If you’re relatively new to watching MMA fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Competition (UFC), you’ve noticed that most of the fighting roster have really weird-looking ears. In the fighting world, it’s often called “cauliflower ear” because, well, it looks like a shriveled-up cauliflower.
Let’s quickly answer why you came here. Why do UFC fighters have weird ears?
UFC fighters have weird ears because of hundreds of hours of grappling training, such as BJJ and Wrestling. The regular trauma on the ear causes hematomas, forming new misshaped cartilage and appearing a “cauliflower ear.”
There are methods to prevent trauma to their ears. Still, most fighters simply accept it as a part of becoming a high-level professional fighter.
To learn more about how this dreaded “cauliflower ear” happens, how it can be prevented, and some examples of fighters with some of the worst cauliflower ear you’ll ever see, keep reading!
Why UFC Fighters Get Cauliflower Ears
UFC fighters get cauliflower ears because of constant grappling in martial arts like Muay Thai, BJJ, and Wrestling. It’s a common technique to push the side of your head against your opponent to maintain grappling control. Still, it causes damage to the soft tissue and creates cauliflower ears.
Cauliflower ears are less common in martial arts like Karate, Judo, and even Boxing.
Cauliflower ears can also happen from repetitive strikes to the ear, which also causes enough trauma to create the unsightly problem.
It’s not all bad, though, as many fighters simply consider cauliflower ears as something to be proud of.
When I asked the opinion of an MMA fighter friend of mine, he had this to say about it:
“Some like to wear them [cauliflower ears] as a badge of honor or a sign of ‘toughness’. I’ve even heard blue belts [in BJJ] in the gym get excited when it happens and refused to drain it like it was initiation into a secret club.Luke Howard, Day One Martial Arts
Personally, I’m not a fan of them and would like to avoid them so I can still use earbuds and wear a hat without looking like a wing nut!”
Suppose you’re ready to get into a bit of Science behind how cauliflowers ears happen. In that case, I’ll be happy to explain precisely how cauliflower ear develops.
The Pathophysiology Of Cauliflower Ears
The ear, also known as the “Pinna,” is primarily made up of the skin surrounding the ear, the cartilage, musculature, and the perichondrium.
The perichondrium is what supplies the blood into the cartilage of the ear.
When the ear takes trauma (such as a punch), the blood supply gets damaged, and the perichondrium separates from the cartilage. When this space is made, it causes venous congestion (blocked blood in the veins).
This congestion of blood shouldn’t be there, and if it isn’t drained, it causes necrosis (death) of the healthy cartilage in the ear.
With the death of old healthy cartilage, new cartilage is formed, and fibrosis contracts leading to malformed cartilage and an unsightly appearance.
Pinna (Ear) Haematoma is a collection of blood under the perichondrium of the ear, which usually happens because of direct trauma to the ear. Like being hit directly on the ear. But it also occurs from a critical mass of trauma, like regular friction or pressure commonly found in grappling.
What’s Wrong With Conor McGregor’s Ears?
Conor McGregor is one of many UFC fighters who have the condition known as “cauliflower ears.” The cauliflower ears are formed from hematomas that create unusual-shaped cartilage, often inside the middle of the ear.
Does Cauliflower Ears Hurt?
Having cauliflower ear usually creates swelling and bruising, which causes moderate discomfort and pain. In some more severe cases, cauliflower ear can cause excessive bleeding, headaches, swelling on other areas of the face or head, and ringing in the ears.
Does Cauliflower Ear Go Away?
Cauliflower ear can go away on its own if the trauma isn’t for a prolonged period, such as suffering repetitive strikes to the ear or sustained grappling sessions. Ice and compression can help reduce swelling and stop fluids from building up.
If a fighter is constantly grappling using ear-to-ear techniques that are commonly found in BJJ or Wrestling, then they will struggle to keep away cauliflower ear for long.
There are some methods to prevent cauliflower ears, though. Keep reading.
Is Cauliflower Ear Dangerous?
Cauliflower ear can become dangerous if severe hematomas go untreated. It’s a good idea for fighters to have their ears drained from the excess blood, otherwise, the excess cartilage could build to an unsafe thickness that could split or burst during fights.
How Do UFC Fighters Prevent Cauliflower Ears
Fighters in the UFC and the mixed martial arts world have long struggled to prevent cauliflower ears. For the most part, fighters just get used to having the issue and see it as a badge of honor like a war wound.
But there are things UFC fighters can do to prevent their cauliflower ears.
Change The Grappling Style
It’s smart for UFC and MMA fighters to change the way they grapple. It’s common for MMA fighters to grapple ear-to-ear, or ear-to-chest when fighting off their opponent to keep control.
