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:
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.”
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.