Is Boxing More Dangerous Than MMA? (Yes, 7 Reasons Why)

Photo by Biser Todorov

Are you wondering whether boxing is more dangerous than MMA?

In this article, we’ll examine whether boxing is more dangerous than MMA by looking at 7 reasons why.

Is Boxing More Dangerous Than MMA?

Fans of boxing often refuse the idea that boxing is more dangerous than MMA, but what do the studies and figures show?

Along the same line, you’ll also hear similar questions such as:

  • Is MMA safer than boxing?
  • Boxing vs MMA safety
  • Is MMA more dangerous than boxing?

Anyhow, boxing is more dangerous than MMA for the following 7 reasons, as supported by the various scientific studies included throughout.

1. Boxing Deaths vs MMA Deaths: Which Sport Has Had More?

MMA has had a total of 22 deaths since 1981 (21 deaths since 1991), caused directly by the sport of MMA. 13 of these MMA deaths were caused by sanctioned bouts, and 9 were caused by unsanctioned bouts.

On the other hand, the Manuel Velasquez Collection has been documenting boxing deaths since the 1720s and was most recently updated in 2011. The database has documented 1863 boxing deaths between 1720 and 2011.

From 2011 to 2019, the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC Boxing) documented a further 30 boxing deaths, taking the total tally to 1893 deaths in boxing between 1720 and 2019.

Although not definitive, Wikipedia lists a further 4 boxing deaths from 2020 to 2023, taking the total tally to 1897 documented deaths in boxing between 1720 and 2023.

Therefore, it’s safe to say boxing is more dangerous than MMA because it leads to more cases of death

And while boxing deaths have become less frequent since the 2000s due to shorter careers, fewer fights, more rest between fights, and increased medical oversight and regulations, there have still been more boxing deaths than MMA deaths in the past 20 years.

2. Slow Development of Safety Regulations

It’s no surprise boxing has had more deaths and is more dangerous than MMA, seeing as boxing was introduced in 688 BCE at the 23rd Olympiad in Ancient Greece, whereas MMA has only been around since the early 1990s.

Essentially, boxing is more dangerous than MMA because boxing has been around for much longer and has developed through trial and error.

It wasn’t until the 1867 Queensberry rules that many safety measures such as padded gloves, three-minute rounds, 10-second knockdown count, a ring, and weight class divisions were introduced – and some of these actually made boxing more dangerous.

On the other hand, while MMA started as no-holds-barred in the early 1990s, towards the end of the decade many safety rules started being implemented after senator John McCain labeled MMA as “human cockfighting” and tried to get the sport banned.

This stigma saw MMA promotions start losing a lot of money due to being banned on TV and across many US states. This caused MMA to develop at a rapid pace, and by 2001, the Official Unified Rules of MMA were established by several of the major US Athletic Sports Commissions.

Essentially, MMA used boxing as a reference for mistakes to avoid and became much safer by developing full safety regulations in a decade, whereas between the 1720s and 1880s, boxing was considered illegal bare-knuckle prizefighting without any proper regulation or safety measures.

It wasn’t until 1880 that the first governing body for boxing was founded, the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA).

3. Boxing Matches Are Much Longer Than MMA

Looking at the boxing deaths caused by head injury between 2000 and 2019, ABC Boxing concluded that boxing deaths are more likely to occur in the lower weight classes, fights that see TKO and KOs, and fights that go deeper into the fight.

Boxing bouts are 12 three-minute rounds, meaning boxers can fight for a total of 36 minutes if they go the distance. 

On the other hand, MMA fighters mostly fight for 3 five-minute rounds, a total of 15 minutes. Title fights, main event fights, and some superstar fights are 5 five-minute rounds, for a total of 25 minutes – however, this is often only 1 or 2 fights on a 10 to 13-fight UFC card.

So, really, we’re comparing 15 minutes vs 36 minutes. Boxers are often punching each other for over double the time and this is clearly more dangerous for the brain.

4. Boxing Targets the Head

In boxing, athletes are only allowed to punch above the beltline, which is hundreds of punches directed to the body and the head. Because of this, boxing results in a lot more head trauma injuries, resulting in more long-term damage and deaths.

On the other hand, MMA is much more diverse. MMA allows strikes with hands, feet, elbows, and knees to any part of an opponent’s body, except certain illegal strikes such as to the back of the head, the groin, or the spine.

MMA also incorporates wrestling and Bjj, which again means MMA fighters are receiving fewer strikes to the head and are therefore less likely to suffer head trauma.

Bjj submissions mean MMA fighters can tap out, which prevents bones from being broken and punches to the head much reduced. Grappling exchanges such as clinches on the cage can see many minutes pass without any clean head punches landing. 

Many MMA fights have been won without any or very few strikes to the head being thrown. Dominant wrestlers such as Kamaru Usman, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Islam Makhachev have had long careers and suffered very few strikes or knockout strikes.

Further supporting this is:

Study 1 – Combative Sports Injuries: An Edmonton Retrospective

This study conducted in 2016 looked at post-fight medical examinations in Edmonton, Canada, from 2003 to 2013. The data included 1181 MMA fighters and 550 boxers.

The researchers found boxers were less likely to get injured, 49.8% versus 59.4% for MMA fighters. However, boxers were more likely to get knocked unconscious, 7.1% versus 4.2% for MMA fighters.

The study concluded that MMA fighters were more likely to experience minor injuries such as cuts and external hematomas, while boxers were more likely to experience more dangerous injuries such as brain injuries and eye injuries – more specifically head trauma and concussions leading to loss of consciousness.

