Heavily inspired by Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, mixed martial arts (MMA) is incredibly entertaining to watch due to the brutality of the fights. No holds are barred, and you can fight with the style you want. It facilitates unique fights where anything can happen, so the results are always spectacular.
However, with such harsh fights come consequences; you may have noticed that many UFC fighters have weird ears and asked yourself, “Why are MMA fighters’ ears like that?” It’s due to fighting and taking hits to the ears. It’s also common with wrestlers and rugby men since their sport also has a lot of ear trauma. This has become the trademark of some fighters like Randy Couture, and there are even cases of people voluntarily breaking their ears to get the same appearance.
The phenomenon is called cauliflower ears. If you want to learn more about it, we recommend that you keep reading this article.
What Are Cauliflower Ears?
What we commonly refer to as cauliflower ears is a deformity of the ear provoked by a trauma or an injury. This causes the ear to change shape and resemble a Cauliflower. This can happen in a few weeks or over several years, and it’s become associated with sports like wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and rugby. Cauliflower ears are caused by the constant trauma associated with these sports. It’s especially common in MMA, where the ground fights are particularly violent for the ears.
If the injury isn’t properly treated, blood has a harder time flowing, and it can damage tissue. An infection can also cause this condition in the ear lobe. It can happen because of training, sparring, or fighting, especially if the fighter receives multiple hits to the ear.
The ear changes shape and looks bloated. It’s because the blood flow of the ear can’t occur correctly, and little blood clots can block this flow, creating an accumulation in the ear tissue. This leads to a change of shape of the ear. Many fighters choose not to treat these kinds of injuries, and they have become the trademark of many MMA fighters and a sort of testament to their fighting experience.
When you have cauliflower ears, your ear will look swollen. Additionally, cartilage will die because it’s deprived of nutrients. It causes the ear to appear more round, and the ear hole becomes barely visible.
Can You Prevent Cauliflower Ears?
Cauliflower ears can be prevented by wearing protective headgear. However, you won’t be allowed to wear such gear during an MMA fight. This means you can’t really prevent it if you intend to compete. If your practice of close-combat sport is limited to sparring and training, you will have fewer chances to develop cauliflower ears, but this will limit your progress, as nothing beats a real fight to improve your fighting skills.
Moreover, you can limit the formation of cauliflower ears by consulting a doctor to receive appropriate treatment after a fight or if you feel your ear is damaged. Even if the damage is superficial, you can treat it. Unfortunately, this can cost you a lot of money.
To prevent the formation of cauliflower ears, you can apply ice on your ears several times a day or drain the fluids to prevent the formation of blood clots. However, these solutions are not definitive; the phenomenon can reoccur with further trauma. In any case, time is of the essence if you wish to keep your ear intact, so the more you wait, the worse it can get.
However, the best way to protect your ears is to use protective gear. The gear must fit perfectly on your head, or it may cause injuries. If the gear is too loose, it can move around, which means it will be ineffective. If it’s too tight, it will rub against the ear, potentially provoking injuries that will lead to a cauliflower ear. This is not a problem you should take lightly since it favors infections. Infected ears can even result in longterm hearing loss.
We’d also like to point out that some people, mostly amateurs, will voluntarily cause trauma to their ears to get cauliflower ears. This is simply for appearance, as these people want to look badass without going through the motion of training and fighting for real. Let’s call it what it is: a stupid idea, which you shouldn’t do if you’re trying to preserve your facial integrity.
Do All MMA Fighters Have Cauliflower Ears?
There are many ways to cause this kind of damage to your ear. It develops over time, yet, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get weird ears just because you’re an MMA fighter. Some may argue that this condition is common to martial artists who wrestle on the ground; this is due to the constant rubbing against the floor and the techniques that compress the head. However, there are some examples of standing fighters with cauliflower ears and ground fighters with intact ears.
Many factors can to blame. Even rugby players or wrestlers can develop it with repeated rubbing of the ear that pulls the skin from the cartilage or create hematomas. So, it’s a recurring condition with fighters that use a lot of ground techniques and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. For instance, Wanderlei Silva is famous for his ground fighting style; his ears are severely damaged.
However, not all MMA fighters develop cauliflower ears. Here are a few examples of fighters who still have their ears intact, despite being champions and having disputed many MMA fights over the years:
- Anderson Silva: Former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva is one of the most famous MMA fighters of all time, with over 22 years of fighting. Yet, after 46 fights and only 11 defeats, Silva still has normal-looking ears. This is probably due to the fact that not many fighters were able to hit him while standing or dominate him on the ground. Let’s not forget his incredible high kicks, which surprised more than one opponent.
