Following the untimely and shocking death of the young up and coming boxer Patrick Day. I wanted to do a deep dive into the statistics to discover how many fighters have died in the ring, in both boxing and MMA?
While obviously boxing and MMA are two different sports with two very different histories. And while there are several estimates, especially for boxing with the total number of deaths recorded since the 1890s, standing at approximately 1,604 back in 2011. And in MMA as things currently standing at 16 deaths since it’s inception the mid-1990s, but is that the full story?
Deaths in combat sports are sore topic for everyone involved, fans, fighters and promoters. Its an accepted part of the fight game that there will be deaths at some point along the way. In a full-contact sport where the aim is to overcome your opponent and secure a victory while adhering to the predefined rules. In simple terms, any way you cut it, it’s about hurting the other person.
While MMA does offer fighters some flexibility to minimise the long term damage they can inflict. Either via debilitating leg kicks or submissions which force the opponent to give up. Boxing is more limited in the options open to fighters through which they can win the bout.
With boxing, the head and upper body are the focus points of attack. And while body shots can and do stop many fights, a large number of boxing stoppages come via knockout or a technical knockout. And for this reason, many professional fighters have joined studies to work out any lasting repercussions.
The Marquess of Queensberry Rules
Since boxings official sanctioning under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, which were first published in 1867. There have been a number of different statistics published which if anything conflict, rarely complement one another. With the estimates for numbers of deaths inside the ring varying wildly from approximately 500 up to 1600+ and counting.
In an ongoing record which was established in the 1940s by a gentleman called Manuel Vasquez. Between 1890 and 2011, it’s estimated that 1,604 boxers died as a direct result of injuries sustained in the ring. That is an average of 13 deaths a year. However, it’s very difficult to get a good grasp on how many fighters have actually died as a result of boxing-related injuries.
One of the main reasons I found for this is the fact that if the fighters do not die in or around the time of the fight itself. But say perhaps over time as a result of sustained cumulative damage. It’s often hard to point the finger directly at the damage incurred inside the ropes.
With brain-related conditions such as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), colloquially referred to as being punch drunk. Having now been traced back to a sustained repetitive concussion. Something which is now being actively addressed in other sports such as American football and Rugby, with Rugby appearing to be the shining light in terms of visible progress.
With numbers varying so much and with so many worldwide organisations and promotions running the sport of boxing and mixed martial arts. Is it even possible to somehow fully regulate one of man’s oldest and dearest past times, fighting?
“a direct relation between a high roller in the gaming sense and a boxing fan. Boxing, more than any other sport, brings out the highly-competitive person.” Donald TrumpJournalist Phil Berger
For many fans, knockouts in boxing are what they look for in a fight. What is more gratifying in a contest than a decisively stunning knockout of the opponent, in the most brutal and devastating fashion. While we as fans want our fighters to put on a spectacle. We also want them to walk away from the contest and live to fight another day. But can we have our cake and eat it?
How can a fighter go for that crowd-pleasing stoppage, while at the same time minimise the possibilities of their opponent suffering a life-threatening injury? It’s a topic that has confounded all that have debated it over the sports many years of providing entertainment.
Let’s Talk MMA vs Boxing Injury Statistics
While it is extremely difficult to pin down concrete numbers in terms of fatalities in both sports, especially boxing. There has been some in-depth research on the damage sustained by competitors.
It’s also important to remember that the number of events will affect the overall likelihood of warped statistics. For example, with thousands of events in cycling, there are on average two deaths per year. But at the bull-running in Pamplona which happens just once per year, on average one person will die. So which of these two activities is safer? You do the math.
In the first of its kind, a meta-analysis of combat sports which took place in 2014. Concluded that the risk of injury was higher in MMA than any other combat sport. Those injuries included facial cuts, fractures and concussions.
- With the likelihood of injury in MMA being just below 23%
- While in professional boxing this number is estimated to be between 12% – 25%
This was again backed up by an even more comprehensive study in 2015. Which found that the highest risk of injury was in the sport of MMA, but there was some additional, absolutely critical information added.
