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

BOOK REVIEW: Inside the Lion’s Den by Ken Shamrock

Inside the Lion's Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken ShamrockInside the Lion’s Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken Shamrock by Ken Shamrock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inside the Lion’s Den is two (thin) books in one. The first, and longer, part is an autobiography of MMA fighter Ken Shamrock, and the latter part is a guide to his approach to submission fighting.

The first fifteen chapters form the biographical portion of the book. As is common in the modern biography, it doesn’t follow a chronological format. It begins at the height of Shamrock’s UFC career in the mid-1990s and introduces Shamrock and the Lion’s Den (his dōjō in California.) The book does, however, go back in chapter 3 and pick up with Shamrock’s childhood, beginning in 1969 in Savannah, Georgia. Shamrock had a suitably turbulent childhood to merit inclusion in the book. He lived with an abusive father and then a step-father unprepared for such a handful as Shamrock, before he ended up at the ranch of Bob Shamrock who would eventually become his adoptive parent and an important member of his entourage. Ken Shamrock had a raucous and—as is constantly repeated—rage-filled youth.

As might be expected of the biography of a fighter, one trained to psych himself up and psyche opponents out, the book can read a bit narcissistic in spots. Having said that, a fair amount of space in the biographical portion is devoted to topics beyond Shamrock’s fight career. There’s some space devoted to the development of UFC, but even more devoted to Shamrock’s fighters. There’s a chapter that follows a day of tryouts to get a slot as a Lion’s Den fighter. It’s entitled “500 Squats,” reflecting the fact that individuals must first do an insane number of squats as the first round of elimination during the tryouts. Later they’ll have to engage in sparring/rolling with legs burned out as an indicator of how the individual can gut it out. The book offers insight into how an individual goes about breaking into a career in Mixed Martial Arts.

An important theme of the biographical portion of the book is how Shamrock becomes less rage-prone and grows into an adult. This is both the result of the practice of martial arts and his familial relationships–most notably his spousal relationship. This is the human interest part of the story that centers around the man’s most prominent UFC accomplishments.

Perhaps the most important question one can ask about an autobiographical account is whether it’s accurate or not. There’s obviously an incentive to paint oneself in a more favorable light than an objective account might. There’s a professional co-writer of this book, Richard Hanner. One might expect that a professional journalist co-author would lend credulity to the work as that individual has a professional interest–based on reputation–in making sure the details are accurate. Whether Hanner’s presence lends credibility is hard for me to judge (he’s not a national name), but the work does read authentically. Shamrock, unlike politicians, admits many mistakes over the course of his life, and lets the reader know what his takeaway lessons were. Of course, as a public personality, there’s a lot that he couldn’t be duplicitous about if he wanted to, e.g. his fight record and details in the ring.

The last nine chapters are Shamrock’s guide to his submission fighting method. He covers a lot of ground from nutrition to advice for the day of a professional fight. Martial artists will not find a lot of groundbreaking information in this section, but rather will have to dig for nuggets of wisdom in the details. The submission techniques will be well-known to practitioners of judō, jujutsu, and submission fighting. The “crucifix” was the only technique I hadn’t seen before, and for all I know that one may be well-known to Greco-Roman / Pankration wrestlers. The photographs in this section are helpful in communicating Shamrock’s message, but are relatively sparse and small-format compared to the typical martial arts manual.

I enjoyed this book. Shamrock came across as an intriguing multi-dimensional character, and the manual offers a good overview and some important tips on subjects including nutrition, fitness, striking, grappling, and submissions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Higher Judo by Moshe Feldenkrais

Higher Judo: GroundworkHigher Judo: Groundwork by Moshe Feldenkrais

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re at all familiar with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, most likely it’s for the system of bodily awareness and efficient movement that bears his name (i.e. the Feldenkrais Method.) You may be completely unaware that Feldenkrais was a first-rate judōka who trained under judō’s founder Jigoro Kano, and that his experience with judō played a major role in his understanding of the principles of natural and efficient movement. (It should be noted that Feldenkrais was neither a medical doctor nor a doctor in a medical / biological field, but was a physicist by training.)

Higher Judō was originally published in 1952, and was out of print for many years until a new addition was brought out in 2010 (with three new forwards and some additional back matter.) It’s not hard to imagine why the book made a comeback after such a hiatus–and 26 years after the death of Dr. Feldenkrais. The book explains the ground fighting techniques of judō, which are the basis of Brazilian Jujutsu (BJJ), and BJJ is a dominant form of ground and submission work within Mixed Martial Arts (MMA.) Given the immense popularity of MMA, and the desire of fighters to hone their technique to the utmost, it’s a good time to bring this half-century old book back to the fore.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The first half of these chapters deals with preliminaries such as principles of movement, philosophy, and basic movement exercises. The second half gets into the tactics of ground work. The arrangement for the latter chapters is largely by position of the competitors relative to each other (e.g. the mount, 12 o’clock, side control, in the guard, etc.)

The first half has few graphics, but the last half is packed with line drawings that are based on photographs (ostensibly it was cheaper or easier to reproduced the line drawings back in the day.) The line drawings offer sufficient detail so that one can see what is being done (to the degree one would be able to see it in a photo or even in person—i.e. some of the techniques are subtle and the written description becomes essential.)

The book is a good overview of the basics of ground work with a few unusual and rare techniques thrown in. Feldenkrais points out that some techniques are more important than others, and that one should drill a few of the most critical ones rather than focusing a lot of time on the more eccentric techniques. As I’ve written many times before, I don’t believe that one can learn a martial art from a book. However, if you’ve been taught these types of techniques, you’re sure to find this book an interesting reference with some ideas for approaching ground work training.

Some of the characteristics of the book could be taken as positive or negative, and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. First, Feldenkrais avoids using names for techniques. He uses neither the common Japanese names for the techniques (e.g. there’s no reference to juji gatame, tomoe nage, or hadaka jime) nor the common English names. He goes by figure number attached to the aforementioned line drawings. Second, he has thoroughly cross-referenced the book such that you might be on the page containing figures 228 and 229, and he’ll make reference to figure 52. So the book involves a lot of turning back (I wrote in the page numbers where off-page figures were referenced so I wouldn’t have to find what page the figure was on each time.) Third, Feldenkrais is a scholar by training and is not averse getting a bit wordy and verging on abstruse. Of course, the flip-side of this is that he provides a great deal of precision in his language. That being said, I found this book readable and much less ponderous than one of his Feldenkrais Method books that I read.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interesting in gaining a better understanding of ground fighting. In the early sections of the book he provides excellent food for thought about the judō approach to movement, and in the latter half he catalogs the basics in a thorough and logical fashion.

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