Old Ground: Punching in MMA vs. punching in boxing (again)

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BLAME those stupid punch machines.

Without them, we would not only be spared the awkward sight of promoters throwing punches for social media attention and, in turn, attempting to prove how tough they are, but we would also be spared having to listen to people reduce punch power to a three-digit figure flashing on a screen. Better yet, we would be spared having to listen to people call Francis Ngannou the most powerful puncher to have ever walked the earth.

Best left at the fairground where they belong, devices like “punch machines” serve only to turn boxing into something that can be debated by people who deal only in stats and stuff they can post on the Internet to compensate for their lack of experience in and knowledge of the sport. Here, in the case of Ngannou and Tyson Fury, we have, because of this new trend, a “fight” essentially reduced to the most basic and redundant of arguments: Who hits harder? Figure that out and you have the name of the winner, apparently. It matters not that Tyson Fury is a professional boxer with a 33-0-1 (24) record and that Ngannou, on October 28 and against Fury, will, having campaigned solely as a mixed martial artist to date, be making his professional boxing debut. It also matters not that boxing and mixed martial arts, although two sports of violence, are entirely different disciplines which require different skill-sets and, even in the domain of punching, different types of punches.

This is common knowledge for many of us, sure, yet for many others it is not. And, sadly, it is these others, the oblivious ones, who are being targeted by cynical “crossover” promotions like Fury vs. Ngannou and will ultimately be expected to foot the bill on the night. “The thing is, it has been proven that Ngannou hits harder than Deontay Wilder,” I was informed on Saturday by someone who believes everything they are told. “I know Fury was able to deal with Wilder, but if Ngannou lands on him, he might not get up this time.”

Rude though it was, it was at that point in the conversation I fell silent, unable to make sense of what I had been told, much less argue it. What then hit me during this silence was not a frustration or even an anger but something instead closer to disappointment; disappointment that this debate had never been settled back when it should have been settled; disappointment that boxing had, by being so willing to bullshit and create an illusion, allowed this to still go on; disappointment that boxing had once again targeted the lowest common denominator and had done so with no small amount of pride.

Because clearly, out there in the wild, they believe them all, it seems. They believe Tyson Fury. They believe Frank Warren. They believe Bob Arum. They see numbers on a punch machine and, without having ever watched the puncher in question fight, point to the number and yell at you, “Look! Right there, stupid! Can you not see it?!”

James Toney (L) fights Randy Couture during their UFC heavyweight bout at the TD Garden on August 28, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

THIRTEEN years ago, I wrote for the first time about the Boxing vs. MMA debate and did so with far more enthusiasm than I am able to muster today. Back then, you see, with MMA still in its infancy, there was at least an unknown element to it all; the debate, I mean. The fighters were more prone to standing and throwing hands than they would later become and there were more boxers and mixed martial artists bed-hopping between the two sports, which, if nothing else, sparked the imagination and left a few questions unanswered.

Then, of course, James Toney one day decided to go from boxing to MMA at the ripe old age of 43 and we had, in the space of three minutes and 19 seconds, all the answers we would ever need. For it was clear now, thanks to both Toney and Randy Couture, and beyond any doubt: punching in MMA was not the same as punching in a boxing ring and the only way the two sports could be any more different is if one of them featured the use of a ball.

In truth, only idiots like me remained unconvinced in 2010. Call it blind hope, or merely the symptom of a love affair with an old legend like Toney (who had by then let me down more than once), I was more than open to the possibility of a boxer excelling in mixed martial arts despite the countless warnings I had received from mixed martial artists ahead of that particular “fight”.

“The techniques are totally different,” I had been told by Marcus Davis, 20-9 as a mixed martial artist and 17-1-2 (12) as a former pro boxer. “I had to revamp my whole punching style to survive in this thing. If I was to just stand and punch the way I did as a boxer, grapplers would be taking me down left, right and centre. I literally wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

“As time has gone on, I’ve learnt to punch on the move, set for shorter periods of time and always think about at least two things at the same time. You can’t just think about hitting and not getting hit in MMA. You have to think about hitting, not getting hit, not getting kicked, not getting taken down, not getting clinched, and so on.”

Chris Lytle, meanwhile, was another fighter quick to back up this view. Known, like Toney, as “Lights Out”, the ex-firefighter also happened to be both a pro boxer and a mixed martial artist, accumulating a 13-1 record in the former and a 13-18-5 record in the latter, and knew there was not a birth certificate anywhere that could prove boxing and MMA were in any way related.

“Technical punching isn’t as vital in MMA because a fight rarely comes down to two guys looking to outdo one another with precise punches,” said Lytle. “There are too many other areas the fight can be decided in. The key for me is always to stay busy with my hands and to make sure I’m unpredictable, both with my punches and my movement. If an opponent is unable to get comfortable with you in there, they won’t take you down and they won’t trade freely with punches. Unpredictability is always the name of the game in MMA.”

