Competitive fighting is exciting, invigorating, and even inspiring to watch.
There’s something about boxing and competitive martial arts matches which have a way of writing headlines, drawing crowds. This is only supported by the fact that virtually every culture in the world has their own form of self-defense - including now defunct civilizations like the Aztec Empire or Ancient Greece.
A debate has circulated in martial arts circles about whether two closely-matched fighting styles: mixed martial arts (MMA) or boxing - is better for competitive and self-defense purposes.
Let’s take a look at the two side-by-side in terms of their history, their ruleset, and the likelihood of injury and fatalities for each.
Brief History of MMA
MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the United States.
The sport first came to prominence in 1993 when Royce Gracie and his brother Rorion started the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in an attempt to bring Brazilian Jiu Jitsu into mainstream sports.
The event was originally advertised as a free-for-all face-off between the different schools and disciplines of martial arts. In the years since, MMA has adopted a more tightly-regulated ruleset and has come to embody a singular, hybrid fighting style which combines martial arts from all over the world including Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to judo and Greco-Roman wrestling. It has also grown into a TV spectacle which has millions of fans all over the world.
MMMA has also had a bit of a complicated and checkered history as well. Mixed-martial arts has become stigmatized for being an overly violent, thinly-veiled blood sport. Televised MMA fights are notorious for their close-ups of blood-streaked faces with bruised cheeks and bloody noses. Senator John McCain infamously called the sport “human cockfighting.” In 2011, word got out that child MMA cage matches were becoming popular, sparking national outrage in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Whether MMA is in fact as dangerous or violent as many people claim it is is a matter we’ll explore later. For now, it’s enough to know that MMA has grown in mainstream acceptance and international popularity since then.
A Brief History of Boxing
Mixed-martial arts is also one of the world’s youngest sports, barely a few decades old. Boxing, however, is one of the world’s oldest sports, and has a long and colorful history that spans multiple time periods and civilizations.
It was introduced into the ancient Greek Olympics centuries later in 700BC as “pankration,” a combination of wrestling and Hellenic boxing.
In Pankration, two men would face off in a ring with their wrists and forearms wrapped in leather stripes for protection. The only two rules were “no biting,” and “no eye-gouging.” It was brutal and frequently left opponents injured. The Roman empire would later ban the sport because it was so savage.
Pankration resurfaced centuries later in 17th England in the form of bare-knuckle boxing. It was later organized as amateur boxing in 1880.
During this time, boxing was seen as an illegitimate sport, and was seen as a sleazy and low-brow form of entertainment for working class people. Boxing matches were illegal and violent spectator sports that were held at seedy, disreputable establishments like gambling rings and nightclubs and were often broken up by police.
The sport was then given more legitimacy with the introduction of Queensbury Rules in 1867, which brought in safety measures such as padded gloves. Queensbury boxing was also the impetus for many of the defensive maneuvers often associated with modern boxing such as boxing and weaving.
Boxing was finally sanctioned in the international community as an athletic sport once it debuted at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904. The US Senate passed legislation permitting the sport in 1920, which began the golden age of American boxing.
MMA and Boxing Rules
The organizing body which oversees and regulates MMA bouts is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The objective of an MMA fight is to defeat your opponent by striking, throwing or grappling.
UFC matches consist of three five-minute rounds. Three judges place themselves around the ring and score each round based on a number of factors such as technique and aggressiveness, and can allocate 10 points per round.
MMA matches are divided into these weight classes:
- Super Heavyweight over 265 pounds
- Heavyweight over 205 to 265 pounds
- Light Heavyweight over 185 to 205 pounds
- Middleweight over 170 to 185 pounds
- Welterweight over 155 to 170 pounds
- Lightweight over 145 to 155 pounds
- Featherweight over 135 to 145 pounds
- Women’s Bantamweight over 125 to 135 pounds
- Bantamweight over 125 to 135 pounds
- Flyweight over 115 pounds to 125
- Straw-weight up to 115 pounds
The outcome of an MMA fight can be decided by a number of factors:
- Decision: determined the combatant with the most points
- Disqualification: Each time a fighter does an illegal move such as nose or lip pulling or eye-gouging, he receives a warning. After three warnings, he’s disqualified. A disqualification can also be called by a fighter injured by an illegal move that they deem intentional.
- Forfeit: A fighter can choose to end the fight prematurely if they’re injured.
- Knockout: A knockout is when a fighter looses consciousness during the match.
- No Contest: If both fighters become disqualified, or if a fighter is injured by an unintentional illegal action, the match is declared a draw, or no contest.
- Submission: If one fighter achieves a submission hold, the fighter in the hold can forfeit the match by tapping out by tapping either his opponent’s body or the mat, or by making a verbal announcement.
- Technical Knockout (TKO): A technical knockout is what happens when a fight is ended by a referee, a doctor, or someone in the fighter’s corner. The referee can call a TKO if the fighter is no longer defending himself.
