Injuries are inevitable in any sport, but in a sport where the goal is to cause damage to the opponent, the chances increase drastically. We have excellent insight into the most common MMA injuries with ever-improving data collection and processing.
The most frequent MMA injuries sustained during a fight are cuts and bruises to the head, followed by wrist or hand trauma and knee injuries. Training injuries paint a different picture, with knee injuries topping the list, followed by injuries to the shoulders, neck, and hands.
Let's dig a little deeper into the injury data before we get to some of the worst injuries seen in MMA.
What Are The Most Common MMA Injuries?
An injury occurs when stress is applied to muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments that exceed their maximum capacity, causing tissue damage. The nature of MMA means this happens rather often, and proper monitoring helps immensely with injury prevention and treatment.
The UFC is not the only one to conduct studies on this matter. Still, since the establishment of the UFC Performance Institute, they have taken the lead in gathering and analyzing MMA-related data. Their 2021 cross-sectional analysis details injuries sustained during fights and training.
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The data includes 1344 injuries reported by UFC fighters between 2017 and 2020, so it paints a very detailed picture, at least at the highest level of MMA represented by the UFC and its fighters.
Here is a simple table representing the percentages of MMA injuries distributed by body parts sustained during fights. These injuries account for roughly 80% of all reported injuries.
Face lacerations, bumps, bruises, and concussions are naturally the most common injuries in a competitive fight. Hand and wrist injuries represent a much smaller percentage, but they are still prevalent. This is in no small part thanks to the UFC gloves, which have been critiqued for years but are still not changed. The vast majority of fight injuries (85.4%) are sustained while striking.
Non-fight, or training-related injuries are much less common, amounting to 20% of all injuries. But are still sufficient to gain a good understanding of the situation and adjust training methods and intensity accordingly.
This distribution shouldn't surprise anyone who is training in mixed martial arts. Anyone with more than 6 months in a gym has suffered from some kind of knee or shoulder injury. Both are highly complex joints that are heavily used in striking and grappling techniques. Injuries can occur as a result of both chronic training overuse and sudden trauma.
An interesting note is that while striking is responsible for most fight injuries, grappling takes the top spot in training. 42.5% of the reported non-fight injuries are sustained during grappling, 33.3% during striking, 19% by submissions and 5% remain unknown.
How To Reduce Your Injury Risk
Strength Train Consistently
While we can’t prevent injuries, especially head injuries, we can reduce the risk of soft tissue injuries with proper MMA weight training. Lifting through a full range of motion most of the time with consistency will improve your mobility, bone density, and thickness of the tendons and ligaments.
Be In Great Aerobic Shape
Being gassed when sparring, drilling or fighting may increase your risk of injury. Sloppy movement and the inability to produce force quickly due to fatigue isn't a great combination.
Focus on developing a solid aerobic base and the ability to tolerate high lactate levels with your MMA conditioning. You'll be well on your way to reducing your injury risk.
Increase Movement Variety
While common advice is to focus on the big compound exercises in the gym, you need movement variety in training to expose your body to different stimuli. If you spend most of your strength training time axially loaded, standing, and jumping up and down, you're missing lateral movement, among others.
Has There Been A Death In MMA?
Sadly, some MMA fighters have met their end in the cage. While the number is relatively low compared to boxing and even lower compared to American football, there have been several reported cases of deaths in MMA.
None of those happened in the UFC. The company works closely with athletic commissions and monitors its athletes closely, which is undoubtedly why there hasn't been a single fatality in the UFC ranks.
A few deaths have been reported outside of the UFC. The first case occurred in 2007 when Renegades Extreme fighter Sammy Vasquez entered a coma. He died from complications of blunt head trauma and a brain hemorrhage following a knockout loss in October of that year.
At least 7 fighters died due to trauma received during a fight, and 9 more perished in unsanctioned bouts. There are perhaps more, but this is the most widely available information.
Even more unfortunate is the damage done by weight cutting. We've all seen videos of agonizing fighters destroying their bodies to dry out to the weight limit of their weight class. Still, a few fighters across combat sports died because of it.
The most infamous case happened in 2015 when ONE FC fighter Yang Jian Bing died following a brutal weight cut. This caused the organization to take drastic measures, creating a revolutionary system that essentially abolished extreme weight cutting.
Worst Injuries Seen In MMA
It's time to see some of the worst injuries that happened in MMA. Fighters and combat sports fans tolerate watching violence but remember that some of these are gruesome.
Andreson Silva and Chris Weidman’s Leg Breaks
One of the most visually disturbing injuries is the shinbone break. Witnessing one of these can deter you from leg kicking for months.
There are quite a few shin breaks in MMA and kickboxing, but Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman are the most popular ones. At the height of his career in 2013, Anderson Silva was knocked out by Weidman. In the rematch, the Brazilian suffered the infamous leg break from which the Spider never returned the same.
Fast forward a few years to 2021, and Chris Weidman suffered an even worse and visually disturbing break in the knee of Uriah Hall.
Here are videos of both:
Breaking your shin bones is terrible, but breaking a skull is truly life-threatening. The knockout of the year 2016 by Michael Venom looks spectacular, but it cost the career of Evangelista Santos and nearly took his life. As Cyborg stepped in, MVP intercepted him with a flying knee that broke the Brazilian's skull.
An unfortunate feature of MMA gloves, especially UFC ones, is eye pokes. They have changed the outcome of fights, and more than a few scraps have been stopped because of bad pokes. But Matt Mitrione's right eye has to be the visually worst after the intervention of Travis Brown.
Joanna’s Swollen Head
Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Weilli Zhang produced perhaps the world's best women's MMA fight in 2020. In the aftermath of the battle, the former Polish champion's head was so deformed that she resembled a movie alien. Luckily, Joanna recovered fully, but the hematomas on her head look terrifying.
Studies and common sense tell us that the most common fight MMA injuries are to the head in the form of cuts, bruises, and concussions. The hands and wrists also suffer very often, with the knees and other joints following.
In training, the injury distribution is quite different, with the knees and shoulders getting beat up the most. Such data analyses benefit fighters, coaches, and weekend warriors by mitigating the risk they take in the cage and the gym.