It was this same unpredictability Kevin Ferguson, also known as Kimbo Slice, never particularly liked. In contrast to fighters like Davis and Lytle, who were quick to embrace their new range of options, Slice remained a man of simple pleasures and simple delights and rarely wanted to do anything other than stand with his opponent and punch.

Indeed, some time before his tragic passing in 2016, Slice explained to me the reasons why he first decided to make his name in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), having risen to Internet fame following a string of backyard fights, only to then later head in the direction of boxing once this name had been established. He also quite pertinently highlighted the thing that many mixed martial artists in recent times have underestimated when it comes to travelling the other way.

“I’ve always wanted to box, but mixed martial arts overtook boxing when boxing became boring,” said Slice, who for a time was promoted by veteran boxing promoter Gary Shaw and held a pro record of 7-0 (6). “Boxing has done all that mess to itself, and it just so happens that mixed martial arts was about to break out big at the time boxing started getting boring.

“Don’t get it twisted, I’ve always liked the idea of turning pro as a boxer, though. Boxing is a one-dimensional sport. It involves punching and that’s it. But it also takes a lot more commitment on my part, and I realised I’d have to build up a way better defence when moving into pro boxing from MMA.

“Although I like punching dudes, I still have lots of work to do to get where I need to be in the boxing game. There might only be one dimension to boxing, but it’s a dimension that people have been working with and perfecting for centuries. These guys are experts at something I’m still learning.”

Kimbo Slice (R) fights Shane Tilyard (L) at Sydney Entertainment Centre on January 30, 2013 in Sydney, Australia (Matt King/Getty Images)

“IT’S different,” said Ryan Ford in 2019, “and I’m living proof of it. I did 11 years of training and fighting mixed martial arts and now I’m four years (now eight) into this boxing career. I know there’s a difference. It’s too much of a difference for people to be talking like this.”

As a mixed martial artist, Ryan Ford went 16-5, having competed in all the major organisations outside the UFC and fought quality names such as Jake Shields, Douglas Lima, Karo Parisyan and Pete Spratt, before retiring in 2014. Boxing, meanwhile, has always been part of Ford’s life. His father, Al, was a Canadian lightweight champion who shared the ring with Aaron Pryor and Ray Mancini, and often he would teach Ryan the basics, much to the disapproval of Ryan’s mother, who wanted him to stay well away from the sport and its dangers. She got her way, too. Ford’s parents divorced when he was just four and, for as long as he was under her roof, the rules were quite clear: she wouldn’t stand for her boy entering the same dirty world her ex-husband once inhabited.

However, that all changed in 2003 when Ford participated in an armed robbery home invasion. First, he went to jail. Then, while locked up, he analysed the direction in which his life was heading and in the process of doing so stumbled upon The Ultimate Fighter reality television series. It wasn’t quite boxing, but it was close – close enough.

“At first I wanted to box when I got out, but The Ultimate Fighter came out as I was serving my sentence and it was such a big thing,” he said. “I thought, Man, maybe I’ll do this instead.

“I got out and within two weeks had my first MMA fight. I won by knockout in the second round. It was my journey into MMA from that point on.”

It later ended, this journey, for two reasons: one, because Ford had broken his arm three times, twice in training and once during a fight, and, two, because the time suddenly felt right to continue the legacy of his father. “I just sat down with my wife and a couple of my good friends and said, ‘You know what? I think it’s time to go to the roots, go to boxing, what’s in my blood,’” recalled Ford, currently 17-9 (12) in his pro boxing career and perhaps best known for giving Joshua Buatsi a decent test in 2019. “To be a mixed martial artist I do believe you have to be more of a well-rounded athlete,” Ford said when asked to pinpoint the differences between the two sports. “You have to focus on eight or nine different disciplines rather than just one. Boxing is just the sweet science of the hands.

“With boxing, the training is repetitive. In MMA, though, you can’t do that. You can’t afford to repeat things. You have to work your wrestling and your jiu-jitsu and your boxing. You have to deal with kicks, knees and elbows. In MMA training, the only thing I would say that is tougher is mixing all of those martial arts together.”

Ford added: “Boxing sparring is a lot harder than mixed martial arts sparring. That’s because of the intensity and because there is no holding or grappling. In boxing, yes, we get an opportunity to hold, but you’re holding maybe for two or three seconds and then you break.

“In MMA, if I want to pin you against the cage and get my breath, I’m going to do that for however long I want, and then I can take you down and wrestle you on the ground. There’s also kicking involved. I can throw a kick and step back and I’m not as engaged. We get a lot of mixed martial arts guys come over to the boxing gym and they know it’s a totally different intensity being in the ring compared to the cage.”

