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Is MMA Safer Than Boxing?

We received this email not too long ago:

Dear Skeptics Guide,

I am an avid mixed martial arts fan and a regular competitor in Muay Thai. I know that regular occurrences of being knocked unconscious is what causes being “punch drunk” but there has always been the theory of mixed martial arts being safer than boxing because of the no standing 8 count rule where in boxing there is, and could lead to the boxer being rocked” several times in a single fight. I would like to know how plausible this theory is, as mixed martial arts obviously looks more brutal and wearing on the person.

p.s. love the show it never leaves me less interested in the world after listening


Alex from Australia

Being the resident mixed martial arts student of The SGU, I replied to Alex (see below) but first a very quick review.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the sport of fighting using various techniques ranging from traditional martial arts to classic boxing and wrestling. Fighters will typically master a few separate disciplines and combine them in competition. There are many leagues and organizations that sponsor these events, with the most popular one in the United States being the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The standing eight count rule that Alex is referring to is also known as a protection count. In boxing, if the referee determines that a fighter is being overwhelmed with repeated unprotected blows, the referee can stop the action, send one fighter to a corner, and proceed to count to eight in front of the other boxer. A boxer can take three (3) standing eight counts in any given round. In these instances, the referee determines if the boxer can continue. It was designed to protect boxers by allowing the referee to step in and give an overwhelmed fighter an eight-second respite.

The argument made by MMA proponents is that this standing eight count in boxing leads to prolonged and unnecessary punishments. By comparison, in MMA, when a fighter suffers head punches that results in them being knocked down to the canvas, the referee will not pause the match for a count.

Typically in MMA, once the fighter hits the canvas, the referee will step in and stop the fight if the landed fighter appears unconscious. If you have seen MMA, you know without a doubt when a fighter is struck unconscious. The fighter’s legs will wobble and the whole body collapses under its own weight, or they will go down stiff as a board falling backwards flat on to their back and head (scary scenarios). These matches are stopped immediately, even if the unconscious fighter regains consciousness and bounces back to his feet in a mere few seconds after having been defeated.

In some cases MMA fighters go down and are somewhere in between the land of consciousness and unconsciousness. In these cases, the referee will typically allow the opposing fighter to deliver a single coup-de-grace punch to the head. If the landed fighter makes an effort to protect their head from the blow, the fight will continue. But if that grounded fighter makes no effort to protect himself (or herself) from the punch, the referee will step in and stop the contest.

To help answer Alex’s questions I found one link to the Johns Hopkins University study that evaluated the incidences of injury in MMA. This appears to be the only “official” study produced by a university that relates to Alex’s question. I could not find any studies that evaluate the effects of standing eight counts. However, I did find this article that I felt best reflected the comparisons and best reflected my opinion on the matter.

Here was my full reply to Alex:

Hello Alex,

Thanks for writing. Take a look at this study. It is from the JSSM. But I think this article sums up my feelings on the matter.

So it really depends on what “safer” means. In some ways boxing is less safe (mortality, repeated head blows resulting in brain damage) and in other ways MMA is less safe (breaks, lacerations, tears, separations). Concussions are common enough in both sports that I think it would be appropriate to state: “MMA can bruise your brain, but only less so than boxing.”

Thanks again,


PS – I’m in my second year of MMA study and training and “MMA is safer” is the regular mantra in the studio where I train, so I’m always glad to hear accounts of skepticism being applied to the martial arts.

I am very much an advocate of applied skepticism to most any aspect of people’s lives, and this includes martial arts. I am fascinated by the craft of MMA. The physical and mental skills of the discipline are demanding. I have found it to be both challenging and empowering.

But like all other pursuits in life, MMA needs to be evaluated critically and logically. As data continues to pile up, we will hopefully see more studies comparing MMA and boxing, with the ultimate goal being the prevention of loss of life and severe brain injuries.

7 comments to Is MMA Safer Than Boxing?

  • John Draeger

    One could argue that the bare elbows and knees used in Thai boxing present more of an injury threat than regular boxing, but I have no studies to support that contention.

    Great to hear of another skeptic who has gotten involved in martial arts. I think Jennifer Ouellette does martial arts too – Tae Kwon Do. I did a little over 2 years of Tae Kwon Do before college – took it pretty seriously – have stretch marks in my skin from that period. Spinal injury later in life has prevented me from returning to martial arts.

    MMA is great. It does a lot to boost self-esteem and reduce irrational fears. Plus, it’s pretty hard to be good at it while drinking/smoking so it prevents people from doing drugs.

    This is a topic where there’s a lot of BS – so there should be some skeptics involved in cutting through it. I hereby nominate you as the official skeptic in charge of cutting martial arts BS. I don’t know how much is written in The Skeptic’s Dictionary or other skeptical databases about fantastic claims relating to martial arts, but there should be a lot. You could probably do a whole book on fact vs. fiction and the stories about the people involved. The film industry has spread a lot of misinformation, leading to some real injuries when kids (or stupid adults) try to reenact what they see on TV.

    Lots of people admire Chuck Norris as a martial artist, but he’s not a good skeptical role model since he tries to sell his religion and politics along with his martial arts. In Tae Kwon Do, the tenets are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control, indomitable spirit. That’s “spirit” part does not mean some magical “energy” in the body that can’t be detected by any scientific means and that lives on after death.

    Head protection (to reduce the brain trauma you’ve addressed) and tooth protection should be required for serious martial arts sparring, and communication should be understood by all those involved so that holds can be released before joint damage occurs.

    I’ve knocked a guy out while sparring in a tournament-neither of us was wearing head protection because it wasn’t required at that time. When I stopped attending classes only black belts were required to wear head protection in tournament sparring. Hopefully it has changed since then.

