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The “safety” argument for shorter women’s rounds is garbage. MMA shows us why

The policy is not just insulting but completely at odds with the historical record

Boxing - Madison Square Garden Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images
Patrick Stumberg is a freelance writer for SB Nation, first joining the network in 2011 before linking up with Bad Left Hook in 2015.

As someone who is terrible at writing subtext, I’ve gone out of my way to make my disdain for WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman obvious. One particularly odious position is his refusal to let women fight for three-minute rounds. He’s long blustered about how it’s for “safety reasons,” but the excellent Christina Newland wrote a quality piece two years ago about how the WBC not only misquotes one of the neurologists behind their supposed “study” but outright refuses to share the empirical data. Sulaiman claimed back in 2017 that the WBC would “order a specific study on this exclusive topic,” but that’s never materialized.

I’m not going to go in on how unsubstantiated the WBC’s reasoning is, as Newland did so far better than I could, but I do want to point out that while there’s never been an actual data-driven study on round lengths, we do have a point of comparison: women’s MMA.

The length of an MMA fight at the highest level is identical for men and women: three five-minute rounds for a standard match, five five-minute rounds for a title fight or main event. Let’s compare that with women’s boxing, for which a title fight is 10 two-minute rounds.

  • MMA: 15 minutes of fighting with two minutes of rest
  • MMA title fight: 25 minutes of fighting with four minutes of rest
  • Boxing title fight: 20 minutes of fighting with 9 minutes of rest

Sulaiman likes to trumpet the following “formula”: “Dehydration + fatigue + solid punch = brain injury.” Not only do female MMA champions spend 25% more time actually trading blows, they do so with less than half the opportunities to rehydrate. Despite this, we’ve seen zero signs of female martial artists suffering greater risk of injury than their male counterparts.

This can’t just be chalked up to the presence of grappling and leg attacks in MMA; in one of 2019’s best fights, UFC strawweight (115 lbs.) champion Weili Zhang and challenger Joanna Jedrzejczyk each landed 96 significant head strikes, surpassing the combined total of Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon. A 2019 prelim match between Karol Rosa and Lara Procopio resulted in 230 combined significant head strikes over the course of 15 minutes. Despite an abundance of “solid punches” and a far greater risk for “dehydration” and “fatigue,” we’re not seeing the horrifying results that Sulaiman warns against.

It’s obviously not a one-to-one comparison, but I say it passes what I call the Mythbusters Test: reasonably convincing despite the lack of resources necessary for full scientific rigor.

Women’s boxing is getting arguably the hardest push in its history, with the likes of Katie Taylor, Cecilia Braekhus, Claressa Shields, and others receiving prime slots on major networks. This would be the perfect time to ditch this stupid rule and let these top athletes show what they’re capable of.

Knowing Sulaiman, though, we’re far likelier to get our first female franchise champion than any overdue reform.

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