The sudden advent of mixed martial arts as a legitimate professional sport is one of the most remarkable apsects about American cultural life in the early 21st century.
Like boxing a century and a half before it, MMA was born into obscurity and possessed with such atavistic violence and brutality that many couldn’t believe that such a thing could exist in the modern age. In fact, shortly after the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in the early 1990s, there were calls across the country to ban it. The UFC began as an experiment of sorts to discover which martial art was the most effective. As such, you had wrestlers, Ju-Jitsu and Muay Thai practitioners, karate black belts, boxers, kick boxers, and men from other martial disciplines all competing in a cage called the Octagon. The fighters at first were a hodgepodge, arriving in differing kinds of attire, from Speedos to full gis. Further, the rules of the sport were lax enough to allow tactics that (for people accustomed to boxing at least) seemed truly barbaric. It was perfectly legal to not just to hit a man when he was down, but also to deliver kicks to the head and groin to keep him there. Add to that witches brew elbows, knees, kidney punches, hair pulling, foot stomping, arm locks, leg locks, creative choke holds, and, in one instance at least, strangling an opponent with his T-shirt, and you had something that even the most hardened American sports fans found difficult to swallow.
Of course, amid the 400-pound freak shows, beer-gutted street brawlers, pretentious martial arts dilettantes, wannabe pro-wrestlers, and out-of-work tough guys who appeared in the early UFC tournaments, you had serious athletes dedicated to making MMA a legitimate form of competition. Royce Gracie, the Shamrock brothers, Marco Ruas, Guy Metzger, Vitor Belfort, Randy Couture were leading examples. As time went on in the 1990s, this pretty much became the norm in the UFC as it slowly shed its “bloodsport” in search of mainstream recognition.
Regardless, boxing remained the premier combat sport in America, and not just because MMA took about a decade to find its legs. The 1990s and early 2000s were a golden age for boxing. Superstars such as Mike Tyson, Roy Jones, Julio Cesar Chavez, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barerra, Felix Trinidad, Ricardo Lopez, and Oscar De La Hoya revitalized interest in the sport. Later stars like the Klitschko brothers, Ricky Hatton, Arturo Gatti, Kostya Tszu, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquaio got their start in the 1990s as well. Further, competing cable networks such as HBO, Showtime, and ESPN limited some of the corruption in boxing by pressuring promoters to put on competitive fights, not just ones that were most expedient to their profit margins. The talent level was also very, very high, and many weight divisions were loaded with great matchups just waiting to happen, especially heavyweight.
As opposed to MMA, boxing around the turn of the century was considered by most Americans to be a legitimate sport. It could boast of time-honored rules, loads of tradition, Olympic pedigrees, phenomenal athletes, and bigger-than-life personalities while the UFC was still trying to convince state athletic commissions to keep MMA legal. In 2001, the very idea that MMA would eclipse boxing as America’s top combat sport was fairly ridiculous. Now, ten years later, not so much. In fact, it has pretty much already happened.
The UFC changed owners and management in 2001, and as a result better regulated the rules, banned some of the more brutal fighting tactics, introduced more weight classes, earned approval from sanctioning bodies, greatly improved advertizing, made forays into reality television, and spread their appeal across the world. MMA has also developed a distinct personality with its own share of characters, heels, heroes, and rivalries that will soon be part of legend. Bottom line however is that, in the UFC at least, the matchmaking has been excellent, the fighters compete at a very high level, and the fights more often than not are exciting. By 2005, the UFC had turned a corner and has grown in popularity and stature ever since.
Boxing, on the other hand, while still going strong, hasn’t exactly matched the dizzying heights it had reached 10-20 years ago when super-fights were being staged nearly every month. Many of the fighters mentioned above have retired, should retire, or will in the next year or two. And they have not exactly been replaced by athletes of equal magnitude or charisma. The Klitschkos continue to dominate a lackluster heavyweight division. Sergio Martinez, Chad Dawson and Andre Ward are excellent fighters, but Roy Jones, James Toney, and Bernard Hopkins they ain’t. There are a lot of talented guys in the lighter weights, such as Saul Alvarez, Nonito Donaire, Amir Kahn, Marcos Maidana, and Andre Berto. But none as of yet has the box office cache or charisma of a prime Julio Cesar Chavez or Oscar de la Hoya. And has anyone created a rivalry that can match Barerra-Morales, Ward-Gatti, or Corrales-Castillo? Further, the two most recognizable men in the sport, Manny Pacquaio and Floyd Mayweather, share not only the same weight division but also the number 1 and 2 spots on all pound-for-pound lists. Yet they refuse to fight each other.
Of course, boxing isn’t doing badly in 2011. It’s just that compared to how things were 10-20 years ago, it’s in a bit of a slump. Also, it appears to Americans a little worse than it really is since much of boxing’s appeal has shifted overseas with its stars. If you look at the Ring or Fightnews.com rankings per weight class you will only find a smattering of American fighters in the top ten in each division above welterweight. This reminds me of how things were in 1975 when the only American world champion was Muhammad Ali. The talented Olympic classes of 1976 and 1984 changed all that.
I have no doubt that things will improve for boxing, partly because MMA has emerged as a competitor and real threat to its business.
So now that the two sports compete head-to-head we can ask the following questions: which one is better? Which is more thrilling? Who is the more dangerous combat athlete? What can one learn from the other?
These questions I will tackle in an upcoming post.