Let’s talk about the world’s favorite full contact sport, MMA, for a minute. Descending from the Greek sport of Pankration, modern MMA has become one of the most watched sports on TV. Almost 1 million people tune in to watch UFC on pay-per-view; these days, the sport is worth well over $3.5 billion.
Now, we won’t question the morality of watching two combatants beat the absolute crap out of each other. Old-time Pankration was a hybrid of boxing and wrestling that had no rules; kinda like early MMA fights. These days, a typical MMA fight consists of three-five 5 minute rounds (or 34 seconds if one of them is Ronda Rousey), where fighters have one purpose; force the opponent into submission. This is done using fighting disciplines including boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ, wrestling etc. With such a wide array of styles at a fighter’s disposal, it’s a no-brainer that fighters pick up some truly horrible injuries.
Staph infections (yes, Staph from filthy mats), broken legs, concussions, torn ACLs, are some of the most common injuries in MMA. So why is this violent sport still so popular? When asked, UFC President, Dana White, said “…don’t care what color you are, don’t care what country you’re from. We’re all human beings, fighting is in our DNA… and we like it.”
But not everyone agrees with Mr. White.
The sheer bloodiness of the sport makes many in the anti-UFC camp say the sport is dangerous and should be abolished.
But do they have a point?
This is a sport where drawing blood is expected within the first few seconds of the fight and even if an opponent hits the ground, the match isn’t over. Nope, time for the ‘Ground & Pound’, where the floored opponent is pummeled until they submit and tap out. Alternatively, they may find themselves in a joint lock or choke, where they need to tap out or risk breaking a few bones. At the end of each round, faces are bloodied and noses have lost all natural alignment. But does the bleeding really signify ‘danger?’
Contrary to how it looks, taking a pounding in the cage is not that dangerous. Painful and violent? Yes. Deadly? Not so much.
Less people have died fighting in MMA than in scuba diving. Since the sport was sanctioned in the USA in 2001, there have been four deaths in sanctioned fights and six deaths in unsanctioned fights. Bear in mind that since 2001, there have been over 160 UFC events and countless other MMA events held around the world.
How can a sport with such a savage disposition result in so few deaths? It’s due to the nature of the sport itself and the strict enforcement of rules.
In MMA, strikes are directed at all parts of the body, thus distributing blows more evenly; compared to boxing where blows are concentrated on the head. In MMA, refs must stop a match immediately a fighter is unable to defend himself. There’s no eye-gouging, hair pulling, or kicking in the groin in MMA.
The injuries in MMA are still pretty gruesome; where else can one person get a broken leg, 2 black eyes, plus a concussion to boot, all within ten minutes? Despite that, MMA is still one of the safest full-contact sports around today. Here are ten sports with a much higher death rate since 2001.
10. Football: 9+ Deaths
No list of dangerous sports would be complete without including football. Hard to believe but a century ago, the sport was even more brutal than it is now. Those games often left dozens dead on the field. With rudimentary protective equipment, players had their spinal cords compressed, crushed skulls and broken ribs piercing soft tissue. This was due to the practice of spearing and helmet-to-helmet collisions. The situation was terrible till President Roosevelt intervened and urged teams to curb excessive violence.
While rules have been changed to reduce fatalities, excessive tackles still happen and have led to broken bones, concussion, head and neck injuries etc. In recent times, only nine players have died on the field (but a ton of gruesome life-changing injuries), but there’s a more disturbing trend emerging. Research has found that pro football players are at risk for earlier death and dementia by 10 years, over their peers.
The repeated concussions received also increase their risk for CTE, Parkinson’s disease and depression.
Quick note: a number of suicides by ex pro-footballers highlighted the link between concussion and dementia.
9. Rugby: 12+ Deaths
With 13 burly players on either team smashing against each other for 80 minutes, there’ll definitely be sickening injuries. With the only protection being a mouth guard and spiked boots, players have to carry the ball down the field.
Rugby players use their whole bodies to play the game, leading to the controversial use of shoulder barging, body checking and the lifting tackle. These plays contribute to the concussions, torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders and even tetraplegia, that players can end up with. Recent data shows that the repeated concussions also puts players at risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), brain damage and dementia.
Since 2001, collisions and rough tackles in rugby have led to the deaths of over a dozen professional players.
8. Wrestling: 13+ Deaths
Yeah, yeah, we know; professional wrestling is one big, scripted show.
But there is a very thin line between warning your opponent of what’s to come and making the moves look convincing to viewers. As many wrestlers would rather convince the viewers, their opponents end up taking a serious pounding.
In the WWE, the average wrestler fights over 270 days in a year; that’s a LOT of body slams! To combat the constant pain, many of them are in a constantly medicated stupor. Add the use of steroids, mixing of medication and other PEDs, you’ll find that many wrestlers are walking heart attacks. There is also evidence that the continuous head trauma severely damages the brain.
In wrestling, showmanship matters more than anything else, but putting on a great show comes at a steep price.
7. Eventing: 18+ Deaths
Eventing has been described as the equestrian triathlon; it involves show-jumping, dressage and endurance riding. During jumping and eventing, horses are raced over and around various obstacles across wildly varying terrain. This pushes the animal to its limits, driving it to exhaustion. This becomes apparent when they start missing jumps which leads to what is called a rotational fall in eventing.
