Even if you’re a casual fan of the UFC, you cannot have missed the distinctive, cauliflower-looking ears from several fighters. Why do UFC fighters have weird ears? Well, it’s a result of the heavy training.
It’s true that cauliflower ears can be seen as a sort of status symbol in the world of mixed martial arts. However, in most cases, they are more than just a symbol of dedication to the fighting craft.
The most severe cauliflower ear cases can lead to partial or total hearing loss, permanent disfigurement of the ear, and infections.
Let’s find out more about cauliflower ears and their prevalence among mixed martial artists.
Table of Contents
What Is Cauliflower Ear?
“Cauliflower ear” is the colloquial term for a condition better known as perichondritis, in which the outer portion of the ear (the perichondrium) experiences severe swelling as a result of acute or accumulated trauma.
The uneven swelling causes the ear to take on an appearance not unlike that of a bulbous, bumpy head of cauliflower, hence the name.
Cauliflower Is more Common Than You Think
Cauliflower ear is common among MMA fighters, wrestlers, boxers, and BJJ practitioners, who typically spend countless hours grinding their ears into training floors and other peoples’ bodies and are often the recipient of strikes to the head.
In a study conducted on wrestlers in Tehran, they found out that a significant number of wrestlers in the study had cauliflower ears, and some reported hearing loss, even with cauliflower ears on one side only.
“Of all the participants, 44% had a “cauliflower ear”, (25% in one ear and 19% in both ears). Of those who had two cauliflower ears, 11.4% reported hearing loss and of those who had one cauliflower ear, 11.6% reported hearing loss.”Cauliflower Ear and Skin Infections among Wrestlers in Tehran
Visit any MMA gym in the world, and you’re guaranteed to find at least a couple of aspiring fighters with cauliflower ears in various stages of deformity, even if they’ve never competed in the big leagues.
The ears are delicate organs and can only sustain so much abuse before they begin to show it. No warrior is immune, no matter how tough they might be. The more challenging the fighter, the greater the chances that their ears look like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Why Do MMA Fighters Have Cauliflower Ears?
Call it an occupational hazard.
When the ear is struck, scraped, or mashed on enough times, cartilage tears and blood vessels rupture. Rough treatment like this creates small hematomas or masses of pooled blood.
The resulting swelling blocks blood flow to the damaged area, leading to the death of the affected cartilage.
Scar tissue forms in its place and voila, the ear turns into a cruciferous vegetable.
Unfortunately, perichondritis is a permanent condition, which means if you’ve got it, there’s no getting rid of it unless you’re willing to undergo drastic surgical intervention.
UFC Fighters With Cauliflower Ear
Not all UFC fighters have cauliflower ears, but some of the best and most respected of all time do, and that’s hardly a coincidence. Here are five fighters with ears so horrifically disfigured they’re worthy of a write-up.
1. Randy Couture
A true legend of combat sports, Randy Couture, is almost as famous for his monstrous cauliflowers ears as he is for his impressive record.
His record spans well over a decade and includes victories over some of the UFC’s most iconic athletes, including:
- Mark Coleman.
- Gabriel Gonzaga.
- Vitor Belfort.
- Tito Ortiz.
- Chuck Liddell.
2. BJ Penn
Another stalwart of the UFC’s early modern era, BJ Penn was one of the first bona fide celebrities in American MMA, managing to secure titles in two different weight classes along with a reputation for being practically indestructible.
He presumably honed his world-class grappling skills through the same training that gave him his world-class cauliflower ears.
3. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov arrived on the scene in 2012 and wowed the MMA world with his unmatched wrestling prowess before retiring in 2021 with a flawless record of 29-0.
Khabib earned himself a matching set of gnarly cauliflower ears along his journey to becoming recognized as one of the greatest ever to grace the cage.
4. Leslie Smith
Some fight fans might not think that Leslie Smith deserves to be mentioned alongside Couture, Penn, and Khabib, but there’s no question that her ears do.
That’s because they’re among the most wickedly distressed you’re likely to find in the sport, regardless of promotion, gender, or weight division. So distressed that one of them exploded after being caught by a straight right from Jessica Eye at UFC 180.
5. Alexander Gustafsson
Alexander, “The Mauler” Gustafsson, is an established star in the UFC who recently made the jump to Heavyweight but is best known for his time as a contender to the Light Heavyweight title.
During his tenure in that division, the integrity of his severely battered ears was tested in memorable bouts with Maurício Rua, Jon “Bones” Jones, and Daniel Cormier.
How to Prevent Cauliflower Ears During Training
As any doctor will tell you, prevention is the best cure. But how do you prevent cauliflower ear when making progress in your sport requires you to tie up, get hit, and go for takedowns day in and day out?
As any sex-ed teacher will tell you, protection is critical.
Wear Your Ear Guards
Ear guards are designed to protect the ears from wear and tear that can produce perichondritis.
