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The Mixed Zone: Are mixed martial artists better athletes than boxers?

Boxing News
After Jorge Masvidal claimed he is a better athlete than Canelo Alvarez, Elliot Worsell spoke to boxers and mixed martial artists in search of the truth

LIKE some terrible disease for which no cure can be found, it’s now 2020 and we’re still comparing boxing and mixed martial arts and hypothesising what would happen if Random Boxer were to fight Random Mixed Martial Artist in either a ring or cage.

Ten years after I first wrote about this subject, I have again tasked myself with exploring the similarities and differences between the sports (spoiler: there are more of the latter than former), only this time, owing to some outlandish comments made by UFC (Ultimate Fighter Championship) welterweight Jorge Masvidal, there will be fresh emphasis on the respective athletic qualities of both boxers and mixed martial artists and an attempt to find out, hopefully once and for all (don’t count on it), which of the two sports comprise the superior athletes.

According to Masvidal, still running on the adrenaline produced during a November 2 win over Nate Diaz, mixed martial artists are better all-round athletes than boxers and this, he said, would give him an edge in a potential boxing match against boxer Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. But not everybody agrees. The MMA fans back Masvidal, highlighting the need to learn numerous disciplines to call oneself a mixed martial artist, whereas boxing fans believe mastering one art, and the complete immersion this requires, trumps whatever is produced by the jacks of all trades, masters of none at the other end of the gym.

“To be a mixed martial artist I do believe you have to be more of a well-rounded athlete,” said Ryan Ford, a 37-year-old Canadian who has excelled in both boxing and MMA. “You have to focus on eight or nine different disciplines rather than just one. Boxing is just the sweet science of the hands. So, for Masvidal to say mixed martial artists are better all-round athletes, yes, I can agree with that.

“With boxing, the training is repetitive. In MMA, though, you can’t afford to repeat things. You have to work your wrestling and your jiu-jitsu and your boxing. You have to deal with kicks, knees and elbows. In MMA training, the only thing I would say that is tougher is mixing all of those martial arts together.”

As for sparring, Ford opined: “Boxing sparring is a lot harder than mixed martial arts sparring. That’s because of the intensity and because there is no holding or grappling. In boxing, yes, we get an opportunity to hold, but you’re holding for maybe two or three seconds and then you break.

“In MMA, if I want to pin you against the cage and get my breath, I’m going to do that for however long I want, and then I can take you down and wrestle you on the ground. There’s also kicking involved. I can throw a kick and step back and I’m not as engaged. We get a lot of mixed martial arts guys come to the boxing gym and they know it’s a totally different intensity being in the ring compared to the cage.”

Ford has thrived in both boxing and MMA (Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

As a mixed martial artist, Ford accumulated a record of 16-5, competing in all the major organisations outside the UFC and fighting names such as Jake Shields, Douglas Lima, Karo Parisyan and Pete Spratt. He then retired in 2014.

Boxing, meanwhile, has always been part of Ford’s life. His father, Al, was a Canadian lightweight champion who shared the ring with Aaron Pryor and Ray Mancini, and often he would teach Ryan the basics, much to the disapproval of Ryan’s mother, who was desperate for him to stay away from the sport and its dangers. She got her way, too. Ford’s parents divorced when he was just four and, for as long as he was under her roof, the rules were quite clear: there was no way her boy would inhabit the same dirty world as her ex-husband.

But then, in 2003, Ford participated in an armed robbery home invasion and everything changed. First, he went to jail. Then, while locked up, he analysed the direction in which his life was heading and, in the process, stumbled upon The Ultimate Fighter reality television series. It wasn’t quite boxing, but it was close – close enough.

“At first I wanted to box when I got out, but The Ultimate Fighter came out as I was serving my sentence and it was such a big thing,” he said. “I thought, Man, maybe I’ll do this instead.

“I got out and within two weeks had my first MMA fight. I won by knockout in the second round. It was my journey into MMA from that point on.”

It later ended, this journey, for two reasons: one, because Ford had broken his arm three times, twice in training and once during a fight, and, two, because the time suddenly felt right to continue the legacy of his father. “I just sat down with my wife and a couple of my good friends and said, ‘You know what? I think it’s time to go to the roots, go to boxing, what’s in my blood,’” recalled Ford, 17-5 in his pro boxing career and recently seen giving Joshua Buatsi a decent test in London.

Marcus Davis, a former fighter known as the ‘Irish Hand Grenade’, went the other way, starting in boxing before eventually making his name in mixed martial arts.

“MMA is the purest form of legal fighting available,” said Davis, who turned pro as a boxer in 1993 and, competing primarily in Boston, compiled a 17-1-2 record in seven years. “I see myself as a warrior and fighting in MMA was the best way to express myself. I’m not a natural boxer. I’m not a natural mixed martial artist. I’m just a natural fighter – I was born to fight.

