More mania: Media misconceptions of the MMA-boxing relationship

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Jordan Breen delves into the recent arguments about crossover MMA vs Boxing matches “hurting” either sport.

If you’re an MMA omnivore, it’s an ideal weekend. In the span of less than 96 hours, you’ve got a UFC, Bellator, Professional Fighters League and three Cage Warriors cards. Yet, that’s not the dominant conversation this week. Instead, it’s one based on a misguided idea about the current relationship between MMA and boxing, which over the last 12 months, is probably the most important and pervasive story in combat sports.

In a recent nine-day span, a 46-year-old MMA icon in Anderson Silva upset Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. — the never-quite-was son of a Mexican fighting legend — inside the boxing ring, and two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-division world boxing champion Claressa Shields made her anticipated MMA debut to less than stellar reviews. These outcomes have led to many people, fans and media alike, wondering if this sudden transmogrification of the MMA-boxing dynamic is healthy for either sport.

It’s a question that’s sophomoric, in the purest, literal sense. The real answer is that neither of these fights, or ones seemingly like them, can distinctively tell us anything about the value of the MMA-boxing crossover at present; any shifting and swapping between these two false “rival sports” is entirely contextual and unique to the individuals involved.

Talking and listening to fellow combat sports journalists, as well as reading the misgivings of fans via social media, there is an idea that this sudden willingness for athletes to jump from one discipline to another for a payday could have deleterious effects on either sport. This is hokum: while boxing is by far still more popular intentionally, MMA continues to expand its global impact and neither sport is going anywhere. For any professional prizefighter, depending on what is preferable based on payoff, opportunity and challenge, either MMA or boxing is perfectly viable if it meets the right combination of conditions. However, the crucial point here is that every individual athlete’s motivations are wholly unique and the impact is on the athlete, not the sport.

This isn’t 1993; an MMA champion losing in a boxing match or vice versa, isn’t going to have any tangible impact on either sport on the whole, but rather hopefully, allow both fighters to get paid. Key case in point: Conor McGregor’s multi-million dollar bout with boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. happened nearly four years ago, and despite being embarrassed and having lost two of his last three in the Octagon, he is still set to do the biggest business for MMA this year in two weeks, with his rubber match against Dustin Poirier at UFC 264. So, let that idea aside.

As for men in boxing, typically a crossover is only taken when a fighter is past their prime and looking for a payday. While it is worth mentioning, at least for kicks, that UFC 1 featured infamous Art “One Glove” Jimmerson — riding a 15-fight winning streak as a boxer — getting embarrassed by Royce Gracie, most instances are much different.

It’s usually a faded former three-division champion like James Toney taking a paycheck to get embarrassed by Randy Couture in the UFC, after suffering obvious brain damage and having his fourth divisional title stripped from him due to a positive steroid test. Or it’s former WBC bantamweight champion Victor Rabanales, on his 39th birthday, taking a sizeable payday from upstart Japanese promotion Deep to be swiftly kneebarred by Takehiro Murahara in 40 seconds, years after fading into obscurity after a brief glimpse of glory nine years earlier.

Sometimes the gamble pays off, if you’re a 48-year-old Olympic gold medalist like Ray Mercer, who after being choked out by Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson in his first exhibition MMA bout, managed to absolutely rinse former UFC champion Tim Sylvia in a mere nine seconds. Either way, this is a last gasp, a calculated money move, nearly always.

With women, the equation is different. We see far more accomplished women from boxing and kickboxing reach a tricky ceiling, due to the underpromotion of women in both sports. This is why Holly Holm, a bona fide three-division world champion, decided to embark on MMA. Eventually she shocked Ronda Rousey to become UFC women’s bantamweight champion and since has gone on to make considerably more money than she ever would have in her boxing career.

