Mike Tyson was a potent mix of speed, power and ferocity. | Photo: The Ring Magazine/Getty
The debate has raged throughout the fight world for years. With the meteoric rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship over the past decade, many combat sports fans have wondered how a world-class boxer would fair if he stepped inside the famed Octagon. Naturally, any boxer would be at a massive disadvantage due to his limited if not entirely non-existent ground skills, but it makes for an intriguing topic.
It would be foolhardy to discuss whether or not one of boxing's greatest champions could topple upper-tier mixed martial artists like Cain Velasquez, Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre. However, there are plenty who might have enjoyed some success in the cage had they switched to MMA in their primes. Here are 10 that come to mind:
Mike Tyson: A no-brainer, Tyson would have torn some people to shreds inside the cage. A notorious street thug as a youth who was arrested close to 50 times, Tyson was an out-of-control hoodlum on the nasty streets of Brooklyn who fought all the time; and he was not some scrawny wanna-be gangbanger, either. He was a monstrous heavyweight by 15 with enough power in his hands to knock out a bull. By the time the late, great Cus D’Amato discovered Tyson and harnessed his raw talent, he was a nearly invincible force in boxing, and by the time he was old enough to smoke legally, he was laying out grown men like carpet. Eighteen months later, he was the holder of the most prestigious title in all of sports. Tyson’s monarchy over boxing lasted for several years, and he became the biggest athlete on the planet. His fights became national events because everybody became enamored with the notion of him climbing through the ropes with the cut-up towel draped around his neck and flattening some stiff in the first round. In his prime, Tyson possessed lightning-quick reflexes and the handspeed of a welterweight. If any opponent showed fear or exposed even a few inches of daylight, the fight was over. Tyson’s maulings were akin to wrecks on the highway -- everybody had to watch -- but what made him such a fierce champion was the inner savage that he seemed willing and able to unleash upon whoever was stupid enough to fight him. He had no problems trying the snap a few opponents’ arms during battle; the elbows he threw at the end of his punches were legendary; his chin was as sturdy as anyone’s; and he would outmuscle his foes in the clinch. Simply put, Tyson got off on hurting those he fought. Tyson is also the most popular and widely recognized boxer of all the hardcore UFC fans. He is regularly ringside for the biggest events and has said countless times that he would not think twice about fighting in MMA if it was around when he was younger. Considering how nasty and powerful Tyson was during his heyday, he would have made a smooth transition to MMA. Imagine a prime Tyson, in all his barbaric glory, with those tiny gloves. Yikes.
“Marvelous” Marvin Hagler: A deadly middleweight who ruled the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, Hagler was as tough as he was strong. He wielded concussive power in both hands and had the inhuman ability to walk through hell in order to win. Aside from his willingness to unleash an unholy wrath of punishment onto whoever dared to climb into the ring with him, Hagler was nearly impervious to being hurt. He was never truly knocked down in his professional career -- Juan Roldan was officially awarded with a knockdown against him but it was the result of a cuffing punch during a clinch while Hagler was off-balance and should have been ruled a slip. In fact, Hagler was so great that virtually no high-profile fighter wanted to lock horns with him. He was the top-ranked fighter at 160 pounds for years before ever being granted a world title fight. Hagler’s style could be described like a wolverine inside the ring, only nastier. He was vicious, relentless and was all over his opponent until the final bell. Considering how durable he was in his prime, it would have been thrilling to see the “Marvelous” one compete in MMA. Standing 5-foot-9, he likely would have competed in the lightweight division. Hagler liked to clinch and rough up his foes on this inside when he was not trying to rip off their heads off; that would have benefitted him inside the cage. His 52 professional knockouts are the perfect illustrators of how much damage he would have done with the four-ounce gloves in mixed martial arts.
Bernard Hopkins: Hands down one of the most artistically dirty fighters of this or any generation, “The Executioner” might have had the best boxing style to translate to MMA. For starters, though his overall record does not quite convey his power, Hopkins possesses some dynamite in his fists, especially his right hand. While his build is not on a massive heavyweight’s chassis, arguably the greatest pure middleweight in the history of the Sweet Science is an incredibly strong fighter. What would make Hopkins even more dangerous in the sport of MMA goes beyond his gloriously sneaky foul tactics and sheer grit. He has undeniable cunning. A true thinking man’s fighter if there ever was one, Hopkins knows every single trick in the book and many that were not ever published. His footwork, head movement and brilliant defense were what carried him throughout his illustrious hall-of-fame career. At his best -- even well into his 40s -- Hopkins always maintained perfect positioning and distance; he hardly ever wasted energy on meaningless punches, thus keeping his fuel tank pinned near the F. On top of how brilliant Hopkins has been inside the squared circle for the last 20-plus years, he has something going for him that most elite-level boxers do not: a storied history of fighting on the mean streets of Philadelphia and inside prison. While it is doubtful that he spent any real time pulling off omaplatas and Death Star chokes while brawling in the Philly projects or in the pen, it is logical to think he has mixed it up on the ground plenty of times. Hopkins is a pure fighter by nature because he had to survive the Raymond Rosen housing projects. Thankfully, he learned how to be an absolute artist inside the ring.
