On Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts

03.12.07 - By Jacob Baez: In fighting for the sake of sport there has been a bit of a revolution. Boxing, the sweet science, the manly art of self-defense or any other pseudonym that seems appropriate is in a steady decline. It’s lost much of its appeal because there is no longer a Tyson or an Ali to draw the world’s attention to a piece of illuminated .canvas. No one boxer today seems capable of combining in ring talent with external charisma, or in the case of Tyson drama and controversy, to the extent of boxing’s mythologized past. Combined with a heavyweight division championed by athletes from the former Soviet Union, little attention is given to the sport by the casual fan.

mma On the other hand, mixed martial arts, is steadily on the rise. MMA as it is referred to in the media is a combination of diverse fighting disciplines which complement each other in competition. The unrestrained nature of the sport dispels with the standoff purity of a boxing match and emphasizes a love for fighting. Practitioners must be competent on their feet as well as their back, in wrestling clinches, and in administering or getting out of submission holds. In addition to fists, elbows, knees, shins, heels, and shoulders are all legitimate weapons. The result is the average MMA match is much faster, more chaotic, more aggressive, and ends before the final bell more frequently than the average boxing match.

In watching an MMA match one gets the sense that both participants are entering into the unknown, equipped with the same physical weaknesses and different talents to exploit them. The enormous dimensions within an MMA conflict seem so complex and intangible that contests ebb, flow, and end within seconds. In fact the whole experience seems oriented around that definitive win, the knockout, the opponent’s submission, by any means necessary.

In short MMA is more encompassing of the real nature of fighting than boxing. It is this fact more than any other that ensures the rising popularity of MMA and is the most crucial difference between the two sports. In a very real sense boxing is not fighting, it is a thing in and of itself.

Despite a possible diminished fan base due to the rise of MMA, the fighters who dominate the sport exemplify boxing’s maturity. Boxers like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Ronald “Winky” Wright, and Bernard Hopkins each retain a near mastery of the sport limited only by their physical gifts. When watching a fighter of this caliber compete, there is little sense of a pressing fight dangerous to all parties engaged. Rather what we see is a deeply strategic almost intellectual contest. The pace and strategies employed are not designed to achieve a knockout but to hit and not get hit, to win without encouraging the dangers of a contest on equal terms. While this may not win over fans looking for a real fight what it shows is that the semi-Darwinian struggle for dominance in boxing is not won by announcer described punchers, knockout artists, or brawlers. It is won by pugilists so competent in their form that all the fear and uncertainty involved with a fight vanishes when the bell rings.

The relative youth of MMA in comparison to boxing is evident in the athletes’ exposure to their respective sports. The more competent pugilists in boxing have worked their way up from childhood through amateur careers that often entail a few hundred contests before their first professional bout. MMA combatants come from a variety of occupations and disciplines; in many respects organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship are the only professional outlets for martial artists, wrestlers, kickboxers, and even a math teacher. The key difference here is that professional boxing is a specific outlet for a lifelong education. Many boxers come into the sport seemingly at birth from families that have ties to the sport for generations past. MMA on the other hand is still an infant, not yet having shed its novelty, not yet able to deify any of its athletes.

The bit of revolution that has occurred is that fighting, that most dramatized of human endeavors, has found a new home in sports. MMA brings with it some of the most diverse and explosive talent ever to reach a television audience yet is still within that area of deep uncertainty and absolute risk. Boxing, though in popular decline, has reached a level of talent so precise that a bout often takes on the dimensions of a chess game rather than a desperate fight. The best competitors in any form of competition not only win but win with what seems to be ease. MMA may get to that point, but only time will tell.

Article posted on 03.12.2007

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