In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada, it was concluded that MMA fighters suffer a traumatic brain injury in almost a third of professional bouts – a far higher rate than in hockey, football, and even boxing. This study was referred to in the National Post as being “among the first scientific reviews of MMA’s concussion-related dangers, as other contact sports increasingly focus on the head-trauma issue.”
This “scientific” review consisted of a team of researchers analyzing seven years of UFC scorecards and watching videotapes of fights. They tallied how many fights ended via knock out (KO) or technical knock out (TKO) and thus determined that almost one third of them ended this way. Then, they jump to the conclusion of this being a higher rate of head trauma than the other sports because, after a competitor was knocked down, there were often follow up strikes on the ground before the referee stopped the fight.
Michael Hutchison, a U of T kinesiology professor and lead author, is quoted in the National Post as saying, “The [knocked out] person is rendered unable to defend themselves, and then they’re getting multiple strikes to their head. That’s probably not good for one’s health.”
“Probably” not. However, this is not science. The study proves only one thing: that almost one third of MMA fights end by KO or TKO. The notion that getting hit in the head can damage the brain is old news. This study does not prove anything specifically medical about MMA fighters, nor does it empirically demonstrate how MMA injuries are more severe than other sports.
The study, which was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, calls for a banning of the sport among young people and stricter regulation for professionals. The researchers suggest that there should be a stopping of the action when someone is knocked down, much like the "standing eight count" in boxing.
This study does not prove anything specifically medical about MMA fighters, nor does it empirically demonstrate how MMA injuries are more severe than other sports.
The onus is on the researchers to prove how an MMA fighter getting knocked down and hit with a few punches on the ground is more dangerous than a boxer getting knocked down, then given time to stand and keep fighting with a brain injury.
Logically speaking, if a fighter gets knocked down and hit a few times before the referee stops it, then it is actually less damage overall than letting someone stand up and continue after being essentially knocked out. A boxer could get knocked down multiple times in a fight. Each time the boxer is given a standing count to recover just enough and, with an injury to the brain, continues to take repeated blows as the fight goes on.
It isn’t safer to allow concussed individuals time to stand up and keep getting hit by professional punchers. It would seem safer to have the fight ended very soon after a knockdown occurs, as is often the case in MMA.
There is also another dimension of combat. An MMA fighter can get knocked down by a punch to the head and then counter the oncoming assault with grappling techniques to avoid getting hit more. However, in boxing, they are forced to stand up and keep getting hit in the head. There is no other dimension in boxing where strikes are less prevalent.
In addition, when an MMA fighter does suffer a concussion, they are given medical suspensions where they are prohibited from certain types of contact, even in training, for a specific amount of time to allow the injury to heal.
In sports like hockey or football, especially among young people at the high school level, an athlete could receive a concussion and not have it properly identified or tended to. They could be back out on the field playing by the next shift or period and potentially cause themselves further damage.
High school football is notoriously dangerous for young people and is responsible for myriad traumatic brain injuries. In fact, 20% of high school football players will suffer at least one concussion and often times there is a lack of proper medical procedure conducted. While this is clearly unfortunate, banning sports or martial arts for young people isn’t a good idea.
Given that all the researchers did was watch movies and analyze stats on paper, it is clear that there is little actual scientific evidence available about this issue. If they wanted real evidence to back their claims, they would have had to pull medical records of competitors who had been knocked out. They would also have needed to conduct their own medical tests on individuals, display the nature of MMA brain injuries vs. other sports, and clearly demonstrate how they are, in fact, worse.
Given that all the researchers did was watch movies and analyze stats on paper, it is clear that there is little actual scientific evidence available about this issue.
It is easy to pull out some numbers and call it science. While the UFC is supposedly still reviewing what is quoted in the National Post article as a “technical medical document,” it is safe to say that this farcical study will have little effect on anything.
The extent of this study has barely scratched the surface of what would need to be done to get real scientific data. The statistics that the researchers put forth as their evidence is just the preliminary step. However, they halted their work before it began and made a definitive claim. Science requires doing experimentation, testing, and peer reviewing before making any conclusions; Anything less is just conjecture.
MMA is a dangerous sport, and so are many others. Funnily enough, though, MMA can have an argument made for it being relatively safe for a combat sport. Until there is actual science done on the matter, the truth stays waiting in the wings.