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Another MMA Death Raises Invalid Safety Concerns About The Sport

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea – USA TODAY Sports

UFC is proud of its nearly 20 years without a serious injury or death in the Octagon. Their safety record is exemplary, but the promotion’s fighters are still frequently injured in training. That reality helped spur the company on in implementing a sweeping health insurance program for all fighters under contract.

Still, there have been a few deaths in MMA. The latest occurred last Wednesday at a Scottsdale, Ariz., gym. Sam Young, a 33-year-old father of two, collapsed during training for his second pro MMA bout. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

The Louisiana native lost his first bout last September via rear naked choke at a Rage in the Cage event. In addition to his budding MMA career, Young served as a personal trainer at Maximum Fitness and the Keep Punching gym, both in Scottsdale. The remaining trainers at the gyms where Young served clients plan on donating future proceeds to his family.

Young’s death is the 10th MMA-related fatality in the history of the sport, according to Wikipedia. Most of the other incidents involved unsanctioned events. The majority of cases also featured a lack of adequate precautions taken before the bouts or an absence of sufficient medical personnel on scene.

The bottom line is there is very little concrete evidence to suggest that MMA competitions set up under ideal conditions represent any increased risk of death. Those fatalities we have seen always seem to have some thread of irresponsible behavior on the part of the promoters and organizers of the event or some kind of pre-existing medical condition that went undetected. Young’s case does highlight the potential dangers of training, though.

There is no word yet on exactly what Young was doing when he collapsed or whether he sparred that day, but sparring prior to fights is often the cause of injuries that force fight cancellations and postponements. Though most injuries MMA fighters incur are not serious or life threatening, the sport can clearly take a major toll on a fighter’s overall health over the course of a long career of fighting and training. Still, it may be safer than boxing and sports with frequent head-to-head contact like football and hockey.

One factor that may help decrease the risk of major injuries in MMA is the lack of a standing eight count and the quick stoppages from TKOs and submissions. The relatively short duration of most fights could also be key along with the fact that much of that fight time encompasses a great deal of wrestling and grappling.

One of the most comprehensive studies on combat sports safety is currently underway in Las Vegas, but past studies show brain injury is much less of a concern in MMA competition than it is in boxing. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine back in 2006 included the following observations:

A total of 171 MMA matches involving 220 different fighters occurred during the study period. There were a total of 96 injuries to 78 fighters. Of the 171 matches fought, 69 (40.3 percent) ended with at least one injured fighter. The overall injury rate was 28.6 injuries per 100 fight participations or 12.5 injuries per 100 competitor rounds. Facial laceration was the most common injury accounting for 47.9 percent of all injuries, followed by hand injury (13.5 percent), nose injury (10.4 percent), and eye injury (8.3 percent). With adjustment for weight and match outcome, older age was associated with significantly increased risk of injury. The most common conclusion to a MMA fight was a technical knockout (TKO) followed by a tap out. The injury rate in MMA competitions is compatible with other combat sports involving striking. The lower knockout rates in MMA compared to boxing may help prevent brain injury in MMA events.

Young’s death is certainly tragic, but it really does not reflect a lack of safety across the entire sport of MMA. Though critics might point to this incident as proof the sport is barbaric and dangerous, it is just like any athletic endeavor with respect to freak accidents. Considering the longevity of MMA and the relatively low incidence of deaths, it could actually be one of the safest sports on the planet. Since it involves people frequently punching each other in the face, that’s quite an accomplishment.