The Case for Legalization: Debunking MMA's Safety Myths

June 10, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

The issue of safety is often raised when people start to discuss the merits of mixed martial arts and probably rightfully so. After all the sport can appear, to the uninitiated, quite dangerous if it’s given only a cursory glance.

It’s also hard to fault those individuals: the speed and ferocity of the sport is pretty startling when you add in the perception of the 4 oz. gloves and bevy of elbows, knees, and head kicks. Moreover, consider that most of those that have never seen an MMA fight before have still almost certainly heard something negative about the sport from a biased news report – their opinion and judgement of MMA is almost predetermined.

Needless to say, changing public opinion about the safety and legitimacy of MMA is going to require a much greater effort than simply plunking down all the naysayers and fence-sitters in front of a UFC PPV for an evening.

When I talk about MMA and its safety record, I often cite a 2006 research article published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine on the incidence of injury in professional mixed martial arts competitions. The conclusion of the study, performed by the prestigious John Hopkins University School of Medicine, was as follows:

Mixed Martial Arts competitions have changed dramatically since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. The overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggestsa reduced risk of TBI in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.”

The study is nearly three years old, but I’ve elected to bring it up for two reasons: 1.) the study is MMA’s biggest ally in fighting the safety stereotypes that plague legalization discussions, and 2.) I believe that some people within the industry have grossly misinterpreted the results of the study and therefore MMA proponents must be cautious as to what they claim the study proves.

So, what does this study really tell us about MMA and its safety record?

It tells us that with respect to TBI – traumatic brain injury – MMA is probably safer than boxing and other combat sports.

The result of the study is also quite timely in the sense that TBI is a hot-button issue in all contact sports right now; head shots, concussions, and concerns for an athletes’ post-career quality of life are very much at the forefront of league meetings in the NFL and NHL. It would be quite interesting to see a study comparing the rates of TBI between MMA and football, because I have a hunch that MMA compares quite favourably to America’s most popular and accepted sport.

At any rate, the fact that MMA compares favourably to other combat sports is a real positive for the sport because it at least helps to debunk the myth that the 4 oz. gloves and interdisciplinary nature of the competition push MMA beyond the boundary of acceptability when it comes to safety.

The results make sense, too.

A boxer only has two striking options available to him: the body or the head – and the repeated blunt-force trauma caused by the average 200-400 head shots in any given match is very hard on brain tissue.

A mixed martial artist, on the other hand, throws considerably less head shots in any given bout (of which the maximum length is 25 minutes compared to 36 or 45 in some cases with boxing). An MMA fighter need not even throw a punch to earn a victory, so long as he chooses to pursue a wrestling or submission strategy to the match. Further, the rule set of MMA is also designed to protected fighters from brain injury by eliminating standing eight counts – if you’re out, you’re out.

What the study does not tell us, however, is that MMA is absolutely safer than boxing or other combat sports. It could very well be that, in regards to lacerations and fractures, MMA is more dangerous than other combat sports.

 Who’s to say?

That is the limitation of the John Hopkins study, and MMA needs to be careful when utilizing the study because it only provides a certain level of support for the sport’s safety record. The MMA community also needs to be mindful of the fact that there really aren’t any long term studies that exist to determine the effect of MMA competition on post-career quality of living. The sport simply hasn’t been around long enough to determine the effects and, at this point, the medical community can only hypothesize as to what might be the result of an MMA fighters post-fight career.


 The John Hopkins study should be seen for what it is: a study that supports the legitimacy of the sport through establishing comparable safety records to that of other American past times. It’s also another resource in the education tool box that the MMA community can use to gain public support and help sway legislation towards legalization.

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