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Student Combat: Superficially Dangerous, Tangibly Cautious

For student fighters, the rewards (sometimes) exceed the risks.

Martial artists are eager to tell passers-by that the most dangerous of sports is not boxing, but driving. A contrarian may also prompt discussion on the risks of cycling — motor vehicles likewise contributing to the death toll — and, in more alternative measures of hazard, scuba diving. 

For the less risky of us, it is further concerning that broadcast views of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), an American mixed martial arts company, continue to climb. For amateur martial artists choosing when to fight — and with what strength — it is a routine of mental gymnastics. Each fighter chooses their varying risk and reward. In the realm of university sports, in which the University of St Andrews operates its own expanding martial arts and boxing societies, fights may be safer — but students may still face a gamble.

Jack, a fourth-year psychology and management student from Glenrothes, Fife, began his fourth-year dissertation by examining the martial arts world he embodies. “I’m a boxer myself. When I started my dissertation, it was really about understanding the consequences of a fight.” 

Amidst discussions on the repercussions of contact sports, he stresses he has no regrets about beginning martial arts at a young age. “I started at 16. It was only once a week — not anything serious until I was 18. My mate suggested it as something fun to do when I was at university in Dundee.”

“I got into training, had my fight, and loved it,” Jack tellThe Saint. Since then I’ve had five fights in total.” White collar fights — a form of boxing developed in the 1980s which incorporates those with less fighting experience — made two of these experiences. The other three fights, one at a lower-impact exhibition level and the other two amateur, further expanded his skill and interest in combat. For amateur fighters, the risk of concussion and injury may be significantly lower than that of professional fighting, Jack explains. The strength of a punch and a combatant’s history (or lack thereof) of brain injuries are important factors in a competitor’s risk. 

The scientific research behind concussions, in both combat-fighting and sports-related injuries, paints an otherwise opaque picture. “From all the literature I’ve been reading, some say that [brain injuries] are cumulative and never go away. Others say you can recover within 24 hours.” Jack began his dissertation in September. “I wanted to provide support in either one way or the other, and find out for myself.” 

In dedicating his dissertation to sports-based brain injuries, Jack experiences the blend of academia and personal experience: the fourth-year “built a network of contacts” from his athletics which he has been able to use whilst gathering participants. 

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), resulting in disturbance of brain function — typically developed through external trauma — causing the brain to move around the skill in a fast motion. Resulting in oxygen deprivation, fighters who experience concussions may experience vomiting, a headache, dizziness, and many more symptoms, as described by the Mayo Clinic, a medical centre. Jack’s research stems from literature which examines the impact of concussions on attention, concentration, and memory. 

In university, St Andrews’ 100-sum martial artists provide an opportunity to study the student experience of combat fighting. Yet the individual and collective backgrounds of students — risk-avoidant, perhaps, or eager to fight at a young age — may not well represent the greater body of Scottish amateur fighters. 

“I would say there are outliers in student combat,” Jack says. “Because you can’t quite quantify how hard people are fighting when they say they’ve done a fight.” St Andrews MMA told The Saint that their fighters vary in skill: some fighters begin university as national champions — but the majority have less than two years of experience. 

Students may be more likely to reference fights as teenagers, which may be less intensive, or prioritise their brain health in preparation for exams. Jack is part of a non-university gym, where he encounters semi-professional fighters as well. “I wanted to recruit people from my gym as well. We had a guy win the Scottish Championship last night.”

“When you’re competing for titles and regionals the sparring is much harder.” Jack recalls personal experiences in these gyms, where he has had “more concussions in hard sparring than actual fights”. 

“Taking this into consideration, it’s good to have proper fighting gyms involved.” A variety of gyms in Dundee, Fife, and Perth have claimed national titles over the years. “When I asked them to be part of my study, they didn’t seem to be as concerned about brain health.”

Oliver, a third-year student at the University of St Andrews and former captain of St Andrews Mixed Martial Arts, compares his experience in martial arts to Jack’s study. “I started Muay Thai in 2019 at Edinburgh University. I would say the culture is very different in sparring [compared to boxing]. It was intense physically, but the sparring was quite light.” Across martial arts, the discipline and gym create diversity in experience and risk. The boxers “were the real intense people,” he says. “MMA is also much more intense. There is a culture [in boxing], especially around competition, where coaches train people with no fights to be as tough as they can be, as fit as they can be, before competing.” Oliver describes MMA is “more of a middle ground” between boxing and Muay Thai, a form of Thai boxing.

“I would say in the first couple of years I was quite reckless,” says Oliver. “I ended up doing a lot of hard sparring just because that was my culture [in boxing], but I don't think I ever took any huge knocks.”

The greater risk for amateur fighters is training to compete: “I went through a couple-year phase of being only light and technical…. When I started wanting to compete again, things started ramping up. Looking back, there were some of the more subtle side effects there. Haziness, stuff like that.”

As Jack continues his dissertation, the fourth-year reflects on his past injuries in sparring and combat. “I’ve had my nose broken five times… I’ve broken a rib,” he says. 

There is a search by martial artists and scientists, nonetheless, to provide a ‘safe’ opportunity to fight. To enforce headgear — as many UK amateur competitions do — or, in the realm of damage control, to explore new treatments for brain injuries. Martial arts enthusiasts might wonder how much of this focus prevents the obvious; injuries and victories from a practice as old as time. Jack believes martial arts retains its benefits: “The greatest risk comes from those fighting… training just for fitness is a very safe, net-positive type of training for building fitness, discipline and confidence.”

Illustration: Shalina Prakash

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