In any sport that involves hand to hand combat there will undoubtedly be some form of damage caused to the fighters. The most feared injury in boxing and combat sports alike is not a broken bone or cut, it’s a head trauma known as CTE or Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy.
You may wonder if boxing gloves prevent head trauma, or if the smaller gloves in the ever popular MMA sport are more dangerous, or if bare knuckle fighting is the most dangerous.
If you aren’t a doctor or head trauma expert it can be hard to understand how damage builds up on a martial artist. We’ve created a guide to the damage caused in boxing and combat sports generally so that as viewers we can understand the potential dangers of combat sports and protect our fighters in a better fashion.
The Boxing Glove
Back in the 19th century when boxing was becoming a more popular sport and people were moving from bare knuckle boxing to the more modern form of boxing we see today with gloves.
You may be surprised to hear that the original introduction of boxing gloves was actually to prevent a fighter’s hands from being broken, rather than to protect the face of his opponent.
Typically, boxers will use gloves weighing 16oz or more to spar and most commonly people use 12oz gloves to fight, although this may change depending on the organisation and weight of the fighter.
In comparison, an MMA fighter will usually fight in gloves that weigh between 4oz-6oz, and in bare knuckle boxing they simply wrap your hands.
It seems common sense that the heavier the gloves, i.e. the more padded they are, then the less damage would be caused to an opponent. This isn’t always the case by any means. Boxing gloves that are more padded may actually encourage a boxer to throw harder as they understand that their hands are more protected.
This could potentially lead to more damage. For instance, an MMA fighter may throw with less force as they know that their hands aren’t padded. As mentioned, the padding is to protect your hand rather than your opponent’s face.
It is important to consider what sort of injury each sport, and glove, may inflict. Let’s look at MMA quickly, they use smaller gloves, but can also use kicks, knees, wrestling, attacks on the ground, and submissions. Many find that MMA is a much bloodier and more dangerous sport. But it’s important to think about the type of injury they sustain in comparison to boxing.
For instance, an MMA fighter may sustain more cuts due to less padding as well as the sharpness of elbows and knees. You can probably recover from a broken nose or a cut relatively quickly in a few weeks.
What about if your arm is broken in a submission, again this is very painful and uncomfortable but you will recover eventually and can still fight and use the arm again. In MMA you could sustain almost any injury, whereas in boxing the only place you can really sustain an injury is your head or body.
Again, let’s think about the gloves. MMA gloves are less padded so you get more cuts. Boxing gloves are more padded so this means less cuts but more general head trauma. The main goal in boxing is to knock the opponent out and make them unconscious and this requires serious head trauma.
So your opponent will only be aiming for your head, or body, but in MMA there are quadruple the targets and many more ways to inflict damage on that target.
A head trauma injury is extremely common in boxing then, but a head trauma injury is a lot harder to treat than a broken leg, or a cut.
Every time you absorb a punch to the head in boxing you will essentially be getting concussed on a small level, and if you are knocked out a part of your brain has temporarily stopped working and you have permanently damaged your neurological circuit. This is the ultimate goal of boxing, to knock your opponent out.
In boxing you can only punch above the belt, this means that most damage is sustained in the head or body, but almost always in the head. So, while in MMA you may sustain a whole variety of injuries, in boxing you can only sustain an injury to the head or body.
This means that your head will be taking the main brunt of the damage to your head; shots will almost always be aimed at your head as the goal is to knock your opponent out.
Repetition comes into this equation greatly. As you have padded gloves in boxing you will have to punch your opponent harder and for longer than if you punched someone with a bare fist.
A bare fist could knock someone out pretty quickly as it is harder than a boxing glove, but a boxing glove requires repetition to knock someone out.
Not only will you require a lot more punches to knock someone out, if you don’t knock an opponent out and the fight goes the distance, you will sustain a great amount more trauma. A boxing match is often twelve rounds of 3 minute rounds. So for over half an hour you will be absorbing head trauma.
For comparison, in an MMA match you will be spreading this trauma and damage across the whole of your body, rather than simply your head. Plus, the knockouts sustained in MMA are often quicker and cleaner which means less trauma, usually.
Risk of CTE
Due to the nature of injury caused in boxing, as well as the repetition of that trauma, you are extremely likely to sustain CTE after a career in boxing. The British Journal of Sports Medicine reports:
‘While there exists great controversy regarding the ethics of boxing, one of the key medical issues is the risk of a boxer developing CTE either during or after his boxing career. It is believed that CTE represents the cumulative long term neurological consequences of repetitive concussive and sub concussive blows to the head.’
Why is this so damning? This is a much worse injury to sustain than simply a cut caused by a bare fist, or an arm break from a jiu jitsu submission, CTE is essentially untreatable and can bring on serious neurological degeneration in its sufferers.
Once the initial symptoms of concussion leaves, some early issues may be constant headaches and migraines, short term memory loss.
Some long term effects of CTE could be the development of Alzheimers and dementia as well as long term memory loss, erratic behaviour, out of character behaviour, symptoms similar to parkinson’s disease. The symptoms get worse with age and are untreatable.
Some of these symptoms can lead to extremely poor quality of life and often an early death. Just look at Sugar Ray Leonard, he died in 1989 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, many attributed this to a life of head trauma.
Boxing is certainly a dangerous sport when you consider that the main goal is to inflict head trauma. Head trauma is seriously dangerous and can lead to irreparable damage and conditions that have no treatment, namely CTE. A fist is more dangerous than a fist in the sense that you can be knocked out more quickly with a bare fist than a boxing glove.
However, a boxing glove will lead to more head trauma, as will a career in boxing in comparison to MMA, for example. Cte is untreatable and life changing, making it more devastating on a person than any degree of damage caused by a combat injury.
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