Riddick Bowe: Remember the time in the 1990s when Bowe ruled the heavyweight ranks? If not, he was crushing everybody in his path to greatness until he self-imploded and his career careened off the tracks. If you are too young to remember “Big Daddy” at his best, he was a menacing figure who cherished the notion of inflicting pain on his foes. He lost only one time in his relatively brief career on top and scored 33 knockouts along the way. He was the sole man to stop the great Evander Holyfield during “The Holy Warrior’s” magnificent prime. However, what makes Bowe a terrific entrant into this category is not only his hulking 6-foot-5 heavyweight frame but the fact that he had to fight his way out of the Brownsville projects in Brooklyn -- a neighborhood among the most dangerous in America. Bowe was a massive, incredibly powerful man with tremendous boxing ability, and he was never afraid to go toe-to-toe with anybody he faced. Tough as nails during his tenure in the sport, Bowe was never stopped as a boxer. Omit the fact that he eventually became a human dumpster fire -- he was ousted from Marines boot camp, allegedly battered his own sister, kidnapped his wife and children, stabbed said wife, etc. When he was on top of his game, Bowe was flat-out awesome; and being a renowned street brawler from the ’hood he called home for much of his life, it is a no-brainer that “Big Daddy” could have done some big damage in the sport of MMA.
Vitali Klitschko: The one boxer on this list that probably could have become a legitimate world champion in MMA, Klitschko can only be described as an Adonis of a human being. Sculpted out of a 6-foot-7 slab of flesh and bone, Klitschko has torn the heavyweight division asunder for more than a decade. With a perplexing style of pure boxing basics, he methodically breaks down his opponents until he sees the opening he likes and ends it. He has 45 wins as a pro, and only four men have survived to see the final bell. His patience and discipline brought him to the top, and his surgical precision and crushing power made him the best big man since Lennox Lewis. One fact not many people know about “Dr. Ironfist” is that he was wreaking havoc as a kickboxer before he was removing fellow boxers from their consciousness. He actually may have been better suited as a kickboxer. Klitschko finished his amateur career in that sport with an astonishing 195 wins and 80 knockouts. As a pro, he went 34-1 with 22 KOs. He snatched six amateur and professional world titles as a kickboxer before switching to the sport that made him a multi-millionaire and worldwide superstar. To combine his massive build with brutal knockout power in his hands is one thing, but to add vicious kicks to his repertoire is almost unfathomable. Had he stuck with kickboxing, it is not out of the question to assume he would have won a K-1 World Grand Prix title along the way; and considering how gifted he is athletically, there is no telling how much damage he might have done in MMA. Tim Sylvia became the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight king twice. What would Klitschko have done to the other contenders during the “The Maine-iac’s” reign? Remember, a decrepit Ray Mercer flattened Sylvia in nine seconds. It iss scary to even think about what Klitschko could have accomplished.
Jack Dempsey: Whenever a modern-day boxing scribe speaks to one of the old dinosaurs who experienced the sport’s golden era, said senior citizen is always adamant that blokes who fought long before the advent of color television would trounce any champion of today. They constantly claim that Lou Ambers, Benny Leonard, Jack Johnson and John L. Sullivan would easily tear apart today’s best with one arm tied behind their backs. One such all-time great, Dempsey, is so revered that one longtime writer suggested he would knock out Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson in the same night. While that is highly unlikely considering how small Dempsey was for a heavyweight, “The Manassa Mauler” was one of the toughest fighters to ever compete in the ring. Dempsey knocked out 51 opponents during a brilliant career that led to his hall-of-fame enshrinement. He is credited with creating the bob-and-weave style and threw ferocious punches continuously, walking through hellfire to end his foe’s night if he had to. Aside from Dempsey’s historic dominance in the Sweet Science, he also trained in wrestling for quite some time and took up judo. It is unknown exactly how well he adapted to judo, but when adding that fact to at least a modicum of wrestling prowess and his awesome boxing skills, it is a recipe for destruction. Dempsey was also was a legendary barroom brawler, one who coined the saying, “I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.” Early in his career, before he became America’s second most popular sports icon next to Babe Ruth, a money-starved Dempsey would fight every chance he could in order to put food in his mouth. Whether it was in sanctioned fights, in back-room bar brawls or on the streets, Dempsey would challenge everybody, rarely losing. Demspey would have been a light heavyweight in today’s MMA today, and he likely would have made a name for himself in the sport. His brazen toughness, ruthless punching power and wrestling and judo experience would have paid dividends for “Kid Blackie” in the cage.
