“Boxing is your father’s sport.”
—UFC president Dana White

And Muhammad Ali:

“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”

The boxer James Toney was recently and quickly beaten by Randy Couture in a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight, via a first round submission hold. This, to me, is unsurprising. The skill set in MMA is much more complete, from punches, to kicks, to grappling and holds. But what about safety? The theory is that MMA is less violent because fights end faster, less repeated shots to the head et cetera. First off, both sports seem brutal to the brain, most likely in different degrees, and to the body. Secondly, there are definitely, in my opinion, way more all around injuries in MMA—legs, arms, tendons et cetera.

But less dangerous than boxing, brain-wise? Perhaps. I don’t know, but either way I still wonder if the repeated idea that MMA is less violent than boxing is an urban myth, a bit of propaganda. I have no doubt that there will be MMA veterans who slur their words at some point, to mention just one side-effect. I could be wrong.

Anyway, Dana White, the UFC outspoken President, gives his opinion in an interview in Playboy:

PLAYBOY: How hard on the brain is Ultimate Fighting?

WHITE: People think our sport’s more violent than boxing. Wrong! They’re weirded out because it goes to the ground. We grew up with John Wayne movies—you don’t hit a man when he’s down. It’s un-American! John Wayne would deck a guy, stand him back up and hit him again. So when Americans first watch UFC—one guy’s on top of the other, hitting him when he’s down—they say, “Oh God, he can’t defend himself!” It’s not like that in Asia, where they’ve been doing martial arts since the samurai days.

Here’s another misconception: Americans think, How much can it hurt, getting hit with those big padded boxing gloves? [I’m not sure who thinks that—nobody who ever saw Mike Tyson fight in his prime, that’s for sure]. But they protect the hands. When boxing was bare-knuckle, fights would last about two seconds. Guys kept hurting their hands punching the other guy’s hard, bony head. So they created a padded weapon, and you could punch a guy in the head—bam bam bam—without breaking your hands. Boxing also has a three knockdown rule. You hit me so hard you jarred my brain, so I couldn’t stand up. That’s one. Now, if I can get back up, you can concuss me again. I go down and get up. If you do it again, the fight’s over. Boxers die every year, mostly from brain damage.

In the UFC a lot of the punching is on the ground. I’m trying to make you cover up so I can pull off a submission, get an arm bar, and maybe the ref will stop the fight. It’s not like a punch from a boxing stance, which is boom—throwing my whole 205 pounds right into your face. We also use smaller gloves. Our guys don’t take anything near the punishment boxers take.

I wonder if this has been scientifically tested through brain scans with long term MMA fighters and so on.

Again, for me, it’s hard to say. Facing Ali undeniably showed the effects of boxing on the brain, Ali, of course, and four of the ten boxers, all english speaking, were sub-titled. Mixed Martial Arts are dangerous, in the cage. But as hard on the brain as boxing? I don’t know. Anybody know of any actual studies comparing the two sports?

Take care of your head, it’s the only one you’ve got,

Pete x



  1. Thanks Jason,

    That is an interesting article. I blogged about it a while back. Hope all is well, and you are constantly wearing a helmet, even for cooking.


  2. Karen says:

    Here’s a recent article about a college football player’s suicide possibly being connected to repeated brain injury.


    While I don’t think a conclusive answer exists to this question yet, I don’t believe the idea that MMA is less violent than Boxing rings true, especially concerning brain injury. I also couldn’t find any studies; however, MMA is relatively young and, unfortunately, time will probably be the final judge on this.

    I really don’t think Americans aren’t used to seeing someone on the ground in a fight being hit, John Wayne’s gallantry notwithstanding. Except for boxing, that’s the only other kind of fighting I’ve ever seen.

    I also can’t imagine many Americans believing being hit with padded boxing gloves wouldn’t hurt. That’s like saying folks really believe being hit with a softball won’t hurt as much as a hardball.

    I agree the standing count can allow a boxer to remain in the ring while injured, but if an MMA fighter continues to defend after hitting the mat, how much damage happens until he finally submits? And what about actually hitting the mat, or more to the point, being thrown down?

    Ultimately, I think this is all semantics. There is still the basic physics and physiology of brain injury, which are a bit difficult to argue with.

    We have a very soft, delicate brain, floating in cushioning fluid, encased in a very hard, protective, boney skull. The brain is protected quite well from day-to-day jostling, but a really hard blow to the head, whether from contact with a hard object, any object with a tremendous amount of force behind it, or violent shaking, causes the brain to bang into the inside of the skull, inflicting damage.

    It’s all about momentum. Just because the head suddenly comes to a stop doesn’t mean the floating brain stops also. It can continue on and hit the inside of the skull causing what is called the coup. It then bounces back and hits the inside of the skull directly opposite the coup causing the contrecoup.

    The blow doesn’t have to be directly to the head either. When assessing a victim’s injuries, you consider the severity of the injuries you can see to assess the likelihood of internal injury. Victims with injuries consistent with tremendous force (i.e., crushed chest, broken femur) are assumed to have some degree of brain trauma.

    My vote: equally dangerous, and unnecessary. Then, so are smoking and drinking, and they’re legal.

    Scary note: a good friend works in a pediatrician’s office and the physicians frequently have to stand their ground to parents who don’t think a concussion is serious. I think folks watch too much TV.

    Love to you and those you love,

  3. Dan says:

    I watched a show on National Geographic channel called fight science and they broke down the impact on of how much force is exerted with boxing gloves and the smaller mma gloves. Believe it or not the larger more padded boxing gloves actually packs more of a punch than the smaller mma gloves. I was amazed when I heard that fact. The other thing about boxing is that boxers go for the head trying to get an early round knockout, the only ways to win is score enough points or get some kind of KO. If you win by points you have to go the distance, so as a boxer I would want to end things quick. MMA you can lay on your back for a while get some rest, look for a submission to end the fight etc. I do know one thing, aestically mma is hard on the looks.

Leave a Reply