In my last post on MMA vs Boxing, we statistically analyzed the transfer of boxers into MMA and vice versa. I believe the evidence supports the hypothesis that boxers transition into high levels of MMA better than the other way around. There seems to be many reasons for this, not least of which is that a boxer can transfer close to 100% of his skill set into an MMA cage, but a mixed martial artist can only transfer something like 10%-15% of his skill set into boxing.
This post will compare the two sports in terms of overall excitement.
I will start with two premises. One, that a great boxing match is potentially every bit as exciting as a great MMA bout, although not always in the same way. In the ideal world, one sport is as good as the other. From this, I posit that in the real world, MMA has a greater likelihood for excitement for reasons that are both essential and incidental to both sports. Further, I believe that much of the disadvantages boxing has vis-Ã -vis MMA can be rectified.
First, a little autobiographical note. I started as a big boxing fan growing up because my dad was also a big fight fan. My earliest memory of boxing was in 1974 watching Muhammad Ali using the rope-a-dope tactic to knock out George Foreman. I was five. I also remember Ali getting knocked down by Chuck Wepner (the man who inspired all those Rocky movies), although my dad swears Wepner simply stepped on Ali’s foot and pushed him. Look at the photo and judge for yourself.
I remember Ali’s antics with Howard Cosell, his showing up to one interview wielding a hammer, his brawling in the studio with Joe Frazier, both Spinks fights. I also remember Mike Weaver’s incredible come-from-behind knockout of Big John Tate, Roberto Duran’s ‘no mas’ episode with Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes stopping Renaldo Snipes and Gerry Cooney, and other fights from the seventies and early eighties as well.
By the time I graduated college in 1990 I had seen hundreds of fights and remembered just about all of them. I read The Ring and other boxing magazines religiously. I made a student film about boxing. I studied any boxing history book I could find. At one point I could honestly and with some pride call myself an amateur boxing historian.
But I had always known that there was always something about boxing – or several somethings, really – that prevented it from being all that it could be. Of course, we could always point to the rampant corruption in the sport, its ties to organized crime and long history of fixed fights. This is well-documented. There’s also the horrific judging, the shameful mismatches, the dreadful officiating, the post-fight tantrums, and the , not to mention all the rioting and ear-biting that has taken place in the ring. And in case you may think that such transgressions are an artifact of a bygone age, these last seven examples all occurred since the mid-1990s. And there is many more to choose from.
But even when all is on the up-and-up with good judging, officiating, matchmaking, and talented, motivated combatants, boxing always has a real potential to fail. That is, to invite tedium or to not end conclusively, to not bring us to the state of breathtaking awareness we enter when we see a great fight or a great knockout. Mike Weaver brought us there, so did Hagler-Hearns, Pryor-Arguello I, and a young Mike Tyson against any number of opponents.
Lesser known examples from that era might also include Evander Holyfield against Michael Dokes, Michael Moorer against Bert Cooper, James Toney against Michael Nunn, Julio Cesar Chavez against Edwin Rosario, and many others. These fights were either blistering donnybrooks or stunning displays of violence and power, or both. They all contained drama, a very high-level of skill, and a brutally conclusive ending. It’s fights like these that leave one breathless and craving replays.
Only a fight fan can understand the terrible yet addictive exhilaration that comes with witnessing one man brutalize another man to a state of near-death under fair rules. Perhaps it’s the atavistic violence, the physical domination of one man over another that reminds us of our own carnal, mortal existence. Who knows? Many writers have pondered these ideas. My point however is that this is more like the holy grail of boxing rather than a common occurrence. Most top-level boxing matches don’t reach such heights and never even threaten to.
