As mixed martial arts gained prominence and popularity among general sports fans in the 2000s, the combat sport that had ruled the roost for a century--boxing--seemed to face it's waning days. Boxing had propped itself up on the heavyweight division in the late 1980s and 1990s, but with it's former stars either retiring (Lennox Lewis) or fading into irrelevancy (Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield), the "Sweet Science" was forced to make room for MMA in the consciousness of fight fans.
Inevitably, a debate emerged over which sport was truly supreme. Boxing has its long, rich history and a far greater acceptance among the general public. For decades, fathers have passed on boxing tradition to their sons and so on. Perhaps only baseball has roots as deep as boxing in American sports history. Boxing is a global sport, with entire nations rising in support of one of their sons. Certain fighters can truly capture the fans' imagination and transcend the sport, such as Oscar De La Hoya. But boxing depends on it's stars, and until the ascent of Manny Paquiao and Floyd Mayweather, De La Hoya was forced to carry boxing in the last decade with little help.
As boxing struggled, however, American MMA thrived. The UFC pushed its brand above its stars, making every montly pay-per-view event seem like a must-buy. It built cards top-to-bottom in a fashion similar to professional wrestling, and began breaking sales records long shared by the WWE and boxing. But MMA is still relatively new and has only been on cable television for the past few years. It saw its infant days mired in controversy, as political and public backlash decried the still unrefined sport as "human cockfighting." In Japan, the PRIDE FC promotion was immensely popular but after eight years of being an underground, niche attraction the UFC was on the verge of collapse. Then, in 2001, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White purchased the company. Under their Zuffa umbrella, they began streamlining the sport, earning regulation in new areas and creating stars in the process. The sport became more palatable to the public, and being a UFC champion began to carry weight in sports discussion. Last year saw one of the most successful PPV events of all-time with the landmark UFC 100, which received attention from every corner of the sports world.
Proponents of MMA chastise boxing for it's inability to provide compelling match-ups and screwing up fights the fans want to see. Some would suggest it's an incomplete combat sport, lacking the grappling and offensive capacity existant in legs that is essential in MMA. It's also valid to point out that boxing is filled with fighters lofted on their padded records against weak competition. Meanwhile, boxing supporters often decry mixed martial artists as incapable of being truly dynamic and technical with their boxing, so they go to a sport where they have a better chance of success. The "blood factor"--that is, all the blood that might be spilled in an MMA match--doesn't dispell any misconception that MMA fans are solely bloodthirsty, either. The fact is, both sports have image issues that each side likes to point out about the other.
In this new decade, though, boxing does seem poised for a comeback. Following successful pay-per-views separately featuring Paquiao and Mayweather, the entire sports world itches for a fight between the two pound-for-pound best boxers in the world. As anticipation for this match lingers, boxing fans will be treated to a Paquiao fight with Joshua Clottey next weekend and a long-time dream match-up when Pretty Boy Floyd faces Shane Mosley on May 1. The UFC is not slowing down, however, with a stretch of blockbuster cards planned throughout spring and summer. Add to that the attention Strikeforce has been getting and it's clear that MMA has attained a firm position in the sports psyche of America.
While the two combat sports jostle for position, a more subtle debate has developed among fans of the sport. What if a high-level boxer attempted to compete at the highest level of mixed martial arts? Who would be triumphant--the devoted practitioner with elite, technical punching prowess or the fighter with a diverse skillset in which perhaps no ability is greater than the boxer's but also in which more methods for victory exist? The two sports have cross-bred on small scales; former Elite XC champ KJ Noons took a sabbatical from MMA and boxed with mixed results (an 8-2 record) before signing on with Strikeforce last month. Former circuit boxer Marcus Davis has seen success as a mid-tier fighter in the UFC's welterweight division. And for years Anderson Silva has wanted a fight with the legendary but washed-up Roy Jones, Jr.
Only recently have there been developments that may actually led to a settling of the issue. Former welterweight and junior middleweight champion Ricardo Mayorga has signed on to fight the solid former UFC fighter Din Thomas. But the news that has resonated most deeply in fight circles is the UFC's signing of former great James Toney. Toney is a multiple-time champion in divisions spanning from middleweight to heavyweight and has a record of 72-6-3 over two decades of fighting at the highest level.
At 41 years of age and with a few loose pounds on him, Toney isn't in his physical prime anymore but still brings a boxing pedigree the likes of which have never been in the Octagon. Elite kickboxers such as Semmy Schilt and and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic have had varying degrees of success in MMA (the latter more than the former), but a pure boxer of Toney's stature has never been on a stage like the UFC. Ray Mercer fights in regional shows against fat Tim Sylvias and Kimbo Slice wannabes (Kimbo actually submitted Mercer in 2007--wrap your head around that one).
The James Toney Experiment is the first true test of a boxer with elite, if aged, skills competing at the highest level of MMA, and the questions around his future are wildly burning. Toney will immediately posses the best boxing in the HW division, if not all of the UFC. But he's never had someone attack him with anything other than punches. Is Toney's pugilistic skill enough to counter the onslaught of leg kicks he may face from a Muay Thai master? Saying he's familiar with things like the "side check kick" doesn't exactly bode well. What happens when even the most-middling wrestler shoots for a double leg? Can this man who has always fought with arms up and his opponent in front of him ever learn to properly sprawl? The first time a jiu-jitsu purple belt lays on him "like a lil' fag", to use Toney's own words, might reveal to him the frightening drowning that is a rear naked choke, or the ridiculous pain that is an armbar.
Or, Toney can knock out haters left and right. He's certainly capable of punching a hole in anyone's face, and with five ounce gloves he might re-validate his nickname of "Lights Out". Even with a basic grasp of wrestling and submissions, Toney could do some damage if never contend for the title (which he won't, in all probability).
For the moment, the James Toney Experiment appears to be a way for Toney to make money and for Dana White to gain publicity and challenge the notion that boxers are superior to mixed martial artists, a notion that is still widely prevalent. It's also a way for the UFC to prevent the ratings bonanza that would ensue if Strikeforce put on Herschel Walker vs. James Toney. Toney will likely never even attain the unofficial ranking of "gatekeeper" in the UFC, but this experiment might just be first stepping-stone laid of a path that leads to elite, in-their-prime boxers fighting elite, in-their-prime mixed martial artists in the ring and in the Octagon. Until then, let the debate rage.
Steve Jennum vs. Melton Bowen at UFC 4
Boxer vs MMA Fighter - Brutal Beatings - Human CockFighting in a Cage (via MikeHawkins)
Disclaimer: This was originally posted at MMA For Real here.