Mixed martial arts or MMA as it is known, is a competitive form of fighting involving the use of many techniques, grapples, strikes, and locks. A recent study has suggested that competitive mixed martial arts could lead to frequent dangerous brain trauma, even more than in boxing. Although the MMA study shows some obvious results in one respect, there is nothing that proves the link between the two.
The new study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine examined videos and data from 844 championship mixed martial arts match-ups between the years of 2006 to 2012. The study showed that 13 percent ended in a knockout, with a further 21 percent ending in technical knockouts.
Technical knockouts usually occur when the referee concludes that too much damage may have been incurred, such as when a fighter is punched repeatedly in the head, sometimes up to 20 times in the last 30 seconds of the match.
The conclusion was drawn that the blows received to the head cannot be good for the health of the fighters. The researchers also mentioned data from other studies, which concluded that mixed martial arts was more dangerous than hockey and football.
Mixed martial arts incorporates elements of boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and martial arts such as jui-jitsu, making it a pretty mean sport. Professional practitioners may be experts in one or more field, and are likely to be equipped with a variety of techniques aimed at ground-and-pounding opponents, knocking them out, or forcing them into submission by applying an arm or leg lock that could potentially break, or dislocate a bone. It is fair to say the nature of the sport is fairly dangerous. In this respect the recent MMA study only shows the obvious, but proves nothing that could lead to a change in policy.
The change in policy is perhaps the motivation to study the sport in the first place, and many believe MMA should be regulated. That is not to say the sport should be banned, or made illegal, and in its favor the violence is always at the consent of the individuals who are fighting. The study doesn’t really add any major insights into what policy should be changed, and why. It does not give measurable brain damage statistics, or evidence from brain scans. It simply observers that the MMA fighters take some blows in the ring, and that such blows are unlikely to do their health any favors.
Another observational study, carried out in 2006, and also published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine noted that MMA was not as likely to produce brain injury as boxing. The study measured rates of injury in 171 fights and found them to be similar to that of other combat striking. In complete contradiction to the recent study they recorded KO’s to be lower than in boxing. The study also highlighted the fact that regulations within MMA have changed in recent years, with more concern for the health of the fighters.
Conflicting opinion such as what is shown in the studies tends to highlight the fact that the body of research is too inadequate to draw any real conclusions. The mystery still stands as to whether mixed martial arts is indeed more damaging than boxing, or more likely to cause brain trauma.
MMA fighters, fans, and officials from UFC have often defended the sport claiming that there is less risk of brain damage because attacks are spread around the body, and also involve a mixture grapples and locks. Boxers tend to take dull repetitive blows to the head throughout the match. MMA does not have a history of recorded brain trauma, or any recorded fatalities, although with the sport now gaining momentum among young amateurs, it may be too early to tell.
Understanding how to regulate the sport is however important. With young amateur fighters entering the ring, the risks need to be made clear so that education and restrictions can be correctly imposed. The only state which has made mixed martial arts competitions illegal is New York. Other states are mostly interested in the safe regulation of MMA.
What can be said is that both boxing, and MMA, have both shown to cause injury, and to be damaging to health; they both involve combat with another highly trained professional, and an exchange of trained aggression. The recent MMA study, like many of its predecessors, shows the obvious fact that fighters are getting hit in the face a lot, and suggests nothing that proves the extent of long term damage. More research, with more measurable methodology, may be required in order to better understand how to regulate both MMA and boxing.
Commentary by Matthew Warburton