Photo Courtesy of David Ash
I’ve been watching MMA since 1994, I had my first fight in 2000 and I’m now a full-time coach of professional fighters. What first interested me in MMA was the idea of testing different fighting styles against each other. Due to the evolution of the sport, it has become less about style versus style and more commonly each fighter learning and adopting the most high-percentage techniques and using them to win under the rules and scoring system of the modern sport.
Criticism of the Brutality of MMA
When I first saw the UFC in 1994 it looked brutally violent and more of a spectacle than an actual sport. Since the early days, there have been calls for the sport to be banned. Many critics argue that a sport like Mixed Martial Arts is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society because it will encourage violence. There is also a perception that the sport is too dangerous with an unacceptable risk of serious injury to competitors.
I personally don’t believe there is any connection between watching trained athletes compete and street violence. MMA has been extremely popular in Japan for many years, a country which has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world.
Comparison to Boxing
But Is MMA more dangerous than other more acceptable sports such as Boxing?
It has long been argued that MMA is safer than boxing due to the fact that there are fewer punches to the head in an MMA fight than in a typical boxing match. This was definitely true in the early days due the fights being bare knuckle which led to fighters being more conservative with their strikes to avoid breaking their hands. Within a few years, MMA gloves were introduced which made it possible to throw just as many punches as in boxing. As a result, the punches thrown and absorbed has steadily increased over the years.
Another reason why MMA could be seen as safer than Boxing is that there are more ways to win. There is a huge variety of techniques and strategies to gain victory including submissions via chokes or joint locks. However, there is a perception that these less violent techniques aren’t as spectacular and fan friendly and that if you want to be a popular fighter you need to win by knockout. An indication of this is the UFC opening sequence which shows clips from eighteen fights but only one of the clips shows a submission. This sends a clear message to new fans and also to the fighters.
Increased Number of Knockouts
By looking at the statistics of how fights finished from 1993 until 2016 we can see that in the early days submissions accounted for around 70% of finishes compared to 15% by Knockout/Technical Knockout and 15% by Decision. This number of KO/TKO finishes has gradually increased to the point where now in 2016 there is roughly even split of 35% between KO/TKO and Submission finishes with 30% of fights going to decision.
The increased number of KO/TKO finishes is partly due to the evolution of MMA fighters. The rise of strikers and the relative decline of grapplers. Early MMA events had very few evenly matched fights. There were some very good strikers but they would either quickly knock out an inexperienced opponent who couldn’t defend their punches and kicks or more commonly they would get taken down and nullified before having a chance to use their strikes. These days there are more well rounded and equally matched fighters. This results in more fights where competitors can potentially stand toe to toe exchanging strikes for three rounds.
No Standing Eight Count
Another argument for why Boxing is more dangerous than MMA is that Boxers are often knocked down and allowed to continue after receiving an eight count. In theory, this shouldn’t happen in MMA because when a fighter gets dropped it is assumed that the opponent will immediately follow up with strikes on the ground, after this the referee will intervene and stop the fight saving him from further punishment.
The problem occurs when the fighters are better conditioned and they can withstand and survive the initial knockdown then hold on or scramble back to their feet. All of this leads to MMA fighters potentially absorbing more strikes over the course of a fight and throughout their career.
High Level of Skill of Fighters Leads to Less Danger but Not All Fighters Are Highly Skilled
The mainstream media have often portrayed MMA fighters as mindless thugs locked in a cage trying to injure each other. Fans of the sport are quick to point out that the fighters are experienced athletes who have spent many years training in one or more combat sports perfecting their fighting skills. This leads to the situation whereby the fighters high level of skill will effectively cancel each other out and make it difficult for serious injuries to occur.
This is not always the case however at lower level events where promoters need to keep the spectators entertained or to help build the record of an up and coming star. Often this leads to mismatches with fighters who are untrained and inexperienced and have no business being in the cage.
In spite of the brutal appearance of the sport, there have been very few deaths or serious injuries in MMA. It is worth remembering however that the sport is still in its early days and there have been relatively few events compared to other combat sports. There is a risk that the sport may become more dangerous as the years go on but I also believe we can take steps to manage these risks.
Some ways to make Mixed Martial Arts safer:
- Fighter Screening:
Fighters at all levels should be properly screened to ensure they are fit to fight. They should all have proper medical examination including making sure they have not recently suffered concussion either in training or a previous fight. If fighters have been KO’d more than a certain number times they should no longer be allowed to fight.
- Minimum Training Requirements
Inexperienced fighters jumping in to have a go so they can impress their friends and put pictures on Facebook are often unaware of the dangers involved and make the sport look unprofessional. All fighters should have spent an appropriate amount of time training and have a good level of skills before they are granted a professional fighter licence. The Fighter screening mentioned above could also be extended to test various fighter attributes such as their level of cardiovascular fitness and skills in areas such as striking and grappling. If they don't meet minimum requirements they should not be granted a licence to compete in professional MMA.
- More Experienced Coaches:
Inexperienced trainers who don’t understand the sport sending inexperienced fighters into the cage jeopardize both the safety of the fighters and the future of the sport. MMA trainers need to be properly qualified and experienced. They must able to use safe training practices while ensuring their fighters are suitably prepared for the realities of a fight and must also be able to recognize when their fighter is in danger during a match.
- Better Matchmaking:
It is important to ensure that fighters are of a similar experience level in terms of their wins and losses compared to their opponent. This also means taking into account their experience level and record in other combat sports before switching to MMA.
- Pathway to Professional MMA:
Aspiring MMA fighters should work their way up through the amateur ranks first. This may mean having around 5 to 10 fights with no head-shots before progressing to C class fights which would allow striking to the head standing but not on the ground, then to B class before finally being eligible to compete under the Professional MMA rules. I feel that this would be safer for the fighters and would also help build a better standard of fighters and events.