    I’ve always thought the special garb worn by some martial artists is rather lame. There’s a whole skeptical article you could write on that alone. You’re not going to have that sort of clothing on precisely where you’d be most likely to use non-firearm self defense. A more practical approach would be to have everyone wear sneakers, sweat pants (or shorts) and a t-shirt – and spar in those clothes. And belt colors are lame too – a way to gather money from students. A number on a shirt could signify level of skill and cost a lot less. And forms are largely worthless. What counts is practicing moves until they are done largely without thinking.

    Thanks for addressing the topic of skepticism as it relates to martial arts claims. There is fraud involved with unqualified instructors teaching people in a setting where physical injuries to minors can and do happen. In the movies we are presented with mind over matter nonsense, flying ninja, bogus death moves – the list goes on and on. And when you see those young Ultimate fighters on cable TV, there’s no follow-up years later showing arthritis in damaged joints or the mental effects of repeated head trauma, or the occasional lost vision in an eye. Yesiree, this is a fruitful topic for skeptics.

  • Jennifer Ouellette does have a black belt and John Rennie also has a black belt (he said the name of the discipline once, but I can’t remember the name) – John’s been at martial arts for 20 years! (just 2 for me)

    John and I have talked a bit about skepticism and marial arts, and we dsicussed creating a panel to address the most common myths and misconceptions. I think it could be very informative. Time to re-kindle that discussion with him.

  • Drum Billet

    I have a friend who is heavily in to MMA.

    He has a basis in BJJ and tells me that it is very common for people to be choked out and that it only takes a few seconds for you to go under if the hold is applied correctly. I am not willing to try it despite his offers to show me.

    He says that it is really quite safe to be choked out and that it is a technique that is often used by bouncers to stop fights.

    Do you know if it is safe?

    Perhaps in a contest between two people that are known to be fit and healthy it’s quite safe, but surely bouncers using it on people of which they have no knowledge of their physical condition is quite dangerous.

    Also, Evan, have you had/will you have any fights?

  • I will not be having any fights. I’m just in it for the fitness and as a supplement for my self-defensive fighting skills (Krav Maga).

    However, I do spar as part of my regular workouts , both stand up (including Muay Tai)and ground work (inlcuding Brazilian Ju Jitsu)

    I have not yet been choked out (I always tap-out before I go out). My instructor says we will eventually get choked out so we know what it is like, but we never let it come to that while doing our regular exercises.

    Here is what medhelp.org says about being choked out:

    “Having pressure in the neck region as you describe above leads to reduction of blood flow to the brain. If severe or long enough, loss of consciousness (faining, body going limp) occurs because the brain is deprived of blood and therefore oxygen. Transient reduction in blood flow may not cause overt signs of brain damage, but at a cellular level, a certain amount of damage to the cells in the brain could theoretically occur, particularly when the reduction in blood flow is prolonged. If a long enough reduction of blood flow to the brain occurs, this could potentially lead to severe consequences such as brain damage.”

    So it can be risky, but once a fighter goes unconscious, the choke is released immediately. My opinion is that sanctioned MMA and proper MMA training take reasonable efforts and measures to avoid prolonged chokes.

  • halincoh

    Early in my career I was the fight doctor for an amateur boxing organization. My dad was a boxer and I boxed a little when I was a kid. So, it was pretty cool to combine my profession with a sport I loved as a kid. I also was a ring side doctor for ONE professional, an exhibition , fight.

    I was , and have always remained, incredibly impressed with the safety valves in place in amateur boxing. Well after the pre fight exam, I was able to check the boxers ( age 10-18 ): between rounds and during the rounds if necessary. During the fight, if I though one kid was at risk for truly being endangered, the ref and I would make eye contact and the fight was ended. Perhaps it was because I knew boxing that I had the respect of the ref, but I think it was the respect for my profession that counted just as heavily.

    Regarding my one pro fight. I did the pre game exams and then I was instructed, ” do not come anywhere near the fighters unless the referee calls you in. ” I was essentially invisible after the bell rung.

    Amateur boxing in my opinion is safer that football.

    Professional boxing: not so much.

    Unfortunately, although I know a little about martial arts because of my son’s participation, I do not know enough and thus I cannot add to the conversation on that half of the agenda.

  • Drum Billet

    Thanks for your reply, Evan.

  • rsm

    I’m somewhat familiar with this discussion from a different tack:

    In the last year or so there has been an increasing focus on head injuries in ice hockey, and one of the key points raised by the ‘safety first’ part of the hockey community, which is spearheaded by a Canadian neurologist Dr. Cusimano is that a concussion/blackout is a brain injury. This key point that these things brain injuries are taken too lightly – “it’s just a concussion,” and accumulated injuries are much more problematic than previously assumed. His line of reasoning essentially boil down to the fact that any traumatic brain injury is bad for you, and concussions are a traumatic brain injury as are any cases in which you black out from a hit. The tendency of people to consider ‘concussions’ as ok and ‘safe’ in a sense, he argues, is concealing the actual harm. This is not the entire argument/analysis, but I think are at least the key takeaway points from the hockey discussion as it pertains to MMA/Boxing.

    I’m not sure I completely agree with him, but I think any argument stating that MMA is safer than Boxing is very much like saying it’s safer to drive a motorcycle after having had 2 beers or 4 beers. It’s dangerous, brain injuries are harsh, and the lack of studies looking at the long term effects of concussions when combined with the natural degeneration and deterioration that comes with age it may make it worth being very cautious w.r.t. what you put yourself through. It should be noted that the long term effects of repeated concussions when combined with aging is one of the things which triggered the new concern over concussions in the hockey community as a number of well known players have come forward to speak of their problems as they have aged.

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