Muhammad Ali: Ali was sensational; that part we already know. His 6-foot-3 heavyweight frame harnessed blinding speed, cat-like agility and bat-like reflexes. He could punch while backing up, threw combos before you could even blink, had one of the sturdiest chins in the history of boxing and could talk as much trash as anybody. When he was called Cassius Clay, he was even better. No heavyweight before or since moved in the ring quite like Ali in his prime and none kept such perfect distance. He was masterful at every aspect of the game, and it would have been terrific to see him try his hand at MMA. Naturally, without any real training on the ground, Ali would have been in a heap of trouble if taken off his feet. While he lacked skills in terms of fighting from his his back, he was fleet-footed enough to suggest that it might have been a challenge to get close enough to grab his legs and not get hit with a few punches you never saw coming. Gifted athletes can usually transition from one sport to another with enough training. Ali was no different. Clearly one of the greatest athletes to ever lace up a pair of gloves, Ali would have transitioned well into MMA, provided he committed himself to the sport. For anybody to stand even a hint of a chance against him, they would have to drag him to the ground. No big man moved quite like Ali, which would immediately give him an edge inside the cage. He would be able to give himself ample room to prevent at least a takedown or two, and that would likely spell disaster for an MMA combatant.
Roberto Duran: Duran was an absolute monster in his prime. Arguably the greatest lightweight to ever compete, he was that rare breed of fighter who enjoyed hurting his opponents. It did not matter if you were a friend or foe, Duran would train himself to literally despise any man who gloved up to face him. He dug ferocious hooks to the body, peppered faces with jabs and ripped into opponents with his crosses and hooks. Duran was about as mean as they come, and when he was at his best, he was nearly impossible to beat. However, what made “Manos de Peidra” so fun to watch was that he was a dirty fighter. It did not matter if he needed to catch a break for a few moments by fouling someone or not, Duran would resort to all sorts of underhanded tactics. He would elbow inside the clinch, dig hooks to the kidneys, throw in a head butt for good measure or rub his laces across his adversary’s face. He rarely got caught for his infractions because he was crafty at masking his fouls. Just imagine if he was able to throw those elbows legally. Duran grew up in one of the poorest parts of Panama and literally had to fight for survival. He had a nasty streak that ran deep within his soul and relished the notion of taking out all of that pent-up anger and frustration on everybody. Yes, he was a smaller man, so he would likely have competed in MMA’s bantamweight or featherweight divisions, but chances are he would have been able to hang with many MMA fighters.
Kermit Cintron: The slugger who used to dye the Puerto Rican flag into his hair was 100-percent serious about doing MMA a few years back. When pound-for-pound great Floyd Mayweather Jr. called out the UFC fighters and then balked at a possible crossover fight, Cintron stepped up and begged the UFC to sign him. He was ready to climb into the cage and fight the best at 155 pounds, but sadly, it never happened. If Cintron would have had the opportunity to compete in MMA when he first got into boxing, he would have torn most of the lower weight divisions asunder. Though Cintron never quite lived up the hype surrounding him when he burst onto the fistic scene by knocking out almost every single opponent he faced, he would have been a top contender in MMA. Cintron wrestled in high school, and his accomplishments in that sport allowed him to compete at a respectable level in college. No, he was not an NCAA All-American, but he was good enough on the mat to hold his own. Couple that with a ferocious banging style that gave birth to dozens of highlight-reel knockouts, and what we have is a dynamic combination that would have given MMA contenders all sorts of trouble.
O’Neil Bell: The man once labeled “Give ’Em Hell” let his pugilistic skills erode during his heyday, thus stunting what could have been one heck of a career. Still, when “Supernova” was at the top of his game, the former undisputed cruiserweight world champion took out everybody. He only had 27 wins, but 25 of them came via knockout. Needless to say, when Bell hit you clean, you were put to sleep. What made Bell so intriguing is that even when he was ruling the 190-pound division, it was not well-known that he had a solid wrestling career. Bell had wrestled throughout his early days, winning a state championship in 1994. It has been said that he was an elite-level wrestler back then, but the facts are spotty at best. Still, Bell was an extremely strong and powerful fighter who could end a fight with a single shot. Combining those skills with a solid enough wrestling base to support his fistic fortitude, Bell could have definitely left many an MMA contender in a heap.
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