MMA Versus Football: Which is more dangerous?


Quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, image courtesy of PxFuel.

You wrap up your hands, put on your gloves, and prepare for war. Every fighter must mentally prepare prior to making their walkout to the ring/octagon. They have to be ready to annihilate the man they are competing against. 

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is generally considered to be one of the most dangerous sports in the world because of the consistent hits to the head and body. A spinning heel kick to the jaw would have anyone gritting their teeth. 

However, in actuality, American football happens to be more dangerous than MMA because of repeated major head trauma and the possibility of intense injuries. 

Every fighter should expect to get injured at some point in their career. Injuries often occur during training because they spend most of their time in sparring (low-intensity fighting), grappling, heavy bag, etc. Common injuries include skin lacerations, bone fractures, and concussions.  

During training camp, the fighters get smacked around for several weeks—pushing their bodies further than they have ever been—all in order to not get smacked around during their fight. It’s not uncommon for a fighter to enter their bout injured. 

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Gibert Burns suffered a minor AC joint tear, a dilatory tear, a trap tear, and several sprained vertebrae in training prior to his most recent match against Belal Muhammad 

Injuries are a part of the art of fighting and all professional fighting companies have highly trained referees prepared to stop the fight when necessary. Accompanying the referees, doctors are on standby to provide care if required and to stop the fight if one’s wound has become too far gone.  

In MMA, if during a bout a fighter gets knocked down, the opponent will chase down and finish their competitor. The fight is over and the fighter who was finished doesn’t have to suffer more headshots. 

In football, players are hitting each other helmet-to-helmet and immediately running back to the line for the next play. These repeated hits to the head are what lead to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). 

The Alzheimer’s Association classes CTE as a progressive and fatal head disease caused by repeated blows to the head. A study was undertaken by Boston University on the brains of former NFL (National Football League) players, and in it, they reported that 345 of 376 were diagnosed with CTE. 

CTE has become a growing concern in the NFL, as the league has made great strides in providing better helmets for their players resulting in the number of concussions decreasing by 20%.  

Moreover, not every level of football has the resources available for equipment equivalent to the NFL’s. High school football players experienced 11.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures according to Fulshear Athletics. Athletic exposure is defined as one athlete participating in a game or practice in which there is a chance of injury. 

Many players have died on the field or in a hospital bed after the game. 40% of on-field deaths occurred because of cardiomyopathies. Cardiomyopathy is where the heart muscles struggle to effectively pump blood to the heart. 

In January of 2023, the world saw just how dangerous football could be. On January 2, on Monday Primetime, the Cincinnati Bengals took on the Buffalo Bills at home. The game was on display to the entire nation who watched tragedy strike. 

Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after successfully executing a tackle on Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. He entered cardiac arrest and required immediate resuscitation on the field. Following his resurrection, he was briefly transported to the hospital where doctors administered care.  

Had professional medical staff not been present, Hamlin would’ve died. Had this been at a high school—potentially even a college game, he likely would have passed due to not having the correct medical staff present in times like those. 

As listed by PubMed, 12 people die annually in high school football whereas in MMA only seven incidents of fatality have been reported. 

Additionally, every 14 out of 15 injured football players were sent to the emergency room, and an approximated average minimum total of 300,000 injuries per year. In NCAA the injuries often inflicted are more detrimental as they are typically colliding with people of much larger stature and strength than high school ball. 

Intense heat-related issues are another common cause of death for football players. PBS reported that there have been at least 50 deaths in the past 25 years because of heat stroke. These numbers have been growing over the past decade. 

Highlands high school class of 21’ alumni Brendan Nickelman described some of the egregious training methods used for conditioning under a former coach, “we did chip runs, where you and a partner would take turns holding the [45-pound plate] in different positions while non-stop running.” 

They would also do sprints up the bleachers in tandem with the chip runs. “One day we did two hours of chip runs, took 30 minutes to run bleachers, and then chip runs for another hour.”

On top of that, water breaks were few and short. Nickelman claims that they had one water break and it was very brief before running the bleachers again. 

Negating the heat itself, dehydration is the number one cause of heat stroke. Dehydration leads to the body failing to regulate its temperature and produce sweat. 

The ideology of withholding water from one’s players comes from the belief that it’ll toughen up your players. It’s an older practice that has begun to fade away as it’s unethical and illogical as it only weakens the team. 

Training for MMA usually is inside an air-conditioned building, so heat stroke isn’t an issue for fighters. However, dehydration is and it’s one of the methods used for cutting weight. Water compromises about 60% of our body weight making it the easiest way to cut weight fast. 

This method of cutting has the potential to be dangerous but under proper supervision can be done safely. Typically, after the fighters weigh in, they drink lots of water and eat lots of carbs to recoup as much weight as possible before their fight. 

They weigh in at a designated weight (eg. 145lb, 155lb, 170lb) but often are fighting at heavier weights after they rehydrate and carb up. 

MMA isn’t safe, however; football is more dangerous. It’s imperative that strides continue to be made to protect players’ lives and health.