MMA and Boxing: Exploring the Pugilistic Zeitgeist

James MacDonaldFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2012

Courtesy of Sherdog
Courtesy of Sherdog

Having covered the sport of boxing for a number of years, I became accustomed to hearing the clichéd backstories of its populace.

It seemed as though the vast majority of those who competed—at every level of the sport—were the product of a broken home, abuse, poverty or some combination thereof.

Almost invariably, the narrative went along the lines of, “If it wasn’t for boxing, I would either be in jail or I’d be dead.” Its ubiquity had the effect of desensitising me to the plight of those who discovered boxing as an outlet—as a means of channeling their aggression.

Dana White has often delighted in telling reporters that mixed martial arts offers much greater diversity than boxing. This not only applies to the skills required to succeed in the sport, but also to the kind of narrative that is presented to the sport’s consumers.

In MMA, for every fighter who has endured a rough childhood, there is one who has earned a college degree; for every fighter who had a criminal past, there is one who had a well-paying job.

Why might this be the case? Much of it seems to be based on the cultural differences that separate the sports.

Boxing has a history that is steeped in blue-collar tradition, with its long line of working class heroes who serve as inspirational tales for those who seek a better life. It is in many ways mirrored by the hip hop culture that has developed over the past several decades.

In contrast, mixed martial arts can be viewed as more of a cultural mongrel, comprising elements of East and West, the spiritual and the material, the meditative and the impulsive...etc.

Its violence is intertwined with philosophy, boasting an almost paradoxical association with pacifism.

While both sports depict violence, their cultural traditions often produce fighters with contrasting experiences and ambitions—in much the same way that rugby and American football have superficial similarities, yet there exists a cultural gulf between them.

There is also something to be said for college wrestling, which has produced so many degree-toting mixed martial artists over the past 15 years. A similar path for amateur boxers would likely yield greater diversity within the professional ranks—though the cultural differences would remain the same.

In the past I have written about the culture of honour and respect in MMA, which now appears to be receding somewhat. However, the influence of the traditional martial arts is unlikely to dissipate entirely.

There will always be more emphasis on humility over egoism and confidence over arrogance, which is something that cannot be said about boxing. MMA has no Floyd Mayweathers, nor Adrien Broners.

Those fighters would scarcely make sense in the context of mixed martial arts. We would be at a loss to explain their presence in the sport, given the kind of cartoonish narcissism they routinely exhibit.

One could argue that Jon Jones is the most hated athlete in our sport right now, largely owing to the lofty opinion he holds of himself and his place in history.

However, the UFC’s current light heavyweight champion is almost pathologically diffident when compared to someone like Mayweather.

The great boxing trainer Freddie Roach has spoken of his admiration for the respect shown by mixed martial artists when they visit him in Los Angeles. Although Roach would consider himself a boxing fan first and foremost, even he recognises that there is a cultural divide between the sports.

Perhaps this divide has contributed to the contrasting fortunes of both sports.

Fans of licensed combat may be tired of indulging the self-obsessed pugilist, instead favouring the relative humility of martial artists who are well-rounded both physically and personally.