Saturday, August 28, 2010

MMA vs. Boxing - A Brief Primer

Later this evening, multi-time UFC champion Randy "The Natural" Couture will be fighting professional boxer James "Lights Out" Toney in what is being billed as an "Mixed Martial Arts vs. Boxing" match at UFC 118. Toney, a decorated but declining competitor in the boxing world, has worked hard to hype the bout as a definitive clash between two of the world's most popular combat sports. The early UFCs were about which martial art could beat which, so this boxing vs. MMA bout is a compelling throwback that has emotions running high among fans of both sports.

James Toney has long been making derisive statements about the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and since the bout with Couture was announced a few months ago Toney's heat machine has gone into overdrive. Like him or not, Toney doesn't mind playing the villain and is a master at generating publicity. Visit any MMA forum and you'll see numerous posts calling for Toney's head on a pike. Most MMA fans, myself included, expect Couture to smite James Toney relatively easily. The "Pros Pick" feature on the respected MMA site Sherdog.com shows that 50 out of 54 professional mixed martial arts fighters surveyed expect Couture to win this bout, likely in the first round.

I don't hang out on any boxing boards, but a quick jaunt over to EastSideBoxing.com shows that this bout is not only on the radar of boxing fans, but that a large number of boxing proponents are picking Toney to win. It's also evident that many boxing fans think of mixed martial arts as something akin to professional wrestling - a sort of sideshow, non-sport that only attracts the uneducated and the bloodthirsty.

Still, in spite of all the hype and the vast promotion machine at the UFC, there's something pretty basic that's being overlooked. "Boxing vs. MMA" is a bout that has been contested before, and the results tend to be pretty predictable. While it's true that no professional boxer with Toney's championship pedigree has competed in MMA, he's still walking a trail that his boxing brethren have blazed before him. 1 Let's climb in the time machine and take look at how straight boxers have historically fared in MMA:

Gene Lebell (Judo) vs. Milo Savage (Boxing) - 1963


In what may have been the first widely publicized mixed martial arts match, judoka and professional wrestler Gene Lebell fought middleweight boxer Milo Savage. The match was made after Lebell responded to an acerbic article in Rogue magazine entitled "The Judo Bums", in which boxing proponent Jim Beck offered $1000 to any judoka who could defeat a boxer in a mixed skills match.

The bout, an edited version of which is posted above, ended in the fourth round when Lebell threw Savage to the mat with a hari goshi and put him to sleep with a rear naked choke.

Royce Gracie (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) vs. Art Jimmerson (Boxing) - 1993


At the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship event, BJJ expert and future UFC Hall-of-Famer Royce Gracie took on former middleweight Golden Gloves champion Art Jimmerson in a match that would go down in infamy. The first few UFC events were bare-knuckled, but Jimmerson, apparently worried about injuring his jab hand, came out for the bout wearing a single boxing glove.

Though he was apparently expecting a prolonged stand-up exchange, Jimmerson was easily taken to the mat by the smaller grappler and submitted almost immediately upon finding himself in a vulnerable spot.

Steve Jennum (Ninjitsu) vs. Melton Bowen (Boxing) - 1994


The early UFCs were full of delightfully unlikely match-ups, and UFC IV proved to be no exception as Steve Jennum, an American ninja (seriously) and the improbable winner of the 3rd UFC tournament, took on professional boxer Melton "The Punisher" Bowen. Bowen outweighed Jennum by 10 pounds and had competed in 38 pro boxing bouts to Jennum's single pro MMA bout.2 he bout was a one-sided affair that saw Bowen being taken down twice, absorbing a large number of punches on the ground, and ultimately submitting to a straight armbar.

Okay, so I guess that about wraps it up. While boxing unquestionably forms a very important part of a modern mixed martial artist's toolkit, it doesn't have the versatility as a standalone style to compete in MMA. Still, just for fun, let's throw in one last video.


Tim Sylvia (MMA) vs. Ray Mercer (Boxing) - 2009


Standing something like 13 feet tall, Tim Sylvia is a former UFC Heavyweight Champion who began his career with 16-0 rampage through several different leagues. In 2009, Sylvia faced off with Ray Mercer, a 48 year-old pro boxer who was making his professional mixed martial arts debut. The predictable result?

Mercer laid Sylvia low in less than 10 seconds.

Wait, what!?!

Yeah, it turns out that professional boxers can hit people really hard. Must come from all that training to hit people really hard, coupled with the way they hit people really hard for a living. Who'd have thought?

The moral of the story is this: James Toney has a chance, a small chance, of winning his match with Randy Couture tonight. Style vs. style calculus is valid to an extent, but it only goes so far. Anything can happen in a fight. That's why we watch.

It's incredibly likely that Couture is going to drop Toney on his skull and pound him out (or submit him) very, very quickly this evening. However probable it is, though, that outcome is not a certainty. James Toney has 44 KO victories in professional boxing, and Couture has been knocked down (though not out) in 3 of his last 4 fights. That's enough of an X-factor to make this interesting, and I can't wait to see what happens.

_____
1.) Alliteration is awesome.

2.) Steve Jennum was an alternate at the UFC 3 tournament. He replaced an injured Ken Shamrock in the tournament final against Canadian judoka Harold Howard. Jennum defeated Howard to become the tournament champion, despite not having competed in the tournament proper.

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