Is MMA Safe?

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Is MMA Safe?

Since its debut in 1993 Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has been the subject of much debate. Those opposed to the sport have referred to it as “barbaric” and “uncivilized.”

One opposition group, lead by Senator John McCain, even succeeded in causing a four-year forced hiatus of the sport from 1997 to 2001. The efforts by McCain and others have convinced some states, including New York, to ban the sport all together.

This opposition and recent death of mixed martial artist Michael Kirkham on June 26 at a US-sanctioned MMA event, begs the question: Is MMA safe?

What’s the Big Deal?

MMA combines the use of several styles of martial arts and fighting styles including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, freestyle wrestling, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, Judo, Karate, kickboxing, and Kung Fu. Its athletes go through rigorous training to get in fighting shape and gain professional status.

Comparisons have undoubtedly always been made between boxing and MMA. After all, the core of boxing is trying to knock someone out by punching them in the head. MMA just takes the fight to the next level.

While boxing has seen a decrease in popularity over the last few years, speculation can be made that MMA has picked up that fan base.  Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) President Dana White commented on the subject to ESPN Radio:

“One of the biggest problems right now is the amateur level, you know, there’s no real amateurs.  Let me tell you what, you think about the glory days of boxing. You think there’d be champions in Europe and all this stuff?  No way, the United States and Mexico dominated boxing – dominated it for years.  And now you don’t see, you know, not only do you not see anybody, you don’t hear about anybody.”

He went on to say:

“I don’t wish [boxing] any ill-will.  It’s not because the sport isn’t good or anything like that, it’s just that’s it’s so fragmented, and so many bad things have happened.  Nobody is going to stick their hand in their own pocket and spend their own money to save the sport of boxing, nobody is going to do it.”

So back to the question, is it safe?  “[MMA] is the safest sport in the world when done properly,” White responded to reporters questioning him in the wake of Kirkham’s death.

Instead, White placed the blame on smaller-sanctioned events. “As we go out there and get this thing sanctioned in all these different states, here’s the problem. I need these smaller promotions to exist but here’s the deal: If you can’t afford to do the proper medicals before the fight you don’t belong in this business.”


In 2001, the Unified Rules of Martial Arts Combat were drafted and adopted by several states as the guiding rules of MMA. They feature five weight classes, rounds, time limits, a list of 31 possible fouls, and eight ways to end a fight.

The possibilities of ending an MMA fight are:

  • Submission – fighter taps the mat or his opponent signifying his/her will to give up
  • Knockout – fighter takes a blow rendering him/her unconscious or unable to continue
  • Judges’ Decision –  Unanimous decisions, split decision, or majority decision
  • Technical Decision
  • Forfeit
  • Disqualification
  • Technical Draw
  • No Contest

A glimmer into a few of the many disqualifying moves are: eye gouging, biting (no Mike Tyson moves), hair pulling, spitting, grabbing the clavicle, and small joint manipulation. A complete list of disqualifying moves is available at the UFC website.

These changes breathed new life into the sport, which in previous years offered two weight classes, no time limits, no rounds, three fouls, and only two ways to end the fight.

These MMA regulations also include medical testing on athletes prior to competitions and require doctors to be on the sidelines of all matches, who are able to call the match if they feel a player is in jeopardy.

Welcome to the Refs’ World

Even with the updated rules and safety measures in place, questions are still raised as to the subjectivity of the matches, as called by the refs.

In a fight on July 3rd between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin—an event that according to pulled in 12,740 fans—it appeared that one ref wasn’t going to call the fight no matter how badly Lesnar was beaten.

The big news of the fight was not that Lesnar was dominated and beaten during the first round, but rather his coming back to win it in the second.

Coming out full-throttle did not make Carwin the winner. Instead, he used all his force and energy beating Lesnar to a pulp and tired himself out. Usually when a player gets tired in an MMA fight, it’s from the back and forth blows, or being pressed and pushed into the cage walls—not from the sheer exhaustion of using your own brute strength to beat the tar out of someone.

Lesnar hung in there through the beating, and capitalized on Carwin’s tired state, ending up the match winner. He definitely showed his ability to take a beating and hang in there until the very end—but some question whether this is really what the sport should be about.

New York State of MMA

Despite the opposition, fans want more MMA. While professional MMA is legal in most states, among the largely questionable holdouts is New York. On June 16, 2010, the New York State Senate passed a bill to legalize MMA within the state. It is now pending approval by the State Assembly.

If the law passes, MMA can only expect to see a huge boost in spectators and fans, given venues like Madison Square Garden and the Carrier Dome in Syracuse would be prime locations to host MMA events.

Whether this sport is your thing or not, I firmly believe MMA will benefit from the rules and regulations that come with making it legal.

Anyone would be foolish to think underground MMA events aren’t happening all over the US, including New York. Having events adhere to strict guidelines will prevent injuries and in some cases death.

With proper safety measures in place, watch for MMA to continue evolve and thrive in the professional sports arena.

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