They like to say unpredictability is what allowed Conor McGregor to land the odd shot – including that odd left uppercut – on Floyd Mayweather when they met in that ridiculous boxing match the entire world for some reason stopped to watch in the summer of 2017. Or at least that’s what the mixed martial arts advocates like to say. Boxing fans, on the other hand, will argue this is simply what MMA fans want to believe – nay, must believe – in order to make the “fight” seem slightly less pointless than it appeared in the aftermath.

Ryan Ford, having competed in both sports, is more than qualified to comment. “I am the best mixed martial artist who has crossed over into boxing in the entire world,” he told me, thus qualifying himself. “Conor McGregor was at the height of his MMA career and he goes over and boxes Floyd Mayweather, who was not even near his prime. He then got destroyed. The only time he landed punches was when Floyd let him hit him. Floyd let that happen because I guarantee he had money on every bet available that night. He’s a money man, he’s a businessman, and I’m sure that’s why Conor was able to land the odd punch and go some rounds.

“You’ve never seen Floyd fight like a Mexican coming forward at somebody like that before. He doesn’t do that. He did that because he was not threatened by anything Conor McGregor would do.

“But, on the flip side, you put a natural-born boxer inside an MMA cage against a mixed martial artist and the exact same thing will happen. A boxer cannot fight off his back. Yes, they have that puncher’s chance, but now you have to worry about kicks, knees, elbows, wrestling, all of that stuff.”

Joshua Buatsi defeats Ryan Ford (Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

RICO VERHOEVEN, the current Glory world heavyweight champion in kickboxing, is not only a master of feet and hands but, in 2015, also gained first-hand experience of what it was like to spend time in the ring with men fortunate enough to focus solely on one part of their anatomy. This lesson arrived when he was invited to do some sparring with Tyson Fury, back when Fury was training in Belgium, and the Dutchman, being so close, couldn’t say no. It was, he thought, a priceless opportunity to see both what the future heavyweight boxing champion could do with just his hands and what he, a world-class kickboxer, could do with just his hands.

He was welcomed with open arms by the Furys, too; welcomed, he says, for the simple reason that most of the other kickboxers and mixed martial artists they had sourced from the Netherlands had already tried and failed and been promptly sent home.

“They all thought, ‘No way, this is not for us,’” Verhoeven explained. “You’ve got one of the best boxers in Europe at the time and he was knocking their heads off with just the jab. It was crazy. They weren’t used to it. For us, as kickboxers, it’s totally different to what we’re used to.”

In their first session together, Verhoeven, now 60-10 as a kickboxer, stuck it out for six or seven rounds. By the second, both of Verhoeven’s eyes were closed. “It was quite a feat considering we were wearing head guards,” he recalled, laughing. “I didn’t enjoy getting my ass whooped, but it was a great learning experience.”

Rather than discouraged, Verhoeven, to his credit, kept going back. He went back for more punches and he went back for his respect, which he was quick to gain not just from Tyson but the rest of the Furys.

“I don’t want to say our sport is tougher, but when you get kicked to the body, kicked to the leg and kicked to the head, it’s not nice. It hurts like hell,” he said. “But you have to keep going and go through the pain barrier. You can’t just stop.

“With boxing, it’s just arms. That’s the biggest difference. In kickboxing it hurts when you get a kick right on your thigh; there’s no pain like it, especially when you’re not used to it. That ability to fight through the pain is definitely something the Fury team liked about me. I’m used to being hit and hurt. It mentally makes me very strong. A strong punch to the face means nothing to me. It just makes me go, Oh, is that it?”

Respect that day was not a one-way thing. In fact, although the sparring session had been very much on his terms, Fury’s mastering of these terms meant that whenever Verhoeven wasn’t in pain he was mostly in awe.

“A lot of people from the outside say Tyson is too big, too slow and can’t do this or that,” he said. “Stand in front of him, that’s all I’ll say. Then come and tell me he’s lacking in this department or that department. If you stand in front of this guy, he’ll knock your head off. He’s so gifted it’s crazy.

“For a man of his size – so big, so heavy – he can move so well. He’ll be backing up against the ropes and I’ll think, Right, now I’m going to take his f**king head off, and he’ll then just step to the side and I almost fall out of the ring. I think, How the hell does he do that? He’s leaning on the back leg and is still able to move sideways. It really is crazy. He’s so skilled. He’s a natural.”

Of all the words used, often in vain, to argue one way or another, the term “natural” may be the most important. After all, in a sport in which “natural” feels as though it is becoming an animal on the verge of extinction, one thing we can at least say is that punching comes more naturally to some than it does to others. That, of course, is not to say Francis Ngannou is not a natural puncher, nor even that he lacks natural power. However, the Frenchman’s natural habitat is clearly a cage rather than a ring and yet, on October 28, it is in a ring he will box Tyson Fury and it is in a ring, alas, he is anything but a natural; puncher or otherwise.