Good examples of boxing failure from the last 25 years include be Lennox Lewis against David Tua (2000), Oscar De La Hoya against Felix Sturm (2004), Floyd Mayweather against Carlos Baldomir (2006), and Pernell Whitaker against any number of guys: Greg Haugen (1989), Jose Luis Ramirez II (1989), Azumah Nelson (1990), Rafael Pineda (1992). I recognize Whitaker’s brilliance as a boxer, but to me he always seemed more of a performer than a fighter. In his matches, I always waited for a fight to break out, and instead I’d get something more like a dance, with Whitaker almost always one step ahead of his opponents.
In the cases mentioned above you have a consummately skilled fighter against a tough but less skilled opponent. The results were pure tedium since the fighter with the greater skill, despite his best efforts, could not hurt his man, and in turn was too good to get hurt by him. By the second round the outcome was a foregone conclusion: unanimous decision. Fight fans call this “pitching a shutout.” Some praise these kinds of bouts, pointing to the brilliance and artistry of the superior fighter. I point to the lack of competition and drama and feel like I’ve been ripped off.
This is why I refused to watch Andre Ward fight Carl Froch in the final round of Super-6 tournament in 2011. The fight fit this mold perfectly and as such had turkey written all over it. And I was right. Ward easily outpointed Froch and was never really in danger. Why go see a fight when you know in advance who is going to win?
Another example would be the fighters who fight not to lose rather than to win. Two classic examples would be Sugar Ray Leonard’s controversial points win over Marvin Hagler (1987), and Oscar De La Hoya’s controversial points loss to Felix Trinidad (1999). In both cases you had guys moving a lot (often backwards) and throwing a volume of flashy punches aimed more to impress judges rather than hurt their opponents. 25 years later, the Hagler-Leonard fight still generates controversy.
The great Roy Jones, Jr. also emulated this style against Mike McCallum in 1996. Virgil Hill, Corey Spinks, Chop-Chop Corely, Nikolai Valuev, and Chris Byrd, all world champions, have been accused of this behavior as well. They rarely go for the knockout or engage in the intense exchanges fans crave. Instead they were content to walk away with their ‘W’s at the fans’ expense.
A subset of this would be those talented fighters who do try to hurt their man, but lack real power. Winky Wright, Clarence “Bones” Adams, Paulie Malignaggi, and Yuri Foreman fit into this category quite nicely, and thus rarely are in good fights unless on they’re on the losing end.
Another subset of this group would be boxers who, knowing they are overmatched, fight simply not to get knocked out. Or, really, not fight at all. James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Jesse Ferguson famously turned in such a performance against a young Mike Tyson in the mid-1980s. Audley Harrison did the same against David Haye in 2010. Shane Mosely’s tepid effort against Manny Pacquaio in 2011 is perhaps the most high profile of the recent examples.
Another way in which boxers can stink up joints would be to emulate the “jab and grab” or “mug and maul” style of John Ruiz who left a turbid trail of flatulence through the heavyweight ranks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His main strategy often seemed to wrangle his man onto the ropes and wing punches in the clinch. And he was good at it, which made his fights extremely hard to watch and harder to score.
Naseem Hamed, an otherwise exciting fighter, laid a similar egg in 1999 during his wrestling match against Cesar Soto. He threw his man to the canvas numerous times and won a sloppy, ugly unanimous decision. You can read about his dreadful performance here.
On the other hand, sometimes two tough, talented, and motivated boxers cannot turn in an exciting scrap no matter how many kitchen sinks they throw at each other. It must be something about the styles of some boxers that sucks the air out of their matches like a bad soufflÃ©. The first fight that comes to mind is Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis I from 1999, a lackluster affair best described as a waltz on four left feet. These are two hall of fame heavyweights, so it’s not so much a knock on them. But according to Wikipedia, the pair landed 478 punches over 12 less-than-scintillating rounds (130 for Holyfield, 348 for Lewis). This averages out to a dismal 40 punches landed per round for both of them, only around 10 of which coming from Holyfield. It was a forgettable night, made sadly unforgettable by the scandalous draw that was awarded afterwards. And this was no fluke since the rematch later that year wasn’t exactly a barnstormer either.
