Monday, August 23, 2010

Boxing and MMA are still fighting for respect

There is a historical fight taking place @ UFC 118 this Saturday between five-time UFC champion and MMA legend Randy Couture and multiple division boxing champion James Toney (pictured left). Thus, the stage is set for an epic showdown. So why are boxing and MMA still fighting for respect?

Combat sports have probably been around since the dawn of mankind. There are ancient artifacts and historical data that dictate hand to hand combat and certain forms of self-defense have been practiced in one form or another for thousands of years.

Yet, for as long as they've been around, the question has remained, are combat sports an athletic form of competition or nothing more than barbaric brutality? For the sport of boxing, this question has lingered for well over a century, but for the sport of mixed martial arts this debate has only been going on for a little more than a decade and a half. As a fan, proponent and practitioner of both, I'm here to speak on the positive and technical aspects of each. You can call it the beauty behind the brutality.

Now some people might ask, "how can something so violent, be considered beautiful?" To answer this question, one needs to look beyond what they just see and understand the facets of the game. First of all, violence, in terms of sport, is defined as "rough or injurious physical force, action or treatment." Therefore, taking this definition one would have to define a lot of sports as violent.

Some of the most popular sports in this country such as football, hockey, and basketball can be construed as violent. For that matter, not so popular sports such as soccer, field hockey and lacrosse are just as "violent." So why are these accepted forms of competition within our society, but boxing and mixed martial arts are frowned upon by so many?

It goes back to what I stated earlier; it is a lack of knowledge and understanding. On the football field, when a player is gang tackled by a host of players, it is referred to as great team defense. In hockey, when a player is checked hard into the wall or the ice, it is looked upon as exciting. Even in baseball, when a player slides directly into the shortstop or second baseman in an effort to break up a double play, it is understood that this is an accepted part of the game.

Yet, when a fighter throws a jab at another fighter's head, it is considered "barbaric." Many others and I on the other hand look at this as a thing of beauty. It is why boxing has long been referred to as the "sweet science." When heavyweights such as Muhammad Ali can dance gracefully around their opponent's attack or Larry Holmes spitfires a jab through someone's defense with such speed and precision, it is something to behold.

It is a skill and an art form they were able to master after years of long and arduous training. This is to be respected. Granted, back in the days of bare-knuckle fighters there probably wasn't much skill, but that is not the case today. Boxing has had over 100 years to hone its craft and develop a system and standard that should be marveled at.

Yet, after all that time boxing is still fighting (no pun intended) an uphill battle. Like any other sport, it's had its setbacks. The reality that, professional fighters have died or suffered career ending injuries in the ring does exist.

However, I will argue that most of these are due to the ineptitude of referees that are employed by the various states boxing commissions. Independent state commissions are probably the biggest problem; a uniform set of rules and regulations set forth by a national commission needs to and should be implemented.

Mixed martial arts, on the other hand, has only been in existence, as a sport for less than 17 years. It initially developed as a spectacle pitting combatants of various martial art forms against each other to see which self-defense system could be considered the most effective. While I'll admit in the beginning it was nothing short of brutal. Inevitably its initial champions Royce Gracie, Dan Severn and Oleg Taktarov all showed that technique, not brutality, is what eventually would work in a fight.

Their masterful backgrounds in jiu-jitsu, wrestling and Sambo respectively is what worked, yet in time even they realized their skills were limited against someone who knew a little of everything. Thus, cross training in the various forms of self-defense began and "mixed martial arts" was born. Because it takes place in a cage, an eight-sided octagon, versus a ring some observers consider it barbaric and have gone so far as to refer to it as "human cock-fighting." I beg to differ.

I've been training in martial arts for over ten years now. While the base of my training has been in Taekwondo, submission grappling, boxing and Muay Thai, among others, has also been a substantial part of my training. My participation in all these forms of discipline has introduced me to the scientific aspects of each and thus a deep appreciation of what goes on in the cage or the ring.

In respect to MMA, I will say that rules and regulations have been set in place and only two deaths have been documented in its nearly 17 year history. Both of those took place at the lower level of promotion and competition where standards of regulation may have been compromised. Unlike boxing where a fighter depends on the referee to stop a fight, in MMA, besides the ref, a fighter can respectfully and gracefully "tapout," which means they give up, to live and fight another day.

Yet, with all these rules in place along with skill and training involved, many people continue frowning upon these sports as nothing more than simplistic brutal forms of competition. Beyond that, a debate is forming as the media, fans and even the fighters themselves are now beginning to form a divide as they question whether the rapid growth of MMA will supersede boxing in terms of popularity. Some even questions whether MMA will be the death of boxing.

Thus, this weekend's fight between Couture and Toney is not just about two competitors, but rather it has become a fight between the two sports. As a fan of both, I am happy to see each continue to prosper financially because as long as they do, neither of them is going anywhere. Thus, the only battle these two sports will continue to wage is the one against mainstream acceptance of each as such.

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