The Most Dangerous Combative Sport? Study Shows Boxing Beats MMA for Brutality

kangaroo_boxingA study by researchers at the University of Alberta found that while mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters are more likely to suffer minor injuries, boxers are more likely to suffer severe injuries like concussions or detached retinas. The study, to appear in the print edition of the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, involved 1181 mixed martial artists and 550 boxers who’d fought in Edmonton between 2003 and 2013. This was all fighters who fought professionally in that city in those two sports.

This finding seems counter-intuitive, given that so many more methods of delivering mayhem are allowed in MMA and the protection is less at least with respect to gloves.

Gloves may be an important factor. This isn’t a result from the aforementioned study, but it’s an idea put forth by MMA boosters. It goes like this, “Yes, the lightweight MMA glove offers less protection to the one being hit, but it also offers less protection to the hand of the one delivering the hit, and, ergo,  an MMA fighter is more likely to moderate his / her punches to avoid the (in this case ironically-named) ‘boxer’s break’ to the bones of said fighter’s hand.”

MMA style gloves on the left and 16oz. boxing gloves on the right

MMA style gloves on the left and 16oz. boxing gloves on the right (the same hand fits inside.)


I haven’t seen any rigorous scientific studies of whether the argument above has merit. There was a National Geographic Fight Science episode that made a comparison of gloves, but it was looking at a little different question. It studied how much force barehand, MMA glove, and boxing glove delivered to a heavy bag. Incidentally, it found minimal difference in force delivered between the two types of gloves, which at least might help to hush those who make a big deal about MMA’s “thin gloves.” However, this doesn’t tell us whether fighters put the same level of force into hitting a bony target when wearing the two types of gloves. Still a YouTube clip of the test is below for your information.


There are other explanations for why MMA fights might be less prone to cause concussions and severe head injuries. For example, there’s less time spent at an optimal distance to deliver strikes with maximal force. Once fighters are in close, there’s less room to get strikes up to speed. Once fighters are on the ground, putting a lot of body weight into a strike may be impossible. While submissions, whether chokes or joint locks, may seem brutal to the home viewing audience, it’s not clear that they result in major injuries to anything but the fighter’s self-esteem. (Though this might be an area that needs to be factored into studies.)

I’d like to see how muay thai compares to the two sports covered in the aforementioned study. I suspect it’s the only combative sport that might beat out these two. (All the nastiness of boxing, none of the close range grappling, plus elbows and shins to the side of the head.) Though, who knows?  Judoka do seem to land on their heads an unfortunate percentage of the time.

I’m curious about what you think about which combative sport is most damaging, and why?

FYI: The citation for the study mentioned above is:
Karpman, Shelby, et al. 2015. Combative Sports Injuries: An Edmonton Retrospective. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. To be published. Available on-line at: Last accessed: November 13, 2015

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