“Making the transition from boxing to mixed martial arts in 2002 was a long and arduous process. Once I identified the issues at hand it took me about seven months of total dedication to the training to get to where I wanted to be.

“When I boxed, I only did my boxing training and sparring along with running. As an MMA fighter you train in several disciplines of fighting – striking arts and grappling arts. You also do stuff like weight training and plyometrics. It really is the ultimate form of multitasking. If you ease up on one aspect of training, I guarantee that’s the area that will get exploited when it comes time to fight.”

Davis, like most who enter MMA from a striking background, was immediately pigeonholed. He was, as far as purists were concerned, good only for standing up and throwing hands. Get him on the floor, they said, and the story will be different. He will panic. He will drown. He will be choked out.

But they were wrong. Davis, 22-11 in MMA, would in fact go on to score more submissions than knockouts and would end up being respected as a danger wherever a fight happened to go.

“The techniques are totally different,” he said. “I had to revamp my whole punching style to survive in MMA. If I was to just stand and punch the way I did as a boxer, grapplers would be taking me down left, right and centre. I literally wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

“As time went on, I learnt to punch on the move, set for shorter periods of time and always think about at least two things at the same time. You can’t just think about hitting and not getting hit in MMA. You have to think about hitting, not getting hit, not getting kicked, not getting taken down, not getting clinched, and so on.”

Chris ‘Lights Out’ Lytle is another example of a former pro boxer unfairly deemed a one-dimensional mixed martial arts striker, based on his past, who later evolved to become quite the grappling whizz.

“Being a former boxer in MMA was truly a blessing,” said Lytle, 13-1-1 as a boxer. “Aside from the fact it gives you a good grounding when a fight starts, it also helps because people tend to underestimate your grappling. I’d been doing this thing for over twenty years and people still didn’t think my grappling matched up to my striking. It was only when I took them down or pulled guard and then tapped them out that they realised I was pretty darn good down there, too.

“My preference was always to stand and bang and put on a show for the fans, but I also knew I had it in me to take a fight to the ground and win it that way.”

A cursory glance at Lytle’s handiwork wouldn’t have the casual observer assuming he was a former pro boxer. It was famously wild and sloppy, much in keeping with what you might expect from a developing mixed martial artist, and the majority of his moves seemed improvised rather than taught. Yet, as it transpired, Lytle, in staying loose, had sussed the game long before his peers had caught up.

“Technical punching isn’t as vital in MMA because a fight rarely comes down to two guys looking to outdo one another with precise punches,” said Lytle, 31-18-5 in MMA. “There are too many other areas where the fight can be decided. The key for me was to always stay busy with my hands and make sure I was unpredictable, both with my punches and my movement. If an opponent is unable to get comfortable with you in there, they won’t take you down and they won’t trade freely with punches. Unpredictability is always the name of the game in MMA.”

Conor McGregor
Some rare success for McGregor against Mayweather (Esther Lin/Showtime)

They say unpredictability is what allowed Conor McGregor to land the odd shot – including that odd left uppercut – on Floyd Mayweather when they met in a ridiculous boxing match the entire world stopped to watch in the summer 2017.

Or at least that’s what the mixed martial arts advocates say. Boxing fans, on the other hand, argue this is merely the narrative MMA fans want to push in order to make the whole MayMac experiment seem slightly less pointless than it appeared in the aftermath. They suggest the truth is something else.

Ryan Ford, having competed in both sports, is more than qualified to comment. “I am the best mixed martial artist who has crossed over into boxing in the entire world,” he told me, by way of an introduction, and it’s hard to argue. There have been others, too many others, but Ford has managed to do both without disgracing himself in either (we’re looking at you, James Toney).

“Conor McGregor was at the height of his MMA career when he boxed Floyd Mayweather, who was not even near his prime, and he got destroyed,” said Ford. “The only time he landed punches was when Floyd let him hit him. Floyd let that happen because I guarantee he had money on every bet available that night. He’s a money man, a businessman, and I’m sure that’s why Conor was able to land the odd punch and go some rounds.

“You’ve never seen Floyd fight like a Mexican coming forward at somebody like that before. He doesn’t do that. He did that because he was not threatened by anything McGregor would do.

“But, on the flip side, you put a natural born boxer inside an MMA cage against a mixed martial artist and the exact same thing will happen. A boxer cannot fight off his back. Yes, they have that puncher’s chance, but now you have to worry about kicks, knees, elbows, wrestling, all of that stuff.”

Rico Verhoeven, the Glory kickboxing heavyweight champion, is not only a master of feet and hands but also has first-hand experience of what it’s like to spend time in the ring with men fortunate enough to focus solely on one part of their anatomy. His lesson arrived five years ago when he was invited to do some sparring with Tyson Fury, back when Fury was training in Belgium, and the Dutchman, being so close, couldn’t say no. It was, he thought, a priceless opportunity to see both what the future heavyweight boxing champion could do with just his hands and what he, a world-class kickboxer, could do with just his hands.

