Seamus Raftery examines the history of crossover clashes between boxers and mixed martial artists.
Conor McGregor is the most headline hogging athlete in the world today. This week, he has been all over the news due to the chaos surrounding UFC 189. Yesterday, he was grabbing the limelight for a different reason, however.
Whilst a guest on, American chat show, “Conan”, McGregor was quizzed about the potential for a clash between he and a certain boxing superstar.“I would certainly box Floyd Mayweather”, proclaimed the dapper Dubliner, with conviction.
Conor could not have set a more appetizing bait.
The media love a game of “what if?“, and fight fans love the topic of MMA vs boxing. In the aftermath of the interview, news sources all over the world were running the quote. Internet forums were, undoubtedly, flooded with threads related to a fantasy match-up between the pound for pound king of boxing, and the man who is convinced his eventual coronation is a formality. What if Conor McGregor fought Floyd Mayweather Jr? Even though, in a boxing match McGregor would be at a distinct disadvantage, it is an intriguing question, for sure.
Chances are, though, a question – it will remain.
There is always plenty of talk, from both sides, about boxing vs MMA confrontations. Dana White, president of the UFC, has asserted that everyone from Sean Sherk to Ronda Rousey would defeat Mayweather under MMA rules. Former UFC heavyweight champion, Junior dos Santos, went one better. At one point in his career, he would regularly tell the media that he could beat either Klitschko brother in a straight boxing match. On the boxing side, Tyson Fury, has publicly berated Cain Velasquez on several occasions. The 6’9 Englishman, claimed that he would be willing and able to defeat the Mexican in a cage.
Another interesting crossover bout that has been on the table in recent times is Anderson Silva vs Roy Jones Jr. The former pound for pound number ones shared a mutual desire to compete against each other under the marquess of queensbury rules. The fight has yet to take place, however.
Roy Jones has claimed that Dana White refused to allow Silva to take part in the event. White has never publicly acknowledged his part in stopping the fight from materializing, but he has expressed reservations about allowing a UFC contracted fighter to enter into such a situation.
Things became even more complicated last year, with Anderson getting injured and later testing positive for banned substances.
The point that the Silva vs Roy Jones Jr saga proved, however, was that cooler heads normally prevail.
In crossover bouts featuring one or more major stars there is so much to lose. This is the main barrier to a fight like McGregor vs Mayweather occurring. Reputations, ego and name value are extremely important in combat sports and nobody wants to damage their future earning potential. Fighters may be curious to see how they would fair against someone from a different discipline or in an alternative environment, but usually they realize that the risk is too great. Managers, promoters and Dana Whites often play a major role in this process.
Occasionally though they do happen.
Every now and then a star from one sport will cross the divide into the unknown. The unfortunate reality is, that it is normally when the, aforementioned, great barrier has been removed. The history, of the intertwining, of boxing and MMA is littered with the stories of men who no longer have something to lose.
The traffic, thus far, has been mainly one way.
Despite MMA’s explosion in popularity over the last decade, the biggest paydays in combat sports are still to be made in boxing. Therefore, any mixed martial artist that feels he is proficient enough in boxing to compete at a high level would likely be doing so.
Mixed martial artists are the fight sport’s jack of all trades. Their strength lies in their versatility. It is unlikely, that even the best stand up artist in MMA could compete with the top boxers.
Mma is a sport, however, where being a specialist in one area can be a good starting point. Thus a boxer, who has run out of options in his own sport, may feel as though he can learn enough grappling to allow him to capitalize on his superior hands. This is why so many boxers have attempted to make the leap.
There are, of course, several MMA practitioners that have professional boxing experience, but not at a high level or profile. Anderson Silva had a brief professional boxing career prior to his successful exploits in the cage. Former EliteXC lightweight champion, and current UFC fighter, KJ Noons was 11-2 as a pro. Interestingly, recent UFC signing, Joseph Duffy, left the sport of MMA to compile a 7-0 record as a boxer. The former Conor McGregor conqueror returned to the cage in 2014, however, and was snapped up by the UFC less than a year later.
The history of boxers competing in mixed bouts with martial artists and wrestlers goes back well before the genesis of the UFC. In the sport of modern MMA, however, it began ignominiously at UFC 1.
Art Jimmerson’s professional boxing career lasted some seventeen years. His MMA career lasted barely over two minutes. The native of St. Louis, Missouri became the first victim of a skinny, but soon to be prolific, Brazilian named Royce Gracie.
Jimmerson strangely wore one boxing glove to the Octagon for the fight, but he didn’t lay a hand on the man who would go on to win the first two UFC tournaments. Royce quickly got the American to the floor and mounted him. A terrified Jimmerson was so uneducated in grappling that he felt he had little choice but to tap out before Gracie even attempted a submission.
Jimmerson’s example, likely, acted as a major deterrent to any boxer who entertained the idea of entering into MMA for a long time after that. In the early days of the UFC grappling dominated, creating an environment that would not have been inviting to many boxers.
As the years went by the occasional boxer would make a foray into the sport. Eric “Butterbean” Esch, who had been more of a sideshow attraction in boxing, made a second career in mixed combat. The massive slugger even had moderate success.
In 2009, former WBO heavyweight champion, Ray Mercer, caused the biggest upset by a boxer in MMA to date. “Merciless” Ray drilled former UFC heavyweight kingpin, Tim Sylvia, in just nine seconds.
It wouldn’t be until 2010, however, that another pure boxer would compete in the UFC.
James Toney had once been a pound for pound rated fighter and multiple weight world title holder. He was well past his athletic prime, though, when he made his debut in the octagon. The overweight Toney, who had talked a good game in the build up, was beaten very easily by UFC legend, Randy Couture, in a fight that was embarrassing for everyone involved.
There is an obvious pattern here. As previously stated, very few prime boxers are willing to cross the threshold into the cage.
The only instance in which an elite boxer was tempted into a mixed rules bout happened in 1976. Muhammad Ali could not at this time be considered to be in his prime, but he was still the heavyweight champion of the world, and would be for almost another two years. Ali, was reportedly offered $6 million dollars by backers of Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki to compete in a bout, to be held in Tokyo.
In a fight that was an enormous event at the time, Inoki and Ali fought to a farcical draw. Inoki, who had a legitimate background in submission wrestling and martial arts, spent almost the entire fight on his back kicking at the legs of “the Greatest”. Ali threw very few punches throughout the frustrating 15 rounds of non-action due the the unorthodox spoiling tactics of his opponent. The whole episode tainted Ali’s legacy in the eyes of many fight historians, though it has been widely forgotten in the mainstream.
The Ali vs Inoki event demonstrated further that there is a risk, inherent, within these types of fights that damage may be caused to the reputations of those involved. It also demonstrated, however, that if enough money is on the table that almost nothing is out of the question.
For now, though, fans should take solace in the women’s bantamweight division of the UFC.
In female combat sport the dynamic is a little different. Thanks, in no small part, to the transcendent popularity of Ronda Rousey, the potential for stardom and big paydays is greater in mma than professional boxing. Thus, Holly Holm, the pound for pound queen of women’s boxing has made the jump to the UFC. Inhabiting the same weight class as Rousey, Holm finds herself on a collision course with the iconic “Rowdy” Ronda.
It is a fight that has the potential to be the biggest attraction in the history of women’s combat, and one that would qualify as the most significant crossover clash to date.