A new Canadian study concluded that mixed martial arts fighter suffers a traumatic brain injury in nearly 30% of professional fights. The rate was higher than that for football, hockey, or even boxing.
The University of Toronto researchers analyzed seven years of UFC scorecards — which detail when a fight ends with a knockout or technical knockout — as well as watching videotape of bouts. They concluded the damage done to MMA fighters is likely exacerbated by the “surprising,” repeated blows to the head delivered after they have already been put out cold.
The researchers suggest banning the growing sport among young people, and instituting rules at the pro level that limit action after a competitor is downed, much like the 10-second count in boxing.
Concussions have become a hot topic in hockey and football, as evidence mounts of their potentially debilitating long-term impact, but received relatively little attention in MMA, note the authors of the paper, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
“This draws attention to the fact that relevant questions need to be asked of a sport for which the objective at some level is to knock them out,” said Michael Hutchison, a U of T kinesiology professor and lead author.
“The [knocked out] person is rendered unable to defend themselves, and then they’re getting multiple strikes to their head. That’s probably not good for one’s health.”
The UFC — the sport’s dominant promotional company — is still reviewing the “technical medical document” and is not ready to comment on it yet, said Steve Keogh.
In barely a couple of decades, MMA has won a wide following in numerous countries, with one marketing company last year estimating its worldwide audience to be 300 million people.
Fighters are allowed to kick and punch, as well as employ wrestling-like techniques on the ground in bouts often conducted inside a chain-link-fence “octagon.” Some events pay cash rewards for the “knockout of the night.”
Despite its popularity, the sport has long faced criticism, with several medical associations calling for its banning, and some provinces and states doing so.
There is little empirical data, though, on its relative safety.
The study conducted by Prof. Hutchison and doctors at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto did not involve actual medical diagnosis of MMA fighters.
Instead, they analysed the publicly available scorecards from professional UFC matches, which indicate whether a fight ended in a knockout or TKO. While not definitive evidence, it is probable that a knockout, where the fighter loses consciousness, involves a concussion or more severe brain injury, said Prof. Hutchison.
The researchers also analyzed video to find technical knockouts that involved multiple strikes to the head, which they also suggest likely represent a traumatic brain injury.
They detected an average of 6.4 knockouts per athlete for every 100 fights, or “athlete exposures.” When the multiple-strike TKOs were added, the total of suspected brain injuries climbed to 15.9 per athlete per 100 bouts, or one concussion-like injury in 32% of matches.
That compares to rates, found in other studies, of 4.9 concussions per 100 athlete exposures in boxing, 2.2 per 100 in hockey and 8.08 per 100 in football, the paper said.
Analysis of the fight video suggested that 90% of the TKOs were a result of repetitive strikes. “The 30 seconds before match stoppage was characterized by the losing competitor sustaining a flurry of multiple strikes to the head,” said the study.
Half of the knockouts occurred because of blows to the mandible, or lower jaw.
And the researchers found an average of 2.6 head strikes after a knockout, inflicted on unconscious fighters.
Evidence that such injuries can result in structural damage to the brain and “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” — sometimes known as boxer’s dementia — makes a strong argument that MMA should be banned for youth, and made safer for professionals, the researchers say.
UFC should consider a rule that would halt the bout at least temporarily after a competitor is knocked down, and require mandatory imaging scans of fighters who suffer knockouts or TKOs, they say.