by Al Alvir
Since the days before Firpo and Dempsey, the public has had a love affair with the ideal of two fighters going blow for blow, shot for shot, in a violent show of bravado. I remember being enthralled when I watched guys teetering on the brink of collapsing, exhaustion so merciless that their blood seemed to drain in slow motion from their cuts, and their lungs sounded too worn-out to gasp any harder, but their last punches all thrust like finish moves of knifings, only these weapons were punches thrown from passion repeatedly thudding against newly weathered skulls. And I, like anyone else, would imagine how impossible it would be if it were me in there fighting.
Maybe I’ve grown numb to the skill-less aggression and barbaric cinematics. Because it no longer provides me with entertainment when it is anything short of two fundamentally sound fighters tempting death. I don’t think anyone with a semblance of understanding fighting (not fighting history) should appreciate two bums winging punches at each other. It is not violence, as I love violence, but it is the gratuitous ignorance of some fighters that makes it so dumb to watch. Too many fights consist of guys who are only in a close match because they both keep their hands down and punch with the arbitrary timing of saying hike from the scrimmage line. These guys just don’t know any better.
Still, I love a heavily contested fight with two great warriors whose skills wear deep into a fight at times when instinct – taught through years of training – takes over. But the one thing that I’ve learned through my years of being in gyms and analyzing fighters is that if adding fundamental skills to a fight would change its complexity, it’s not worth watching. Can you imagine 36 rounds of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier sans any fundamental skills? Or worse, 3 rounds over 3 fights of lucky knockouts?
Welcome to the new martial artists’ “wail and flail,” courtesy of mma.
MMA is stand-up fighting’s symbol of the dumbing-down of society. Dojo’s across America treat stand-up as banging or going toe to toe as though it means going shot for shot. This frustrates me beyond most contemplations, because I am one of the few pure boxing men who wholly support mma and I cannot understand why mma guys often do not exhibit a minimal understanding of the science of boxing. For the record, stand up should not be about banging and going toe to toe when a fighter has a prerequisite skill-set. Of course, at a fighter’s discernment, he can engage toe to toe, but it’s always for a reason. He may be using his angles, setting traps, or taking calculated risks. And the risk a good boxer makes does not get him caught with stupid punches that you see on almost every UFC card. In order for a good boxer to be beat, he needs to be set-up and make a mistake caused by his opponent’s strategy. And the ubiquitous “wail and flail” used by these street fighting Joes who we see climbing mma ranks is not what I’m talking about.
I used the term “wail and flail” around the time when I watched my final paid UFC card. Besides the bore of unwilling fighters “laying and preying” (more like praying), I was very discouraged by how weak some of the apparent top mma fighters in the world performed standing up. More so, I was bothered by how their proven trainers, too, referred to stand-up fighting as some “shootout,” implying that it couldn’t be an immensely technical range of fighting. This mentality causes a landslide of fighters everywhere entering mma who fight like they’re in tough-man contests. They go in looking for a knockout, and it happens almost every time with “Hail Mary” luck. The cliché “There’s no such thing as a lucky knockout” was a lie told to kids to build their confidence, so don’t buy it.
The only way to stop the problem of horrible stand-up is to educate fighters, teach them boxing from the basics forward, and groom them. But without the focus on any single discipline, I fear that mma will never exhibit a top level of stand-up. For many years, even kickboxers have gotten rudimentary boxing wrong.
Perhaps the only way to overcome that is to have more fights. Grooming, again, may be the key.
But mma must stop pitting the best talents against the best talents before any of them reach their highest levels. It’s this “now generation” mentality that is exacerbated by the culture of mma: fast, intense, and extreme. The projected fury that the sport is trying to impress upon people seems to provide a correlation – from the angry ring-walks to the impassioned work-out routines (arguable overtraining) to the athletes who appear not to pace themselves even for the short 15 minute fights, mma seldom provides an example of composure. It’s like ADHD MMA, and it may be ruining the quality of this combat sport. MMA is weeding out its talent, and talent is the only thing that will produce quality. Until then, we’re going to see many more lucky, laughable knockouts and chest-bumping cheers at Hooters.
The thing is boxing experts respect a good brawl, too, but as there are spectacularly dramatic Arturo Gatti’s who come around every once in a while, there are fewer Floyd Mayweather’s who come around. And all of us know, when compared with the latter, any Arturo Gatti really sucks as a fighter even if we adore him more. Furthermore, if it were mma’s promotion style guiding Gatti and Mayweather, they would probably have been forced to face each other early in their careers and Mayweather may have been knocked-out courtesy of a “wail and flail,” ending his career and denying him his potential. That would have been bad luck for us all.
And if you think that would have been a good thing, you must think Chuck Liddell has great hands.