by Al Alvir
MMA, as well as all forms of kickboxing, have found little acceptance from the boxing public, and the reason for the divide has been recently toiled over by experts, over and again. Besides the cultural divide that adds to the boxing-mma discord – poverty versus prosperity, individuality versus class structure, way of life versus self-defense – boxing people seem to just not respect how everyone else boxes.
That sounds fair enough. But mma fans argue that their sport is more exciting, produces more knockouts, and provides better match-ups.
“MMA? Better match-ups my [expletive],” historian Arthur O’Toole angrily explains with distinct sarcasm. “They get knocked-out because they don’t know the game they’re playing. They seem great rolling around, but just because Mayweather doesn’t fight Pacquiao, it doesn’t mean mma has better match-ups. Who wants to watch guys who don’t know what they’re doing trying to box?” It depends what school of thought you come from when you explore what makes up a better match-up. If you like a fast pace with the unambiguous game plan precursors in lieu of the intensive strategy of championship boxing, mma appears to make better match-ups, especially when those fights don’t go the distance.
Wilson Lee of SAFO Group says that “people want the immediate satisfaction of mma; short fights, hardly any pawn moves standing up, and mma is easy to understand on the feet.” The less nuanced mma is exactly what makes some people love it and others hate it. Lee added, “Besides the fanfare and clichéd effect of mma, and its feigned hardcore imaging, I guess it just doesn’t live up to boxing even in that skill-set [of punching].”
It’s not to dare and say that boxers are superior to other stand-up fighters or that a top Muay Thai kickboxing fighter would never beat a top boxer in a duel of skills; Muay Thai is a fantastically devastating art with many more tools at their disposal than boxers – 6 more limbs and a head butt. And an mma fighter simply beats a boxer on the ground. But the argument that O’Toole, for one, makes is that boxing at its best is so much more intricate than any other stand up fighting at its best. “When these [other martial arts guys] use all these moves, it’s practically always complete stupidity that gets one guy beat. He gets hit with some retarded haymaker that he showed for 4 rounds or some stupid jumping trick,” O’Toole explained. “They suck at what they do, how the hell am I gonna wanna watch them employ someone else’s art like boxing.” This notion that fundamentals is lacking in the muddled composition of mma, and even kickboxing, may be as much in your face obvious as it is pervasive to the fighters’ understanding of any detail about strategy and technique.
Not all fighters – even the best – are going to know how to do all moves in most sports. There are too many moves even in a single discipline of boxing, and there are too many styles of fighting. There can be a slick pocket fighter like Pernell Whitaker, a stick-and-mover like Muhammad Ali, a workman like JC Chavez, or a stalker like Mike Tyson. And within those styles are innumerable attributes and signatures and variations. But all boxers start with only the fundamentals, then they are expected to build their own style of their own constitution. The problem is that outside of boxing there is a class structure by which fads and imitation rule. You have practicing fighters learning in groups in settings that don’t address their individual demands. What works for one fighter is adopted by all, even when inappropriate in style. “Even in baseball camps, you have a bunch of kids reviewing and practicing the same moves as everyone else,” said Eric Morrissey, an amateur pitcher who recently started boxing training. “But no one gets the particular attention they need. That structure just never works.” Like baseball, this problem causes the identities of many mma fighters, besides a few elite ones, to become a confounded mess of borrowed go-to moves that lack the application of any technical process. Their game plans prove to be overly simple. O’Toole cites that “mma at its best is just as good as mediocre amateur boxing” and many objective pros on all sides may agree. I’d say that top stand-up in the mma, to be generous, is more at the level of semi-finalists in USA Boxing amateur tournaments. They seem like robots with all the poorest habits.
In regards to the more advanced facets of boxing skills, in mma there are so many options that the fighters seem to perceive that they don’t really need to set-up any brilliant traps. How often is there what is called “the game within the game” in mma that isn’t obvious even to a confounded viewer or commentator? At best, and it really is not so impressive, the strategy of mma is almost always “box the wrestler, wrestle the boxer.” Boxing people argue that mma fighters’ stand-up fundamentals are so poor the majority of the time that deciphering habits in mma is as simple as noticing that one guy holds his hand low: It’s as though mma trainers can deduce, “His rear hand is a little low so you can throw 5 overhands back to back, and hope for 20% accuracy and a knockout.” I joke, but to boxing people, they can see mma is that bad without exaggeration. The material fact is that good strategy at a high level of any sport is not cookie-cutter game plan just as it is not mystery work or mindless trial and error. “Styles make fights,” so there is great individual application for every top fight, moves and subtleties that are very hard to pick-up on and take months of training aside from instinct. For a boxing trainer, it takes a quarter of a lifetime to be able to notice the little things that mean so much. But the intrigue of a masterful competition can only be accomplished when all the details of pure fundamentals are met by both fighters. Then and only then can good strategy be extracted in stand-up fighting. It’s less about applying a new move than it is about setting-up the move.
