At its most basic level, cauliflower ear is the result of blows to the ear damaging the cartilage and allowing fluid to collect. The cartilage separates from the skin and dies, the ear becomes permanently swollen and deformed and resembles a cauliflower. However, for those in sports such as wrestling, cauliflower ear is almost like a badger of honor. Like a reporter or photographer with a media credential that identifies them as a member of the press, cauliflower ear often means you are a member of a special community.
The injury is not common outside sports like wrestling, MMA or rugby. While downtown in Omaha at last weekend’s NCAA wrestling championships, you could immediately tell who had wrestling in their blood by checking out their ears. When I’m people watching, I typically don’t make a point of glancing at someone’s ears, but it’s hard not too at tournaments like these. Not because the ears are so gnarly, but because you get a sense of who people are in the crowd or anywhere by looking at their ear. The old guy with cauliflower ear down the row from you with the Arizona State sweater on might not just be an old curmudgeon, but was probably a pretty good wrestler too.
The great thing about cauliflower ear is that while the condition of the ear itself sends a united message about each person, each ear is particularly unique. Some have just a little deformation, while others are completely filled in, some have bumps and valleys, some look like you could pop them with a needle, some people have piercings in their ears while others have just enough room to insert an earbud.
I took photos throughout the championships of different cauliflower ears and posted a variety below. It might be gross to some of you out there, but anyone who is familiar with the sport of wrestling shouldn’t have a problem. It’s all in the ear of the beholder…