Most people judge MMA headgear simply by how much padding it has, but padding is just one part of the equation. More importantly, you should be looking at design, since this will determine your level of protection, visibility, breathability, hearing, and comfort. We compared over 20 popular head guards to see which offer the most ideal design, and we’ve found two serious winners. If you want complete coverage, the best MMA headgear is by far the Venum Challenger 2.0. Its design is comfortable and highly protective without sacrificing visibility, breathability, or hearing. If you’d rather go low-profile, we'd say the Cliff Keen F5 Tornado is the best ear guard thanks to its deep-cup ear cavities, secure strap system, and unique ventilation. Article Summary
Mixed martial arts (MMA) has been around for centuries in various forms, but it’s massively spiked in popularity in recent years thanks to sports leagues like UFC going mainstream. These days, people of all ages are rushing out to sign up for classes of common disciplines like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and Judo, but practicing MMA isn’t like attending your run-of-the-mill karate studio. Learning this sport requires intense sparring and complex technique both on your feet and on the ground, all of which can take its toll on you if you aren’t protected.
While gloves are typically the first piece of protective gear that people go for, something far more important is a good set of headgear. Head injuries are by far the most common injuries sustained during MMA, from black eyes and busted lips to concussions and ear disfigurement (aka cauliflower ear, for those who have a little bit of experience under their belt). Now, if this is your first endeavor into martial arts, don’t let all this injury talk scare you away – there are plenty of precautions you can take to keep your injuries to a minimum, and a solid set of headgear or ear guards will go a long way in keeping your head, face, and ears in perfect, healthy shape. But this is a combat sport, after all, so some injuries are bound to happen.
When searching for the best MMA headgear and ear guards, people often look for the gear with the most padding. However, it’s not just about how much padding there is – some have much better designs and materials that ultimately offer a more protective, secure fit. In addition to protection, there’s also the considerations of comfort and visibility (aka how easy is the guard to see out of and move around in once it’s secured tightly on your head?). With each of these needs in mind, we compared a variety of headgear and ear guards (22 of them, to be specific) to figure out which options offer the most ideal design. We looked at everything from full-coverage headgear to low-profile guards, and after comparing and contrasting, we’d recommend the following three for any fighter, beginner or advanced.
The best MMA headgear (full-coverage)
If you want maximum protection, look no further than the Venum Challenger 2.0. Venum is a highly respected fight gear manufacturer that’s known for serious quality, and the Challenger 2.0 is a perfect example of that. This is a full-coverage headpiece that’s comfortable, lightweight, and ultra-protective, and it’s considered to be the best MMA headgear around by various martial arts marketplaces and even a number of professional fighters.
Venum has really nailed the perfect design with the Challenger 2.0. From a protection standpoint, it’s designed to cover every part of your head that’s prone to injury – your forehead, temples, ears, cheeks, and chin. It doesn’t cover your eyes, nose, or mouth, but then again, no headgear does – you have to see and breathe somehow! The padding used is triple density, which significantly reduces impact from strikes compared to most other pieces of headgear which just use traditional soft foam, and it’s fully wrapped in a tough leather which gives you a level of durability that will last for years of training.
One unique thing to note about the Challenger’s design is how the ear area is done. Ear protection is crucial because ears are very susceptible to injury, but hearing ability is also important to ensure you can pick up cues from your instructor, so manufacturers often have to compromise between one or the other. Venum found a way to optimize for both. The ear cavity was left completely open for full hearing capability, but they also added a thick, raised protective barrier that surrounds the ear cavity along with a cover strap to maintain full ear protection.
As far as fitment is concerned, the Challenger 2.0 is a one-size-fits-all, using a super thick two-way Velcro strap over the back of your head to help secure a tight fit. Typically, one-size-fits-all designs aren’t all that great when it comes to headgear fitment, but Venum has made the back strap and head straps in a way that are flexible and ensure an airtight fit no matter what your head size. This is important because it gives the headgear a weightless feel while you’re training. Since it’s so lightweight and tightly fitted, you can move around quickly and see perfectly without any interference from the guard. Visibility is a huge issue with most MMA headgear, so this earned Venum some major points when we were comparing it to other brands.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Venum’s Challenger 2.0 won our vote as the best MMA headgear. It’s comfortable and highly protective without sacrificing breathability, versatility, or hearing – something that’s rare to find in the headgear category. To put the icing on the cake, it’s priced very reasonably, making it a great value for any budget.
The best ear guards (low-coverage)
If you’re looking for strictly ear guards rather than full-coverage headgear like the Venum, we think the Cliff Keen F5 Tornado offers the best ear protection. While it was originally designed for wrestling use, the Tornado guard has become very popular with the MMA community for its low-profile yet highly protective design.