The greatest boxing trainers – like Cus D’Amato, Eddie Futch, Chickie Ferrara to name legends – are masters of psychology, body language, the mechanics of pain, illusions, and historical perspective. And the fighter applies what his trainer communicates to him; the great fighter takes all he is showed and improvises. It becomes brutal jazz at its best. There is an old truism that “a great boxer is a great liar in the ring. He makes you think one thing and puts you to sleep with the other.” And good boxing consists of every variation of all those things mentioned. But it’s not guesswork. And it’s not just simple science.
Fundamentals are not only about form and the physics of technique. The surface of basic boxing is even more complex than average fight fans may think. Because boxing is so much about timing, it’s the “when” that matters more than anything. Situational knowledge that can be applied through “between round” instruction or on a whim’s command seem to be absent from most “world-class” mma stand-up. And proper fundamentals – even after a beginning fighter learns how to throw perfect punches and movement – means finding the right distance and following the basic conventions before the subtleties (i.e.. don’t start with a hook to the body from the outside, don’t reach over the jab when you throw a 2, throw touches until the time is right, throw straight punches when opponents have good hooks, scatter the jab, move then punch, punch then move, slip to the back foot is safer, and the list goes on – still, the margin between great amateurs and top professionals is enormous). Many of these basic kind of things, mma guys and kickboxing coaches don’t seem to communicate to their fighters. It’s as though they treat these simple practices as advanced boxing, if they treat it at all. I, personally, have never heard any of those mma coaches even touch upon any simple boxing conventions on the line of those listed. I never heard any valuable tips besides the most obvious throughout my years in martial arts gyms. The things everyone hears in even the lamest McDojo atmospheres are tips to “keep your other hand up when you’re punching” or to “turn your fist over on the hook” or to “keep your chin down, shoulder and eyes up” or “to stay on your toes.” Do seasoned practitioners ever get the more strategic basics outside the boxing gym?
The claims that stance and distance are different in mma and boxing is a convenient lie that helps bolster the image of other fighting arts. The fundamental boxing stance should be exactly the same for Muay Thai and mma. Distance, too, doesn’t change from fundamental boxing mechanics to other arts. One boxing trainer sarcastically said, “you should neither reach nor be too close… That’s the art of distance.” And boxers are not conventionally taught to stand linear to their opponents – that’s a myth. Boxers are not even taught to be in a crouch. The only thing that changes is that boxers have the luxury to stray from the fundamentals – e.g. turning sideways like a Floyd Mayweather Jr. with his shoulder roll, constantly attacking from a crouch like Mike Tyson. There is also an added necessity of having to be aware of other weapons in other arts which makes the need to be fundamentally sound arguably more important. Yet mma is littered with fighters who continue trying to discover how to punch. Fedor Emelianenko tells people to bend their wrists, flexing their fists slightly and to always make a fist – a laughable non-boxing fundamental (although some fighters turn their hands slightly to match the angles). Bas Rutten used to say that not turning the fist over was the proper way to punch. If the whole sport of mma ignored the mumbo-jumbo and focused on the nuance of action of fundamental boxing, maybe the mma fighters would be better in the boxing range.
Other combat sports athletes may compensate for their lack of decent leveled boxing skills by never being in the pocket, because they don’t have to be. They usually have to be stronger or more in shape to win in mma especially (in regards to stand-up), almost never smarter. All fighters seem to love to talk about it being a chess match and a science, but the only arts that can claim that legitimately are Jiu-Jitsu and boxing – everything else is strength and attrition based. Even world-class kickboxing is made up of kicking and brawling, and when the brawling gets too intense, they start kicking more. There are inside games in Muay Thai, but again, it’s more physique than intelligence. In boxing, Freddie Roach pointed out, “It’s not the mistakes that the other guy makes I care about, but I’m trying to pick apart all the habits… not whether he’s fast or slow.” This makes sense in the world of elite skills because mistakes there are more restricted and not as handily exposed as they are in low level fighting; they’re not so loud and obvious and countered so easily. You have to, then, attack habits, even good ones.
