of the most common injuries sustained.2 A concussion is one of the most serious injuries as it indicates a trauma to the brain, and should be avoided at all costs. 

Repeated concussions are now closely linked to CTE: chronic traumatic encephalopathy. 

Symptoms include: “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia.”3 

Horse-riding is widely regarded by medical professionals as one of the most dangerous sports in the world, but that opinion doesn’t seem to be shared by the general public. The rider is on the back of a 500+ kg (1100lb) animal, often travelling at speeds of over 65 kph (40mph), and elevated 3m above the ground. A high incidence of serious injury and death is therefore unsurprising.

The danger of horse riding can be summed up in this quote from a study done on horse-related injuries in children:

“When using a severity score to compare it with other childhood injuries, equestrian-related injury ranked second only to pedestrians being struck by a car”.4

This is not a swipe at horse-riding or rugby. I have enjoyed both from a young age. But it’s important we have a clear definition of what constitutes a “dangerous” sport.

WHAT DOES THE DATA SAY ABOUT MMA? 

The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation is the highest-level amateur MMA competition in the world. After the 2018 World Championship, the IMMAF published their injuries data5. After 334 matches over 5 days, the number of injuries were as follows:

Severe – 0 

Medium – 11

Slight – 166 

“Severe” injuries included serious facial damage and any brain injury with a structural cause, such as bleeding. “Medium” level injuries included fractures, dislocations and ligament damage. “Slight” were abrasions, bruises and lacerations. Most notably, there were no recorded concussions. All athletes who lost via KO/TKO i.e., strikes to the head, were suspended from competition and assessed by the medical team. Fourteen were sent for CT scans, all of which were normal. 

What we can see from this data is that injury frequency was high (49.7 per 100 bouts), but severity low. This pattern can also be seen in professional MMA:

“The most common type of injury was contusions (29.4%), followed by strains (16.2%), sprains (14.9%), and abrasions (10.1%).”6

The “dangerous” label applied to mixed martial arts is inaccurate and unfair. The data clearly shows that athletes, while likely to pick up a cut or bruise, are not likely to suffer a serious injury. As this issue is fundamental to the future global development of amateur MMA please find below key references and further information on this topic.

1. Combative Sports Injuries: An Edmonton Retrospective. Clinical journal of sport medicine : official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2021 Oct 6];26:332–4. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26327287/

2. Yeomans C, Caithríona. Injuries in amateur male and female rugby union. 2020 [cited 2021 Oct 6]; Available from: https://ulir.ul.ie/handle/10344/9965

3. Frequently Asked Questions about CTE | CTE Center [Internet]. [cited 2021 Oct 6]. Available from: https://www.bu.edu/cte/about/frequently-asked-questions/

4. Tanya Jagodzinski, Gregory P DeMuri. Horse-related injuries in children: a review – PubMed [Internet]. PubMed. [cited 2021 Oct 6]. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15856743/

5. IMMAF | 2018 World Championships | Headline Medical Stats [Internet]. [cited 2021 Oct 6]. Available from: https://immaf.org/2018/12/11/2018-world-championships-headline-medical-stats-2/6. Determining the prevalence and assessing the severity of injuries in mixed martial arts athletes – PubMed [Internet]. [cited 2021 Oct 6]. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21509103/