The F5 guard is the perfect example of how protection is not about padding –it’s about design. A lot of ear guards are big and bulky, overstuffed with simple soft foam to try to appear protective (needless to say, these looks are deceiving). The F5 ear guards, on the other hand, are relatively low-profile but have deep plastic ear cups surrounded with thin high-density foam. This keeps them lightweight on your head for maximum versatility while sparring, but also allows you to keep maximum protection. The material itself is super durable, and many customers rave about its ability to withstand all types of impact from punches and kicks to throw and takedowns.
In terms of fitment, there are two head straps and one chin strap, which is nothing out of the ordinary for ear guards. The key difference, however, lies in Cliff Keen’s adjustment system, which it calls “power tabs.” The power tab system allows you to adjust the fit of the ear guards on-the-fly, making it extremely easy to find your perfect fit that balances comfort and tightness.
Another unique benefit, and reason we chose these as the best ear guards, is Cliff Keen’s patented “Air Vent System”. This is essentially a fancy term to describe a series of carefully sized and placed ventilation holes within each ear cup. These holes increase the amount of airflow coming to your ears, which keeps you cooler during sparring and grappling, and they also allow for better sound so that you can hear every cue and instruction from your coach.
For those who want something sleek yet still protective, the Cliff Keen F5 Tornado guard offers great protection, awesome comfort, and complete versatility. We’d probably recommend these more for fighters who have a little experience as opposed to complete beginners, just because we think beginners should have a little more face coverage like that offered by Venum.
A hybrid alternative (medium-coverage)
Some people like full-coverage headgear and others like low-profile ear guards, but we know there are a few people out there who’d like something in between. Matman’s Ultra-Soft guard is technically an ear guard, but is really more of a hybrid/middle-ground between our two picks above. It wraps around the head like the Venum but cuts back on the bulk like Cliff Keen while still offering sufficient protection, making it a great choice for people on the fence between each style.
Both the inside and outside of the Matman guard is covered in a soft foam that will keep you comfortable and protected whether you’re rolling, taking someone down, or getting choked out. The design does a great job at keeping ears and parts of the head protected, but it obviously doesn’t have the same face coverage as Venum does. That’s not a deal breaker, though –that’s just where your personal preference comes into play.
The biggest drawback to choosing this particular piece of gear is breathability and sound. Traditional foam, which is what Matman uses, is notoriously hot, and the fact that these ear guards only have three ventilation holes only adds to the concern of breathability during training. On top of that, foam muffles sound – and again, with only three holes to hear out of, don’t expect to hear much out of these bad boys. The comfort is certainly there, but if breathability and sound are important to you, give that some thought during your selection process.
At the end of the day, despite the small shortcomings discussed above, the Matman Ultra-Soft is a great choice for those who want a median level of coverage. It does a great job at protecting ears from injury during grappling, but it may leave a little to be desired when it comes to impact reduction from heavy punches or kicks.
How we picked our top three
There are a lot of aspects that vary between headgear and ear guards that make some much more suitable than others for mixed martial arts. Design, material, fitment, and more can all affect things like comfort, protection, and overall usability. To find the best headgear and ear guards of all, we used the following categories to judge each style.
Since the main function of headgear is to protect the head, that was our top priority when comparing the different options on the market. We considered head protection to include the face, ears, forehead, top, and back of the head – basically everywhere above the neck. As we briefly mentioned in the introduction to this guide, a guard’s ability to protect you from injury isn’t solely based on the amount of padding it offers. More important is design, including the size, shape, and density of the material that goes over your head and ears as well as the strap system. We specifically looked for high-density foams, hard plastics, and thick straps or buckles, as the combination of these factors help provide ideal protection both in impact and grappling. Our three top picks offer a range of protection levels depending on your personal preference, but all are more than capable of handling their intended purpose – reducing impact and injury.
The biggest reason why most martial artists skip out on wearing protective gear is simply the fact that it adds too much bulk. This is extremely evident with headgear and ear guards in particular. Some are low-profile, but a large majority are bulky. A bulky piece of headgear can hurt your performance on the mats not just because they can obstruct your vision, but because once the guard finally comes off, you’ll have gotten too used to training with all that extra mass on your head and you’ll be thrown off. With this in mind, we only chose guards that offered a weightless feeling on the head with full visibility, making training as real-to-life as possible while still providing the necessary level of protection. For clarification, we made sure not to sacrifice protection for the sake of profile – protection was still our top priority.
Any sport leads to heat and sweat, but this is especially true with MMA. And when you’re hot and fatigued, your performance goes down the drain. That’s why we specifically looked for guards with good breathability to keep air flowing and allow you to maintain a better cool during training. In addition, a secondary benefit to ventilation is that you have better hearing. Cues and instructions are always being shouted during training, so we wanted you to be able to hear as much as possible.
Things to consider before buying
Since head protection comes in several different designs, choosing the best headgear or best ear guards for you can be tough, especially if you’ve never worn them before. Ask yourself the following questions before buying to ensure you make the right pick.