Boxing fights call such fights “snoozers”. De La Hoya-Whitaker from 1997 qualifies. Recent examples include Fres Oquendo against Elieser Castillo from 2007 and Nonito Donaire against Omar Narvaez from 2011.
Often such awkward results occur when a lefty faces a righty, and it’s hard for either fighter to establish a rhythm. The first Kostya Tszyu-Sharmba Mitchell fight from 2001 comes to mind here. How about when one fighter is dead set on fouling, such as Agapito Sanchez was in his 2001 technical draw against Manny Pacquaio? What an ugly fight that was. Then there’s the constant risk of fighters accidentally clashing heads and getting their faces cut open. Does anyone remember Vernon Forrest’s first fight against Raul Frank in 2000? Micky Ward against Jesse James Lejia in 2002? Both fights were stopped early, and fans went home disappointed. But probably not as disappointed as fans were in 2010 when they watched Kermit Cintron trip and fall out of the ring in the 4th round while wrangling with his opponent Paul Williams. It had been a pretty slow fight to begin with, and when Cintron was injured by his fall and couldn’t continue, he was inexplicably declared the loser.
Keep in mind that every fight I’ve mentioned was a high profile bout that featured at least one past or current world champion or contender still in his prime facing a legitimate world-ranked opponent. Paying customers should be treated with high theater as much as possible when seeing bouts like this. Obviously, the various forms of corruption threaten to ruin boxing for everyone. But when things fizzle even when no one is to blame, then perhaps something should be done about the sport itself.
And here is where is where we should look to MMA.
After watching MMA seriously for 8 years now, I can honestly say that that breathless elation, that intense, addictive buzz one feels after one of those great yet all-too-rare rare boxing matches happens all the time in MMA. If the list of great boxing matches I mentioned before seemed long, here is a list of truly great, truly mesmerizing MMA bouts only from the past three years. Every single one of these brings all the drama and thrill and action of the very best boxing matches (and I provide video links where I can).
Anthony Pettis-Ben Henderson, 2010 – A classic topped off by a super-human kick.
Melvin Manhoef-Robbie Lawlor, 2010 – A brutal, one-punch, come-from-behind KO.
Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen, 2010 – Joe Louis-Billy Conn I all over again – but with twice the trash talk.
Brock Lesnar-Shane Carwin, 2010 – Truly from the brink of defeat.
Jorge Santiago-Kazuo Misaki II, 2010 – Gut-wrenching fight, exhausting, relentless.
Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard II, 2011 – Sickening 1st round and an edge-of-your-seat comeback.
Frankie Edgar-Grey Maynard III, 2011 – Deja vu, but with a better ending.
Nick Diaz-Paul Daley, 2011 – Two bad dudes. You knew this wouldn’t last long.
Cheick Congo-Pat Barry, 2011 – Foremna-Lyle, distilled into two and a half beautiful minutes.
Dan Henderson-Shogun Rua, 2011 – MMA’s Thrilla in Manila.
Frank Mir-Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera 2, 2011 – Oh, snap!
Some MMA fans may quibble about fights left off this list (there are quite a few I still have not seen), but very few will deny that the fights on this list are classics. And do you clamor for jaw-dropping exhibitions of skill and brutality? The sickening submission, the highlight reel knockout? Again, from the past three years alone we have:
Paulo Thiago-Mike Swick, 2010 – There’s nothing like watching a man go to sleep.
Chris Lytle-Matt Brown, 2010 – The most artful submission I have ever seen.
(Unfortunately, I cannot find video or good photos of these matches.)
Jon Jones-Lyoto Machida, 2011 – Wicked. The fans had to tell Big John McCarthy that Machida was out.
Anderson Silva-Vitor Belfort, 2011 – Remember, this was Vitor Belfort this happened to.
Marius Zaromskis-Bruno Carvalho, 2011 – Somersalt heel kick straight from a Jackie Chan movie.