They occur where a horse approaches a fence, but fails to clear it. This causes the approx. 500kg horse, to flip over and crash to the ground, often on top of the rider. This accident is so common that ALL the riders that have died in Equestrian events since 2006 have been victims of the rotational fall! And these were considered to be top riders. Between 2007 and 2008 alone, there were 12 rider deaths in eventing competitions worldwide.
6. Cycling: 22 Deaths
Now, most people would say “How dangerous can it be?” But if you live in a ‘cycle-friendly’ region like London or New York, you’ll have a good idea of just how dangerous cycling can be.
You’ll definitely trade some skin with the pavement, every time you fall off your bike. Now imagine doing that in a group, at speeds of up to 45 mph. When one person falls, it ends up being a pile of bruised bodies and mangled. In extremes, this can lead to head injuries, fractured ribs, musculoskeletal injuries etc.
With bikes getting lighter and faster, sprint finishes in road races have become more dangerous. You can have 30 riders sprinting at over 30 mph in a tight bunch and all it takes is one blown tire or a slip on a pedal, and the entire group will simply go down. 22 cyclists have lost their lives in competition or in training on the road, in the period under review.
5. Sailing Yacht Racing: 30+ Deaths
Modern motorboat racing has evolved from the days of single-hulled sailboats to the high-tech racing boats with rigid sails and carbon fiber hulls balanced on hydrofoils. In part, this was to satisfy the fans who clamored for ‘better and faster races.’ These days, the America’s Cup is referred to as “NASCAR on the water.”
To quickly maneuver these F1-style sail boats, sailors often have abandon their safety harness, which is totally insane when you consider the boats are going at over 60 mph, over rolling seas, and with no brakes.
Sailors also have to contend with getting tangled in fishing nets, stormy seas and hitting fish like the ocean sunfish (an average adult weighs up to 2,200 pounds). Any collision or capsizing flings sailors into the water, sometimes flipping the boat on top of them; an accident that killed two-time Olympic sailing medalist, Andrew “Bart” Simpson in 2013. Over 30 sailors have died in competitions since 2001.
4. Car Racing: 40 Deaths
With cars hurtling across asphalt (NASCAR) or sand (Dakar Rally) at over 150mph, accidents are almost guaranteed. With car technology improving every year, one would think races ‘should be safer,’ but in reality they are not. With factors like the weather and driver error, auto racing is still a very dangerous sport.
Hurling yourself around a course at an average speed of 175mph, in a carbon fiber box, while trying not to crash is for the very brave or very stupid. Drivers are protected by fire retardant suits and helmets, but those don’t help in all accidents. Common injuries include smashed bones, excessive blood loss, trauma to the head etc.
The Indianapolis 500 has been held since 1911, and has shaped everything from the culture to the memorabilia associated with racing. But even the Indy 500 has led to 41 deaths since inception. In more recent times, there have been over 40 driver deaths at major racing circuits since 2001.
3. Motorcycle Racing: 48+ Deaths
Sending your body down hurtling down a track at over 100 mph is insane in a car; imagine doing it on a crotch rocket. With only a few layers of Kevlar and a helmet for protection. Broken bones and third-degree abrasions are the most minor of accidents in motorcycle racing.
Yet, in what is considered the oldest race in motorcycle history, thousands descend on the Isle of Man for six days, every year. The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy is the most dangerous race on earth.
For one, there is no dedicated course. The race snakes through the town on a narrow 37 mile journey, with 250 corners. Riders average 120 mph on public roads with hedges, stone walls, and homes, mere feet away. In its 107 years of existence, 240 riders have died taking part, 48 of them since 2001.
2. Soccer: 67 Deaths
Soccer is one of those games that you’re either mad about or see as something your crazy European friends force you to watch. But the game takes physicality to another level; running for 90 minutes while moving a ball with only your feet and avoiding tackles is no easy feat. With no protective gear, players are at the mercy of ruthless forms of defense including the infamous studs-up challenge and aerial body checking. Concussion, bruises and bloodied limbs, torn ACLs, shin splints etc, are some of the common injuries in soccer.
Apart from a widespread occurrence of concussion and sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) among soccer players, the sport also ranks high for the amount of former players who suffer CTE due to repeated concussion. Since 2001, there have been 67 footballers who died while playing a game, died from injuries sustained while playing, or died after contact on the pitch.
1. BASE Jumping: 219 Deaths
Jumping off a building isn’t for the faint of heart, neither is jumping out of a plane or off a mountain . That’s probably why it’s a trope in many action movies, xXx, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Die Another Day etc.
But there are athletes who practice this extreme sport IRL. BASE jumpers climb to the top of tall buildings, jump off, free fall and float to the ground with a parachute. It goes without saying that to become a BASE jumper, one must complete a full course of skydiver training. No school will agree to teach you, if you haven’t completed at least 500 skydives first. BASE jumping is considered more dangerous than skydiving, as there’s less time to impact. Plus jumps are done off cliffs, in built up areas and near power lines.
As extreme as BASE jumping may sound, it’s still not the most extreme. That honor goes to wingsuit flying; where you hurl yourself out of a plane and basically ‘fly’. Swooping across rugged mountain terrain at speeds of up to 200mph requires some hefty cojones, and a very high level of proficiency. Despite having those requirements, 210 people have died BASE jumping, and another 28 while wingsuit flying.
Most of these deaths occur when parachutes fail to deploy, skydivers crash into obstacles like powerlines or mountains.
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