Likewise, Claressa Shields — at the very worst, the second-best woman in boxing behind fellow Olympic gold medalist Katie Taylor — opted for a new challenge. In women’s boxing, divisions are thinner and ceilings are more unforgiving, which hinders their promotion and gives less incentive to a promoter to pay them. The same rule applies to women’s kickboxing: consider legendary Hall of Fame kickboxer Germaine de Randamie’s transition to MMA success and why Denise Kielholtz is going to fight for a Bellator flyweight title against Juliana Velasquez in under a month.

In less than five years as a pro, Shields became the fastest woman to ever win world boxing titles in both two and three weight classes, yet her largest purse as a pro was $350,000. For her iffy first MMA outing against Elkin, who was 3-6 entering the bout, she made a reported $250,000. Shields struggled mightily on the ground and showed her MMA nascence, but ultimately scored the ground-and-pound stoppage. PFL isn’t going to rush her into a fight against unbeaten Kayla Harrison, who while also having two Olympic golds, has a world-class judo background and much more cage experience. Shields may or may not pan out – I’m always quick to bring up how bad a historically noteworthy champ like Daniel Cormier looked in his pro MMA debut – but regardless, this is both a new challenge for a world-class athlete and the smartest money maneuver she could have made.

Conversely, there is little incentive for most women with a background in MMA to transition into boxing, as the vast majority of upper echelon women in the sport come from either predominately grappling backgrounds or were introduced into the sport via training MMA directly and stewarding them into the sport. If pound-for-pound queen Amanda Nunes ever got bored and there was a Youtube celebrity who dared to box her, maybe this would be worth discussing, but there is a reason this is exceedingly rare outside of a fighter like Bec Rawlings, who was cut from the UFC on a four-fight losing streak, using bareknuckle boxing to simply get paid and rehabilitate her fight career.

Also of note, while unfortunate but inalienable: MMA has a long history of paying certain women based on their cosmetic and physical appeal. Even if the sport’s fanbase has diversified considerably over the last decade, it’s still largely comprised of horny dudes, thus this remains a very legitimate reality. For better or worse, boxing promoters have seldom seized upon and made the money in this capacity that their MMA contemporaries have consistently reaped, thus it remains an inconvenient but often financially rewarding benefit of women competing in MMA.

Then, there’s men transitioning from MMA to boxing. First, it needs to be said that there are certain journeyman or gatekeeper types can do both successfully and simultaneously, with retired and beloved veteran Chris Lytle being the classic example. More recently, UFC veteran Clay Collard has followed in his footsteps, having some surprising boxing success before getting a PFL deal this year and even upsetting former lightweight king Anthony Pettis. Again, this is a shrewd gamble that is predicated on pure opportunity and earning potential.

Then, there’s Anderson Silva’s surprise win over Julio Chavez Jr. This certainly was never about money to Silva – his legendary and distinguished career cage has left him well compensated – but one of challenge and passion. Prior to his UFC exit, “The Spider” had only a single legitimate win in over seven years, and following his nasty leg break against Jared Cannonier and his grisly knockout loss to Uriah Hall last October, the UFC simply saw no viability — financially or competitively — in continuing to put him in the cage. But for almost 15 years, he had openly petitioned to box stars, specifically Roy Jones Jr. This was a pure challenge and dream for him, realized in the truest twilight of his career.

The weathered Silva chose the shrewdest, cleverest matchup possible in Chavez Jr.: a former WBC middleweight champion, who despite his family name, never lived up to the potential of his father and hadn’t beaten a decent fighter in five years. Invigorated by the opportunity, Silva pulled off the eight-round split decision upset. Whether he continues to pursue these kind of fights remains to be seen but is largely irrelevant. This fight was driven by nothing more than Silva’s longstanding desire. Again, every choice fighters make in terms of drifting between boxing or MMA at this moment in time is dictated by a wholly particular constellation of financial, competitive and opportunistic traits. This alchemy, for many, makes it a worthwhile risk, whether strictly monetary or something larger and more intangible.

In a unique time where the walls between MMA and boxing begin to crack, it’s the athletes absorbing the true risk and not one that should be seen as a sort of nebulous “threat”. None of these fighters are going to hurt MMA or boxing. Maybe just your misplaced feelings.

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