- Francis Ngannou: NGannou is a force of nature. He currently has the most powerful punch on earth. For his opponents, it’s like being hit by a Ford Escort at full speed. However, Ngannou started in his mid-twenties and had little experience in ground fights. His fights usually end with him punching the jaw out of his opponent’s mouth. The few times he lost were when the opponent managed to bring him to the ground. Ngannou has learned his lesson, and is working hard to develop his ground skills, which would make him an unstoppable fighter on every level.
- Robbie Lawler: After almost two decades of fighting, Robbie Lawler has become one of the most feared strikers in the UFC, yet his ears are in perfect condition. Like with Silva and Ngannou, the main reason is that Lawler almost never goes to the ground, and he only has a single victory by submission.
- Anthony Johnson: Anthony Johnson is an interesting case. This MMA fighter started wrestling back in college and has fought 29 times. Still, his ears are intact, with no sign of a cauliflower developing. It’s surprising, as many cases of cauliflower ears are found with wrestlers and grapplers more than strikers. Johnson proves that this doesn’t happen to every fighter, even if they wrestle or go to the ground. It also depends on how you take care of your ears.
- Joanna Jędrzejczyk: She’s one of the most renowned female MMA fighters. Also known as the Polish assassin, Joanna Jędrzejczyk has disputed 40 fights and only lost three times, both in kickboxing and MMA with the UFC. Still, she managed to keep normal-looking ears and a relatively unscathed face. This is because she could rely on her outstanding kickboxing skills to knock out her opponents and rarely had to take the fight to the ground.
Do Cauliflower Ears Hurt?
Yes, cauliflower ears will hurt in the beginning. It’s the same pain as any other blunt trauma. Your ear will get swollen and bruised. It can also be sore to the touch, depending on the degree of injury. In some cases, you can experience more severe symptoms, including hearing loss, ringing in the ear, headaches, or blurred vision. If this happens to you, it’s recommended you see a medical professional and stop practicing for a while if you wish to keep your ear intact.
However, after a certain period of time, this condition becomes permanent, and you won’t feel anything. The skin can become scar tissue, which means it can re-open and bleed easily, but it won’t hurt as much and it will quickly repair. After a fight, it’s recommended to use ice to help your swollen ear feel better. You should apply it for 15 minutes several times a day.
Why Don’t MMA Fighters Get Their Cauliflower Ears Cured?
Thankfully, there are ways to cure cauliflower ears. You can use ice on the ear to reduce the swelling and prevent it from forming. The most commonly used method is to go to a doctor for a fluid drain. The doctor will drain the accumulated fluids to prevent blood clots from blocking your ear’s flow. This will block the nutrients your cartilage needs, and it will damage the tissues. If it stays like this for too long, the cartilage will die, and the damage will be permanent.
When it occurs, it means blood vessels are ripped by the trauma, so after a drain, medical professionals may recommend you to stop the activity and to use a bandage to apply a constant compression on the affected ear. In some cases, this compression can be applied with a silicone mold. This mold will fit the ear just like a hearing aid would.
If draining isn’t enough, a surgeon can put a temporary drain, but it implies stopping practice and fighting for a while, as you need to keep the drain clean to avoid infections. So, this is not a possibility for professional fighters.
However, one of the main reasons why fighters don’t get cauliflower ears cured is because of the chances of the injury recurring. The prime example of this is the case of Leslie Smith, whose cauliflower ear exploded during a fight against Jessica Eye in 2014. The referee stopped the fight, and she had to recover. In an interview with ESPN, she stated that it was already a recurring problem, and that she was getting her ear drained once a month before this happened.
This example is also interesting because Smith was enraged that the fight was stopped. She stated that she didn’t feel much pain when it happened, that her vision and hands were fine, and that she felt like she could keep fighting.
You can treat it, but it’s recurring, and unless you stop fighting, it will come back regularly, so many fighters just decide to stop taking care of it and embrace the cauliflower style.
So why are MMA fighters’ ears like that? It’s due to practice without protective headgear and fights where repetitive trauma occurs. Hematomas form inside the ear, which develops blood clots and causes blockages in the vessels. Cartilage is deprived of the nutrients it needs and slowly dies. As a result, the ear will take on a different appearance, as you can see with fighters like Randy Couture.
However, this condition is more common among wrestlers and jiu-jitsu fighters than strikers. This is because such trauma is often caused by the constant rubbing of the ear during ground fights. It’s also a recurring injury, and even with adequate treatments, such as draining, it can come back. If you experience this condition, your doctor may recommend that you stop practicing.
Fortunately, just because you practice a close-combat sport, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically develop it. If you wish to learn more about martial arts, come back for more in-depth articles.