They’re made from rugged, durable plastic and cover both ears entirely to keep them from absorbing punishment during grappling practice.
You can purchase a quality pair of ear guards for around $20 online or at your local sporting goods store, and if you take good care of them, they’ll hold up to years of regular use.
Slip your ear guards whenever you show up for an open mat or compete in a non-professional capacity. They might look dorky, but they’re nowhere near as big of an eyesore as cauliflower ear.
Work on Your Defense
Ear guards and headgear are good, but learning to evade ear-mutating offense is better.
When you’re rolling, be careful not to let your opponent grab your head or attempt to use it for leverage. Also, do your best to avoid ending up in positions where your ears are pressed into the mat (this is rarely advantageous).
When striking, make it a point to keep your guard up at all times (which you should be doing anyway). Mastering fundamental defensive head movements like slipping, bobbing, and weaving will also pay dividends, and not just when it comes to preventing cauliflower ear.
Ice Injuries Immediately
If you happen to take a particularly nasty shot to the ear during training, call a timeout and reach for the ice pack. Applying ice to injuries as soon as possible can help bring down the swelling and prevent extensive scarring.
Aim for intervals of about 15 minutes, and be sure to wrap a towel or t-shirt around the ice pack to keep it from adding to the pain you’re feeling. Repeat this process once every couple of hours until you notice improvement.
If you become aware of a persistent ringing sound or any other hearing-related issues, seek medical attention ASAP. Left untreated, these types of injuries can result in permanent hearing loss.
Invest in Dedicated Boxing Headgear
If your training involves striking, it’s also a good idea to acquire some boxing headgear that you can don before intense sparring sessions.
Decent boxing headgear will cost you quite a bit more than a basic set of ear guards, but you should still be able to get yourself adequately equipped without breaking the bank.
Look for headgear that’s molded from impact-absorbing foam and has padding that covers the ears, the forehead, and both sides of the jaw.
Remember, it’s a misconception that wrestling alone is what causes cauliflower ear. Since blunt-force trauma is the primary culprit, strikers are just as vulnerable to the conditions as grapplers.
Cauliflower Ear Treatment
Cauliflower ear is a natural consequence of the healing process, so it doesn’t go away over time. That said, there are a couple of ways to treat it.
One is a simple, routine, minimally-invasive procedure that’s completely painless and can be performed in a matter of minutes. The other is a little more dramatic.
Draining is the most common method of dealing with the more disruptive effects of perichondritis, like excessive swelling, tenderness, and general embarrassment.
To drain a cauliflower ear, a physician will either make a small incision in an out-of-the-way section of the perichondrium and gently squeeze out the blood and serous fluid or use a hypodermic needle to extract the fluid manually.
Some fighters have had as many as three syringes full of fluid drained from their ears in a single treatment!
Afterward, the physician may place a specially contoured splint inside the ear to continue applying mild compression and prevent the site from simply filling back up with fluid.
Draining Your Cauliflower Ear At The Gym
If you’ve hung up your gloves or BJJ GI and want to say so long to your cauliflower ears, you also have the option of shelling out for cosmetic surgery.
This essentially involves cutting the bulk of the scar tissue out of the ears before reshaping the living cartilage or replacing it with fresh tissue from another part of the body.
The surgeon will then stitch up the newly-repaired ear, after which it will take four to six weeks to heal completely.
Plastic surgery will most likely be prohibitively costly for most amateur fighters, but it’s the only way to do away with swollen, misshapen ears for good.
Cauliflower Ear FAQ
Cauliflower ear is the sort of affliction that stimulates questions due to its strange and shudder-inducing appearance. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “Why do fighters’ ears look weird” the answers provided in this section are meant to satisfy your morbid curiosity.
IS CAULIFLOWER EAR PERMANENT?
In a word, yes. Once the damage is done, there’s no way to undo it.
Don’t despair, though—cauliflower ears won’t affect your quality of life to any significant degree. Many fighters see them as a badge of honor, a memento of all the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve shed for their art. This explains why most well-known fighters with cauliflower ears opt not to get them fixed.
IS CAULIFLOWER EAR PAINFUL?
Perichondritis primarily impacts the cartilage in the outer ear, and since cartilage doesn’t contain nerves, the tissue itself doesn’t technically hurt. It can certainly be uncomfortable, however, especially following the initial injury and during times when swelling and pressure are at their worst. Draining serves to reduce swelling and therefore minimizes pain in the outer ear.
DOES JIU-JITSU CAUSE CAULIFLOWER EAR?
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, along with other grappling-oriented martial arts, is one of the most common causes of cauliflower ear. Think about it—you’re constantly probing, swiping, grabbing, clenching, jockeying for head control. Ears are often the casualties of this kind of combat. If you’ve recently fallen in love with jiu-jitsu training and you’re worried about getting cauliflower ears from training, a trusty set of ear guards will be your best friend.