Cairo Rocha vs. Francisco Neves, 2011 – Where do these guys come up with these kicks?
Nick Diaz-Evangelista Santos, 2011 – I never considered how an armbar could be beautiful until I saw it executed here.
Edson Barbosa-Terry Etim, 2012 – Perfect spinning wheel kick.
Jose Aldo-Chad Mendes, 2012 – If a cobra had knees, he’d be Jose Aldo.
And there’s more. With MMA, there’s always more. Keep in mind that this is only since 2010, a small subset of the fights I could have selected. It bears repeating that these fights are every bit as good as the best boxing matches. You would just have to watch top level boxing for 5-6 years to compile an equally long list.
The best analogy I can think of is the old video game Galaga. Remember how you could get your space ship captured in a tractor beam? And if you shoot just right, you could get that ship back? Then you could fire two shots at a time and really take it to the aliens. Boxing is like that single shooter. You’re deadly, to be sure, but your kill rate is only half as good as the double shooter. MMA is like that double shooter. You get about twice as much bang from the same amount of buck.
Ever hang around old-time fight fans? You know, the guys of Bert Sugar’s generation, born before or during the Depression, who didn’t give Cassius Clay a chance against Sonny Liston and who still look to Floyd Patterson as the kind of champion to which all boxers should aspire. Don’t they get a little tiresome when they praise old fighters at expense of current ones? Ever get sick of hearing about how Sugar Ray Robinson would have knocked out Roy Jones, about how Henry Armstrong would have crushed Pernell Whitaker, and about how Joe Louis would have stopped Muhammad Ali? Don’t they realize how much they sound like stuck up blowhards when they praise to no end the Herculean toughness of Jake La Motta, the iron will of Tony Zale, the slickness of Kid Gavilan, the brilliance of Ezzard Charles, the ferocity of Jack Dempsey, the guile of Wilie Pep, the courage of Jimmy Braddock, the power of Sandy Saddler and then sneer in undisguised disdain at the modern stars? Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward I? Feh. That’s not a fight. Carmen Basilio-Tony DeMarco II at the Boston Garden. 1955. Now there was a fight.
Well, kids, listen up. You see Bert Sugar’s ugly mug up there? Don’t laugh, because that’s going to be us in forty years. You heard it here first. Today’s MMA fans are going to become the most obnoxious, insufferable, overbearing gasbags when it comes to the MMA of the future, and our grandkids are going to hate us for it. I assure you, we will not shut up for one second about what Chuck Liddell or Jon Jones would have done to some punk champion in 2052 who calls himself a mixed martial artist. Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Jose Aldo, our opinions of these and probably a dozen other fighters will swell over time until these men become ensconced in some heroic pantheon that you really have to be part of our generation to understand and appreciate.
And why? Because, like Bert Sugar and other old-time fight fans, we are extremely fortunate to live during a combat sport’s golden age. It may not seem so obvious now, but what the UFC, Strikeforce, PRIDE, and other organizations have been serving up on a regular basis for the past decade is a rare and wondrous thing. When it goes away (and one day, sadly, it will) we are going to realize that the first two or three decades of the 21st century produced some of the greatest fights and some of the greatest fighters the world has ever seen.
Bert Sugar describes today’s boxing as an “echo of years gone by.” In a sense, he’s right. Boxing 60-70 years ago did reach heights it will probably never reach again. And in some ways I wouldn’t want it to. I wouldn’t want to invite the kind of harrowing conditions that gave rise to boxing’s greatest era 60-70 years ago: grinding poverty, the Great Depression, World War II, bigotry and racism, institutionalized oppression, and other things, I’m sure. Who would want to go through all that again? But for some reason, today is different. We can achieve great MMA without paying such a price. Today’s MMA is still on the upward climb towards the same heights boxing inhabited long ago. I know this sport, and I know its value. With MMA we are living in an age from which echoes are made.
We will delve into why in my next post.