A total histological grade does not necessarily distinguish between different manifestations of cartilage damage or degeneration. An accurate and reliable histological assessment method is required to separate normal and pathological tissue within a joint during treatment of degenerative joint conditions and to sub-classify the latter in meaningful ways. The Modified Mankin method may be adaptable for this purpose. We investigated how much detail may be lost by assigning one composite score/grade to represent different degenerative components of the osteoarthritic condition. We used four ovine injury models (sham surgery, anterior cruciate ligament/medial collateral ligament instability, simulated anatomic anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction and meniscal removal) to induce different degrees and potentially ‘types’ (mechanisms) of osteoarthritis. Articular cartilage was systematically harvested, prepared for histological examination and graded in a blinded fashion using a Modified Mankin grading method. Results showed that the possible permutations of cartilage damage were significant and far more varied than the current intended use that histological grading systems allow. Of 1352 cartilage specimens graded, 234 different manifestations of potential histological damage were observed across 23 potential individual grades of the Modified Mankin grading method. The results presented here show that current composite histological grading may contain additional information that could potentially discern different stages or mechanisms of cartilage damage and degeneration in a sheep model. This approach may be applicable to other grading systems.