- That the highest proportion of neck and head injuries are in boxing at 84%
- Karate stands at 74%, which is actually higher than that of MMA at 64%
The research also found that Boxing had a significantly higher rate of concussion at 14%. While the concussion rate in MMA was 4%. While kickboxing stood at the highest of all combat sport at 19%!
The vast majority of life-threatening or life-changing injuries come as a result of head trauma. So let’s look at another study in this specific area by Dr Shelby Karpman from the University of Alberta in Canada.
In his 2015 research paper with data from post-fight medical examinations on all bouts in Edmonton, Canada, between 2000 and 2013, the research revealed:
- Professional boxers were more likely to experience loss of consciousness and serious eye injury (detached retina)
- Boxers were almost twice as likely to sustain a concussion that involved a loss of consciousness
- Average medical suspensions ranged from 26 days for boxers,
- Compared to 20 days for MMA fighters, which also suggests a higher likelihood of serious injuries in boxing.
More Accountability by those involved
While I think the possibility of totally putting a stop to any deaths in combat sports is all but impossible. I do think that there is leverage for those involved in both sports to deal with certain situations differently.
As a fan and as someone who has competed, on a low level, I might add. In my own personal unqualified opinion, I do think that in some cases, certain fights have been allowed to go on far too long. And for the fighters involved sustaining far too much damage in a situation where every opportunity is given for the fighter to carry on.
We have to remember these people are fighters, there is a reason they have chosen combat as their sport of choice. And if given the opportunity, in front of friends, family and fans watching. They do not want to give up! Either through a combination of pride or true grit, many fighters will not stop until their body itself decides for them.
How many times have we seen fighters being pummelled in boxing, stagger forward after a knockout down? Barely lucid and with their senses all but are gone, be asked if they are able to continue? When a fighter is in the heat of battle, what is the most common and most likely outcome for such a question? The answer is yes! And all too often fighters have continued to take sever punishment long after the best before date.
We have heard many times from pundits and boxers how a single fight has diminished an athlete. That the fight took so much out of them, that they were never quite the same again. Fights so intense that it forever changed them as a competitor and in their quality life outside the ring.
A Question With No Answer?
There are no official global records kept on the deaths incurred by MMA fighters, but why is that? Is it down to bad management, the sport is so young, disjointed? Or just an unwillingness on the part of those involved in mixed martial arts to have a definitive record of lives lost. Perhaps too gruesome a reminder of the inherent dangers involved?
Manuel Vasquez was against boxing and as a result, felt a record of boxing deaths should be maintained. And that is pretty much the only reason why there is any kind of even semi-official record, even now in 2019.
For their part, promoters cannot be counted on to care for the wellbeing of the fighters involved. That is down to the commissions, trainers and fighters themselves. Promoters are there to promote the event and in doing so make money for themselves and the fighters.
I have personally heard on more than one occasion from MMA coaches. How a greedy promoter wanted their novice amateur fighter to jump in the cage against a seasoned fighter, just so a fight could be made. With little in the way of due diligence or care for the athletes involved. These types of stories are no doubt commonplace and speak volumes about the sordid underbelly of the combat sports world.
With an unofficial body count of 16 since the sport’s beginnings back in 1993. I would hope that mixed martial arts, a sport for the new millennium, will do absolutely everything in its power to work on a global scale and minimise the risks involved for fighters. We will never stop people wanting to test themselves in any arena. What is life without being tested along the way?
But we should do everything humanly possible to make sure our fighters make it home safely to their loved ones. That the conditions in which they compete are fit for purpose. And that all possible measure has been taken to ensure as best we can, a positive outcome. And as boxer Patrick Day said before his untimely death
“God willing we get to the arena safely and in one piece.”Boxer Patrick Day
And I might add, leave in one piece. Rest in Peace Patrick Day, 1992 – 2019.
Images courtesy of mmamania.com, the irishmirror.ie & usatoday.com