5. The Rules of Boxing Are Inherently More Dangerous

Boxers are much more likely to experience multiple concussions and brain injuries because of the 10-count rule. The 10-cont rule gives a downed boxer 10 seconds to get back to his or her feet unaided. If they get back to their feet and the referee deems them well enough to continue, the fight goes on. 

On the other hand, in MMA if fighters are knocked down but still conscious, their opponent will generally pounce on them and finish them with ground and pound or a submission. 

Here, the referee will stop the fight because the fighter on the ground cannot defend themselves, isn’t defending themselves, or is tapping out.

Also, if MMA fighters are knocked out and have lost consciousness, the fight is automatically ended. Essentially, MMA rules are safer because once a fighter is badly hurt, the fight is ended, whereas in boxing there’s a short break and the badly hurt fighter continues and is further injured.

More minutes spent fighting increases the likelihood of a brain injury occurring, especially in boxing.

Further supporting this is:

Study 2 – Professional Fighters’ Brain Health Study

In 2019, researchers at the Lou Ruvo Center looked at 100 MMA fighters and 50 boxers, with a mix of both current and retired fighters, as well as a nonfighting control group of 31.

They found that current and retired fighters showed loss of brain volume in different areas of the brain, while the control group was gaining brain volume.

Current fighters’ losses were in the areas of the brain consistent with brain injury, while the retired fighters’ brain losses were in areas associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE and Alzheimers.

The numbers given for the three groups were:

  • Boxers lost an average of 145 cubic millimeters of brain volume annually
  • Martial artists lost 100 cubic millimeters annually
  • The nonfighting control group saw a gain of 43 cubic millimeters annually

Thinking and memory tests were conducted, and while there wasn’t too much of a difference found between the three groups, the most apparent difference was the fighters scored less on tests concerning the brain’s processing speed.

Overall, the study clearly shows that boxing is more dangerous than MMA because boxers lost 45 cubic millimeters of brain volume annually more than MMA fighters.

6. Boxing Gloves Are Heavier & Larger Than MMA Gloves

Gloves used in professional boxing are either 8 or 10 oz (ounces), while MMA gloves are typically 4 oz but can also be 5 or 6 oz for fighters requiring the bigger size (often heavyweights).

The bigger size of boxing gloves provides a lot more protection for the hands, which means a lot more strikes are thrown in boxing because competitors don’t fear having their hands broken. However, boxers still commonly break their hands because they can only use strikes.

So, while both boxers and MMA fighters both break their hands when fighting, boxers are also less likely to feel the pain because of the extra padding, and punches to the head continue thick and fast.

Also, if an MMA fighter breaks their hand mid-fight, they’re less likely to strike their opponent hard to the head as often and are more likely to try and win via submission, grappling, or leg strikes.

The bigger size of boxing gloves also causes a larger impact from each punch landed and therefore an increased risk of brain trauma.

Overall, the bigger size of gloves used in boxing allows boxers to punch harder and with more momentum than in MMA because of the extra hand protection. This leads to more brain injuries and the likelihood of CTE in boxing over MMA, but both gloves are worse than bare-knuckle in terms of causing brain injury.

7. Boxers Compete Younger and Fight More Than MMA Fighters

While both boxers and MMA fighters at the elite-level fight on average 2 or 3 times per year, some professional boxers at the early stages of their career fight up to 7 times per year, with many fighting between 4 to 6.

On the other hand, only 10 UFC fighters have achieved the UFC record of having 5 fights in one year, out of a roster of roughly 700 fighters. This UFC is the best example here as they’ve held the most MMA events and fights of any MMA promotion due to its 3 decades of operation.

So, on average, not only do professional boxers fight more than MMA fighters, but their amateur and low-level pro circuit are also much more extensive and active. This means competition for entry and availability of fights is higher, so boxers have to compete more often to improve and be considered elite.

Also, amateur boxing has an age bracket of 13 to 39 for competition, whereas amateur MMA competition is between 18 and 40. This makes boxing inherently more dangerous than MMA because young teenagers are receiving strikes to the head.

And while every boxer’s skill level is different, the average amount of amateur boxing bouts before turning professional is between 20 and 50 fights – less than 20 is considered not enough experience.

Some great boxers have turned professional with a limited amount of amateur bouts, while there have been some who’ve had over 300.

Some examples are:

  • Gennady Golovkin: amateur record 432-8
  • Vasyl Lomachenko: amateur record 396-1
  • Floyd Mayweather: amateur record 84-8
  • Anthony Joshua: amateur record 40-3
  • Rocky Marciano: amateur record 8-4

On the other hand, most MMA professionals have between 5 to 10 amateur bouts before turning professional because MMA is much newer than boxing and the circuits are much less active and competitive.

Overall, boxing is more dangerous than MMA because boxers are starting at a younger age, competition is higher so injury is more likely both in training and in competition, and the average boxer is having many more fights than the average MMA fighter.

The Bottom Line

So, is boxing more dangerous than MMA?

Yes, boxing is more dangerous than MMA. There have been more deaths in boxing due to the slow development of regulations and safety measures, boxing matches are much longer, the rules of boxing mean boxers receive many more strikes to the head with bigger gloves, and boxers compete from a younger age.

While further research continues, it’s clear from the previous studies that boxing is more dangerous than MMA because they’re more likely to suffer from brain injuries.

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