If a fighter uses their forehead more than the side of their heads to grapple, they can reduce the friction and trauma to their ears.
I asked the opinion of professional MMA fighter and coach, Luke Howard, what tips he had about preventing cauliflower ear and he told me this:
“Lead with your forehead! A lot of people end up with unnecessary cauliflower ears in grappling by applying head pressure with the side of their head (and ears) rather than leading with the forehead.”Luke Howard, Day One Martial Arts
It seems clear that by using the forehead more, a fighter can continue applying pressure onto their opponent to grapple and alleviate unnecessary pressure to their ears.
Preventing Cauliflower Ears With Headgear
It’s common for Wrestlers to wear headgear when training or during sparring and competition. They come in a few different varieties. The main types are one style that covers just the ears with straps across the top of the head.
The other is a full headgear that covers the whole head. It’s somewhat similar to Boxing headgear but a much thinner form factor and softer outer materials so that it doesn’t impede grappling for you or your opponent.
Wearing some form of headgear is the best way for fighters to prevent cauliflower ear.
There has even been a study of college Wrestlers in the USA who wore head protection during their training. They had a Pinna Haematoma only 26% of the time.
In comparison, those in the college Wrestling study who did not wear head protection had a Pinna Haematoma 52% of the time. That’s 26% higher, which translates to an increase of 100%!
Fighters sometimes wear knee pads in the UFC, as they are a standard inclusion in Wrestling and grappling.
Reducing Swelling With Ice And Pressure
For light cases of cauliflower ear, it can be helpful to reduce any swelling caused during training by applying ice to the ear. Then, adding pressure onto any swelling areas can stop them from building up fluids that produce cauliflower ear.
Draining Ears To Remove Blood
When the cauliflower ear does develop, it can be reversed considerably by acting fast to drain the blood from the hematoma in the ear. When this excess blood inside the hematoma isn’t drained. In that case, it will convert to misshaped cartilage and create the odd appearance of the ear.
Fighters need to act quickly and regularly to keep up with the constantly developing excess cartilage.
I asked Luke Howard, MMA fighter and coach, what he did to prevent his own cauliflower ear from developing and he explained that draining his ears was important:
“I technically have one [cauliflower ear] but it isn’t noticeable because I cared for it after it happened.Luke Howard, Day One Martial Arts
I drained the swelling and compressed the area so it didn’t fill back up and avoided contact in training for a couple weeks. By the time it hardened, it wasn’t large enough anymore to be noticeable.”
Fighters can even consider getting plastic surgery to have the problems with their ears fixed. It would likely involve incisions to remove excess blood and cartilage and potentially reshape the ears entirely, known as otoplasty.
Why Do UFC Fighters Not Drain Their Ears?
Many UFC fighters don’t drain their ears to reduce cauliflower ears because they see it as wearing a badge of honor and are proud of their achievements in their training. Also, if the hematoma build-up in the ear is repetitive, it can just be easier to let it happen.
Constantly draining your ears to remove the excess blood can be frustrating and even painful. With UFC fighters having very long training days, it can also be impossible for it to be realistic to completely prevent cauliflower ear.
UFC Fighters With Cauliflower Ears
Many UFC fighters have cauliflower ears, probably most of them, particularly those with solid backgrounds in Wrestling or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Let’s look at some of the UFC fighters with cauliflower ears and what they said during interviews.
Henry Cejudo is a flyweight champion and has always dazzled his opponents with his aggressive trash talk and an exceptional level of Wrestling ability. With that in mind, he’s had cauliflower ears from a young age.
Also Read: Shortest UFC Fighters
When asked about his cauliflower ears, Cejudo said:
“If I could take it all back, I would have wore my headgear. It’s kind of ugly. But it’s a part of it, it’s a trophy. Just know that a lot of girls won’t hit on you because of this.”Henry Cejudo, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Chris Cariaso, a UFC Flyweight, talks about this topic with humor:
“The best advice I can say for cauliflower ear is… enjoy it.”Chris Cariaso, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Alexander, AKA “The Mauler,” was a Light-Heavyweight and Heavyweight contender in the UFC and has one of the craziest sets of cauliflower ears you might see at the UFC.
He’s also a pretty exceptional fighter, having gone up against Jon Jones among many other greats:
Daron Cruickshank was a UFC Lightweight competitor and described how his cauliflowers came from high-school Wrestling:
“I developed mine in high school. High school wrestling. I actually always wore my headgear, I don’t know how I got it.Daron Cruickshank, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
But it’s like having a black belt that you wear all the time, you see a guy with an ear like that; you don’t really want to mess with them.”
Tony Ferguson, one of the most exciting fighters of his era, explains all about his considerable cauliflower ear problem in this interview:
It’s funny how Tony thought that cauliflower ear was a tumor when he first saw it as a kid. His father warned him that he could get it someday. And someday, he did, grappling plenty from a young age with Wrestling at school.