How often will you be training?
For many, MMA is a sport. Sports, like baseball or basketball, are generally played over long periods of time, whether occasionally or regularly. If you’re planning on practicing MMA as a sport and regularly training from now into the future, you’re going to need headgear or ear guards that have the durability to give you that kind of longevity. Our top picks from Venum or Cliff Keen, for example, are built with this type of long-term lifespan in mind.
For others, MMA is a tool for self-defense. In that, many people come to class to learn a few techniques, and then they go back to their regular life and regular schedule. If you’re only planning on going to a few classes to get some moves and self-awareness, but you still want to protect your head for that limited training time, you won’t need to worry as much about longevity, and this will allow you to drop your price range a bit.
Do you have a style preference?
As you’ve probably noticed by now, headgear can come in various styles, from complete coverage to basic coverage. Generally speaking, full-coverage headgear offers the best protection but less versatility, whereas low-profile guards offer better versatility but less protection (obviously there are exceptions to this rule, as we’ve noted above in each of our individual product reviews). We’d personally recommend full-coverage gear if you plan to be sparring a lot (aka if you plan to be taking a lot of punches or kicks to the head), whereas lower profile guards are more acceptable for those who plan to be grappling mainly (aka mostly learning ground technique).
Do you really need head and ear protection?
Many studios require the use of protective gear while sparring to prevent injury liability – but let’s say you’re given the choice. Are head and ear gear really that beneficial? We’ll let you decide by giving you a few examples of common injuries that MMA is known to produce.
Mixed martial arts is a fighting sport, which means you’re going to be taking all sorts of impact including punches, kicks, throws, and takedowns. And guess what? Most of the time, your opponent is aiming for your head! With no protective gear, this commonly results in black eyes, busted lips, chipped and lost teeth, bloody noses, and various other types of cuts and scrapes. Some other situations which are a little less common, but still possible nonetheless when you’re not using gear, include concussions, broken noses, and ear disfigurement.
Speaking of ear disfigurement, let’s talk about that for a second, as that’s one of the more common injuries of the “uncommon” bunch. To those with a little bit of experience in the fight industry, ear disfigurement is known as cauliflower ear. When you suffer blunt trauma to the ear (aka getting punched, kicked, etc.), blood starts to swell and clot inside the ear which separates your cartilage, resulting in permanent deformity that somewhat resembles a cauliflower (hence the name). If you’ve ever seen an MMA fighter up close, you may have seen it before. For those who haven’t, check out this photo of Dan Henderson or this photo of Randy Couture.
If you want to significantly reduce your chances of falling victim to any of the above injuries, you’ll wear headgear (or at least ear guards) while training. Honestly, there’s really no reason not to wear protective gear, other than wanting to “build up your toughness” (which is kind of bogus – even the pros wear gear during training!). Full-coverage headgear like our pick from Venum will prevent mostly all of the above from happening, but if you’d rather go lower profile, at least the Cliff Keen guard will still protect your ears.
Other protective gear you’ll need
If you’re going to be practicing MMA often, there are a few other pieces of protective gear you may want to invest in besides just headgear. After all, your head isn’t the only part of your body that’s susceptible to injury!
Most people think about buying gloves before they even think about headgear, so we’re probably just repeating what you already know. MMA is known for ripping up your knuckles and causing various types of hand and wrist injuries, which is why a solid set of gloves is so important. When shopping, make sure you’re not just looking at the design around the knuckles, but also around the wrist. Wrist support will go a long way in preventing sprains and also helping you maintain power when you land your punches.
Most headgear leaves your relatively unprotected – that’s just the way they’re designed. They do this to help you breathe; but also, most manufacturers know people will be wearing some sort of mouthguard. Getting hit in the mouth can easily cause chipped teeth, a laceration to the gums, or even knock a tooth completely out, which is why you should definitely pick one up if you plan to do any sort of martial arts training. Most mouthguards are relatively inexpensive and can be picked up anywhere, and they are molded specifically to your teeth by heating the guard (usually via hot water) before placing in your mouth. This will ensure a snug fit and no jaw misalignment or dental problems down the road.
While knee pads are much lower on the priority list, they are stillworn by many MMA practitioners. Knee pads will not only help to cushion any impact your knee faces against the mat or your opponent, but they will prevent you from getting mat burn on your knees. Mat burn, or mat rash, can be painful and cause your skin to be irritated for several days, which means training over those days may be restricted as you try to compensate for the burn.
Wrapping it up
Whether you’re looking for some friendly, athletic competition or you want to be more confident walking to your car after you work a midnight shift, mixed martial arts is a great sport with a loyal and open following. Practicing MMA, while fun and educational, can present certain risks to your face and other parts of your body, which is why protection is important. In that light, a sturdy piece of headgear or set of ear guards is a worthwhile buy.