When mma fighters adopt a new move or a “cool technique,” it is often overused to the point that it becomes insultingly predictable. The fact that those moves still work proves that the quality should be insulting to a schooled audience not fooled by the hoopla of the UFC. From Dan Henderson’s KO of Michael Bisping to Jake Shield’s left Thai kicks against Jean St. Pierre, the nuance is virtually absent from stand-up fighting in mma. For all the few boxing talents like BJ Penn, GSP, Anderson Silva, and Junior Dos Santos, you have a bunch of empty handed hacks. And if anyone thinks that Frankie Edgar running from BJ Penn was top-notch boxing, I’d agree only if it were the novice quarter-finals of the New York Daily News Golden Gloves, not main event pay-per-view (even in the amateurs, experts like to rule those points wins as robberies of the nature of amateur boxing). The hand-skills of Muay Thai fighters to K1 kickboxers are also outrageously low-level from boxers’s perspectives. Shannon Briggs alluded to the mma and K1 fighters he trained with and fought against (in his brief stint at K1) as being like beginners with their hands. But the argument is that they are different sports. But they box because boxing is a major part of every combat sport. Perhaps, it is just not good enough.
In mma, the bout structure exacerbates the problem. Long-term damage to the body in mma (punches, knees, kicks) is almost a non-issue because the fights are so short (11 minutes less action than in championship boxing bouts (18 minutes less including breaks), 15 minutes less action in seasoned non-title boxing bouts (22 minutes including breaks)). If a body shot has any affect on a fight in mma, it usually is immediate. And studies have shown that a greater elapsed time in sports including breaks adds to the mental toll of rigorous physical exercise; in other words, getting it over quicker by having fewer breaks is easier because “sportsmen find ways to take rests on the playing field when they are given fewer rest periods.” In boxing, the longer bout duration, shorter round duration, and more rest periods have made for more strategic and competitive fights. Before timed rounds were incorporated into boxing over a century ago, fighters would create their own lulls in activity which made for boring, drawn out fights. “Hug fests,” they were called even then. Sound familiar? Even Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock II was a half-hour survival fest – in retrospect, it was not at all that exciting. In ancient Greece, boxers developed cauliflower ears from avoiding the grueling punching battles, and incentives to make action were often matters of life and death after the fight. If the rounds were a little shorter in mma, maybe we wouldn’t see in-shape guys flailing and buying time or just lying on top of people.
Rest plays into strategy. 5 round UFC championship bouts often appear to have a clear winner whom the tides seldom change against by the conclusion of the fights. The winner is often consistent with who is winning in rounds 2 or 3, and it often only changes with a lucky punch or a desperate submission – seldom is it controlled strategy. If one guy expends himself, it is usually due to bad pacing or being out of shape. The championship round drama evident in boxing is ever missing in the current mma format. The less prevalent midsection punching slowing down the other fighters typically does not happen. Only leg kicks show that cumulative effect, but leg kicks are more easily defended than body-blows, as evidenced in today’s mma. Of course there are some extenuating reasons that make the games different, but arguing that boxing doesn’t translate into mma is reprehensible merely for the fact that mma fighters try to do everything I mention (and even bobbing and weaving, which I haven’t mentioned, is more common in mma today by the better fighters); the majority just do it so poorly. Perhaps nine 4 minute rounds would be a good compromise for championship mma. The 5 and 7 rounds suggested by Dana White may just add more of the same low quality fighting.
It can safely be said that in mma, their ignorance counts on viewers’ ignorance to propel their sport at every outing. On one mma site, closing the distance was discussed, but not a single bullet matched sound boxing (that’s where I read that an overhand is used to close distance – but that is called lunging in boxing). When Kenny Florian said in the postfight wrap-up of GSP vs. Jake Shields that the fight was a great example of strategy and top level stand-up, my company and I were floored (figuratively, of course). St. Pierre, who is a great fighter and who mentioned, by the way, that he didn’t know boxing before he met Freddie Roach, fought a terrible fight and practically had only one eye. The fight was a bore of anticipation, a tragedy of stagnancy. Thank Jake Shields, however, for that.
It should delight fight fans who want mma to excel “righteously” that people like George St. Pierre are trying to evolve the sport and take every facet of it to a level that is acceptable on every one of its playing fields. Frank Shamrock is one of the first mma practitioners to comment on mma’s lack of growth. “MMA has progressed very little in the last 10 years. The weakness in mma is punching and it has been like that since 1999,” Shamrock explained on Inside MMA. “Boxing is the hardest, most finite sport to learn. [It’s about] timing. Punching is the fastest, easiest way to mash somebody.” For now, whenever mma exhibits a high level of mastery in the stand-up, one guy is usually humiliatingly outclassed. Otherwise, it’s usually a tough man contest in which they trade blows without a semblance of science.
In time, perhaps we’ll witness great mma stand-up like we have consistently witnessed great boxing for many decades – literally great boxing. Until then, would anyone care to see Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao wrestle each other?
Well, besides their wives?