One of the greatest female fighters to ever enter the octagon, and a former UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion, had a lot of concerns before starting grappling and MMA because of cauliflower ear:
“I didn’t want to train MMA because of the cauliflower ear, but I already checked the plastic surgery operations and I know the price, it’s pretty high. In the beginning I was worried about it, so I didn’t want to train, but then I got into MMA and so now I always put the ear gear so it’s good.”Joanna Jedrzejczyk, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Ross was a UFC Lightweight competitor who used agility to slip strikes from his opponents in preventing cauliflower ear:
“Good head position, good head control. These [ears] are pretty big so I’m pretty sure that they’d flare up pretty easy. So I don’t like anyone touching them [with hits]. I just make people miss on punching, I keep them [ears] nice and hidden away.”Ross Pearson, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
The notorious Conor McGregor is known as one of the most exceptional strikers we’ve ever seen in the UFC, knocking out opponents within seconds.
While most people don’t consider him an exceptional grappler on the ground, his own cauliflower ears suggest that he’s had plenty of experience in training to get it.
Cauliflower ears can show up from striking and getting hit a lot in the side of the head, but that isn’t actually very likely as it would be to get hit on the front of the face or chin. So if you ask me, Conor has the experience to wear his cauliflower ears with pride.
Rafael Dos Anjos
A former UFC Lightweight Champion, Rafael Dos Anjos always presumed cauliflower ear was just a part of becoming a great BJJ fighter (and he was great):
“The first time I got cauliflower ear, I was 14. At that time in Rio, everybody has it. Jiu-Jitsu roots, it was cool to have a cauliflower ear and I let it come and I didn’t stop training. That’s why I got those cauliflower ears.”Rafael Dos Anjos, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Roy, a UFC Heavyweight fighter, drained his own ears for a majority of his career:
“I didn’t get that until I was thirty, so for fifteen plus years I never had cauliflower ear and just drained it myself. The first time I actually had insurance on myself, I went to a doctor. Then that’s what happened [Roy points to his ear].”Roy Nelson, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
UFC Lightweight fighter, Sam Stout, did whatever he could to resist the hematomas developing and drained his ears regularly:
“When I first started getting it and drained it. I was really vigilant about draining it. My trick was, while it was healing, I slept with my Wrestling ear guards on stuffed with tissue paper to keep pressure on it.Sam Stout, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
I felt like it was rubbing on your pillow at night that made it swell back up on you. So that’s how managed to keep mine moderately still in the shape of an ear.”
UFC Heavyweight fighter, Jared Rosholt, used a different style of Wrestling to have fewer problems with his ears:
“I didn’t mind it too much, I’d have a little bit on the inside of my ears. Luckily I was more of a forehead to forehead wrestler.
You get guys who go ear-to-ear and that’s where you get a lot of friction there and what gives you the cauliflower [ear].Jared Rosholt, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Luckily I was more forehead to forehead so I got more scars than cauliflower [ear].”
UFC Welterweight contender Matt Brown thinks cauliflower ear is just another day in the life of a fighter:
“Do what you gotta do to train. If you gotta drain it, do it.”Matt Brown, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
UFC Strawweight fighter Carla Esparza thinks cauliflower ear is cool:
“Honestly I think cauliflower [ear] is cool, I think you should go after it. Just rub them out.
I feel like using headgear is the best way to stop cauliflower [ear], I was fortunate enough in my Wrestling career to never get it.
But if you get it, its so cool, it’s better than a war wound or scar.”Carla Esparza, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
UFC Middleweight contender Elias had this to say about using the better part of your head for grappling and reducing cauliflower ear:
“Use your forehead, that’s actually the hardest part on your head.
The ears actually fall apart because of evolution, your rubbing off everything and it [the ears] fall apart. Look at these pretty things [Elias shows his ears].”Elias Theodorou, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Alistair is a veteran of the UFC Heavyweight division and has fought in some of the biggest matchups. Lately, he moved back into Kickboxing, where his fighting origins began.
Here’s what the big man said about cauliflower ear:
“Don’t get hit. If you have cauliflower ear, you want to get it treated of course.
You can kind of feel it coming, when your ear feels funny. Then wear the wrestling protection, and then it can go away before you actually get cauliflower ear.
But once you get it, you’re screwed.”Alistair Overeem, USA Today Sports Interview, 2015
Now you should know everything you need to know about why UFC fighters have weird ears! It’s called cauliflower ear and is caused by hematomas that come from too much friction or trauma to the ear, also known as “pinna.” It isn’t hazardous for most fighters, but it isn’t the nicest thing to look at.