He was welcomed with open arms, too, for the simple reason that most of the other kickboxers and mixed martial artists the Furys had sourced from the Netherlands had already tried and failed and been promptly sent home.

“They all thought, ‘No way, this is not for us,’” Verhoeven explained. “You’ve got one of the best boxers in Europe knocking their heads off with just the jab. It was crazy. They weren’t used to it. For us, as kickboxers, it’s totally different to what we’re used to.”

In their first session together, Verhoeven, 55-10 as a kickboxer, stuck it out for six or seven rounds, even if by the second both his eyes were closed. “It was quite a feat considering we were wearing head guards,” he recalled, laughing. “I didn’t enjoy getting my ass whooped, but it was a great learning experience.”

Rather than discouraged, Verhoeven, to his credit, kept going back. He went back for more punches and he went back for his respect, which he was quick to gain from the Furys.

“I don’t want to say our sport is tougher, but when you get kicked to the body, kicked to the leg and kicked to the head, it’s not nice. It hurts like hell,” he said. “But you have to keep going and go through the pain barrier. You can’t just stop.

“With boxing, it’s just arms. That’s the biggest difference. In kickboxing it hurts when you get a kick right on your thigh; there’s no pain like it, especially when you’re not used to it. That ability to fight through the pain is definitely something the Fury team liked about me. I’m used to being hit and hurt. It mentally makes me very strong. A strong punch to the face means nothing to me. It just makes me go, Oh, is that it?”

Although they had engaged in a sparring session on his terms, Fury’s mastering of these terms meant that whenever Verhoeven wasn’t in pain he was simply in awe. Respect, therefore, was very much a two-way thing.

“A lot of people from the outside say Tyson is too big, too slow and can’t do this or that,” he said. “Stand in front of him, that’s all I’ll say. Then come and tell me he’s lacking in this department or that department. If you stand in front of this guy, he’ll knock your head off. He’s so gifted it’s crazy.

“For a man of his size – so big, so heavy – he can move so well. He’d be backing up against the ropes and I’d think, Right, now I’m going to take his f**king head off, and he’d just step to the side and I’d almost fall out of the ring. I would think, How the hell does he do that? He’s leaning on the back leg and is still able to move sideways. It really is crazy. He’s so skilled. He’s a natural.”

Rico Verhoeven
Rico Verhoeven weighs in (James Law/Glory Sports International)

Based on experience, Verhoeven wouldn’t be foolish enough to think he had a chance of beating Fury in a boxing match. However, the Dutchman, this powerful, well-schooled striker, is presumably better equipped to try his luck than your regular mixed martial artist distracted and preoccupied by all that ground action. Which is to say, if Verhoeven is, by his own admission, out of his depth when throwing hands with a pro boxer, and Conor McGregor has already proven this to be the case on the world’s biggest stage, what makes Jorge Masvidal think he will be any different?

“This is entertainment. Nothing more,” said Ford. “It’s about money. Jorge Masvidal knows if he ever got that fight with Canelo Alvarez, he would make more money than he has ever made in his life, just like McGregor did when he fought Floyd.

“He could not do anything to Canelo Alvarez. I don’t even give Masvidal a puncher’s chance. It’s different. I’m living proof of it. I did 11 years of training and fighting mixed martial arts and now I’m four years into this boxing career. I know there’s a difference. It’s too much of a difference for people to be talking like this.

“There will never be an MMA fighter who can just win a BMF (Bad Motherf**ker) belt and then go and beat Canelo Alvarez in a boxing match. He’s the pound-for-pound best fighter in boxing right now. It’s not going to happen.

“Masvidal wouldn’t even be able to beat the Mexican middleweight champion, let alone Canelo, a world champion in different divisions. It was the same with McGregor. He had no chance of beating the champion of Ireland when he fought Mayweather. If you’re a ranked boxer, these guys aren’t beating you in boxing.”

Winning, it seems, is in danger of becoming an archaic term and concept in combat sports. Not half as vital or relevant as it used to be, it has instead been replaced by an even greater, more powerful term, one that supersedes risk and common sense, one that will forever be the driving force behind hypothetical match-ups between boxers and mixed martial artists. That term is this: earning.

So long as you earn, you stand to win even if you lose.

Conor McGregor
McGregor became a superstar (Action Images/REUTERS/Steve Marcus)

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  • Boxing seduces us thousands of fans by its limitations, it’s a tough and brutal sport, it’s not for everyone, it’s not for Jorge Masvidal, he would have no chance at Boxing, he knows that, so he’s in MMA, earning a lot less money than Canelo. An MMA fighter trains many fighting styles but cannot be effective in all of them. MMA fighters are like the “duck, which flies, swims and walks, doing it in a very limited way. UFC is a decadent spectacle that pays very badly for its” servants, “and they want to take advantage of Boxing’s popularity.

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