The real reason why boxers will never find success in the UFC

As James Toney stepped into the ring last night you’d be forgiven for thinking that something unprecedented was happening given all the extra pomp and circumstance that surrounded the former world champion boxer’s mixed martial arts debut. But what Toney was doing wasn’t actually that extraordinary or unique. After all, Toney wasn’t the only highly credentialed martial artist fighting in the Octagon that night with both Demian Maia and BJ Penn being former world champions in ju-jitsu while his opponent Randy Couture was a three-time alternate for America’s Olympic Greco-Roman team.

And this was nothing new, from the very beginning the UFC would see world class athletes from single disciplines compete against each other. Royce Gracie would lead the grapplers into the UFC while the likes of Ken Shamrock and Don Frye would attract the interest of Olympic-level wrestlers such as Dan Severn, Mark Coleman and Randy Couture. In Pride, sambo world champion Fedor Emelianenko would dominate the heavyweight division while Olympic Gold Medalist judoka Hidehiko Yoshida regularly competed in high profile fights. Strikers were also finding success in MMA with former kickboxing world champion Maurice Smith upsetting Mark Coleman at UFC 14 while K-1 star Mirko Cro Cop and Vale Tudo veteran Wanderlei Silva would become two of the biggest stars in MMA history.

Of course none of these fighters were able to rely solely on the one discipline. Just as wrestlers had to learn ju-jitsu and striking to complement their wrestling, strikers needed to develop a well-rounded fighting style to make the most of their advantage standing. ¬†And this is the fundamental truth about mixed martial arts; even though most fighters lead with one discipline that lead discipline needs to be complement by an all-round the game that maximizes its effectiveness in MMA. A world champion grappler like Demian Maia failed to win the UFC world title at UFC 112 because he had no answer for champion Anderson Silva’s Muay Thai. Former high-school wrestler Chuck Liddell famously used his wrestling in reverse, developing the takedown defense to keep the fight where he was strongest, on the feet.

For a fighter to broaden their skill set in such a way takes years of crosstraining and reeducation as they not only learn new techniques but discover which techniques from their old sport are ineffective or too risky in MMA. And given the level of competition in today’s sport, single discipline champions are expected to start on minor shows just as anybody else, performing against inferior sportsmen in front of small shows for little money. But whereas the sacrifices are worthwhile for the likes of wrestlers, grapplers and kickboxers due to the greater financial rewards available to UFC champions, this is not the case with boxers. Any serious boxer who stepped into the Octagon would be taking a significant pay cut to risk humiliation by fighting out of his element.

It is this financial reality that explains why no world champion boxers have competed in MMA. It is ridiculous to argue that somehow boxing is uniquely ill-suited to translate to MMA. Not only are there are several former circuit pro-boxers who have effectively made the transition to MMA but the success of many wrestlers and grapplers is in part based on their boxing. After all what was Saturday night’s Frankie Edgar vs. BJ Penn lightweight title fight but an extension of the dynamic you would see when an out-fighter faces a boxer-puncher? And what of Randy Couture, James Toney’s smiling assassin? Having developed sound boxing technique/knowledge while competing in army competitions, Couture has repeatedly used boxing to exploit gaps in the technique of strikers such as Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell and Tim Sylvia.

Boxing is a great martial art, and could easily provide the base for a dominate champion in the UFC. It’s however unlikely that a world class boxer will ever choose MMA over boxing as so many world class wrestlers or grapplers or kickboxers do because the same incentives don’t apply. If Randy Couture could earn millions as a wrestler then he’d still be wrestling. If Demian Maia could earn millions as a grappler then he’d still be grappling. If Pat Barry could earn millions kickboxing then he’d still be kickboxing. They and others came into the UFC because it offered them the best opportunity to make money and become famous as sportsmen. That is nowhere near to being true with regards to boxers, and therefore the question of how well boxers would perform in MMA will always remain unanswered.

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