The Unified Rules of MMA were codified in 2000 to ensure fair play and the safety of MMA participants. Actions which can incur fouls or penalties in matches include:
- Biting or spitting
- Fish-hooking - when you insert a finger into your opponent’s mouth or nostrils
- Spiking an opponent on the mat with his head and neck
- Striking the spine or the back of the head
- Striking the throat or grabbing the trachea
MMA has a similar rule-set to MMA and they both have a lot of the same fouls, penalties, weight classes, and bounds for disqualification.
Contests are held in a square ring bounded by four ropes. A boxing ring cannot be less than 16ft and no more than 20ft square.
There are twelve rounds in a boxing match. Boxing gloves are typically 12oz, 14oz or 16oz.
Judges score boxing matches on a 10-point scale. The winner of each round gets 10-points. The loser gets nine. When a boxer gets knocked down, he loses a point.
Boxing match judges look for aggressiveness, control of the ring, defense, and hard, clean punches. At the end of a round, judges hand a scorecard to the referee, who then gives them to a ringside official. At the end of the 12 rounds, the tallies are added up to their final scores.
The winner is decided by the most points, knockout, technical knockout, or disqualification.
Injury Statistics in MMA vs Boxing
Boxing is considered a more mainstream sport than MMA because of its longer history and its position as an Olympic sport. MMA, meanwhile, is coming into its own as an international sport but is still battling years of stigma and negative publicity labeling it as a glorified bloodsport.
Is MMA more dangerous and prone to fatal injury than boxing? A look at the studies comparing the two sports shows that if anything, the opposite is true.
Let’s look at MMA first.
Injury Statistics in MMA
MMA’s reputation as a blood sport is mostly due to the skin-deep cuts and bruises which look a lot worse than they actually are. Most of the injuries caused in MMA are lacerations - the skin-deep cuts and bruises which cause the bloody noses and blood-streaked faces you see on televised UFC fights.
To be sure, injuries in MMA are common. 59.4% of MMA fighters have reported getting hurt in a fight. The risk of injury in mixed-martial arts is higher than that of other combat sports such as Tae Kwon Do or Karate. The flipside they are far less likely to be severe.
The injury patterns in MMA are much more varied and spread out than in other martial arts. MMA incorporates moves and techniques from a variety of fighting disciplines like muay thai and jiu-jitsu, and thus allows for many different strikes, low kicks and takedowns which target the whole body.
In other words, while injuries are common in MMA, they are very rarely serious. Fatalities are rarer still.
MMA is a young sport with only about 30 years of history. A total of sixteen total deaths have been recorded since its creation in 1993 - seven in sanctioned bouts, and nine unsanctioned.
So much for MMA. Let’s look at boxing.
Injury Statistics in Boxing
Although injuries in boxing are far less common than in MMA fights, when they do happen they’re much more likely to be life-alteringly severe or even fatal.
There are two updated records of boxing fatalities. Wikipedia has recorded 500 boxing fatalities since 1926. The much more accurate Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection has recorded 923 boxing deaths since 1725, in a professional bout between John Dixon and Richard Teeling in Covent Garden, London.
It makes sense when you think about it. Boxing has hundreds of years of history on MMA, and professional boxing matches have been ongoing since at least the 17th century.
Not only that, but boxing has a significantly higher rate of concussion (14% of all boxing injuries) than mixed martial arts (4%). Again, this is in line with common sense - boxing involves repeated strikes to the head rather than striking the whole body.
MMA and Boxing: Which is Better for Self-Defense?
UFC Fighter and world lightweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. has boasted that he can beat any MMA fighter in a regulation boxing match. This has served as fuel for a debate amongst boxers and MMA fighters regarding which fighting style is superior.
Both MMA and boxing are great skill-sets for any professional or trained fighter to have. They both condition the body to its optimal shape, and either can be applied to real-life self-defense situations.
With that being said, boxing is all stand-up game, and boxers only train in hand-strikes and evasive maneuvers. Most real-life street fights are unlikely to end standing up.
MMA matches, meanwhile, typically start from a standing position until both combatants wrestle their way to the ground, where one submits the other. It’s worth noting that MMA fighters are trained in a variety of fighting disciplines applicable to fighting both standing up and on the ground.
In fact, many MMA fighters are also trained boxers. MMA fighters learn it all. To balance this, boxing is also much easier to learn because it’s more straightforward.
Training in MMA and Boxing
MMA and boxing are both fighting styles with colorful and interesting histories and millions of fans worldwide. While MMA is often more stigmatized by politicians and the medical community, boxing is in fact more likely to result in severe or fatal injury.
So what can you do to protect yourself while training in MMA or boxing? The same thing you do when you train in any martial art: wear the right equipment.
Boxing and MMA are both high-impact sports which carry their own risks. Protect yourself with the right protective equipment, and start on your path to be king of the ring today.