MMA Fighters & Boxing Counterparts: Part 4

By Jason Probst Feb 24, 2010
As mixed martial arts heads into the latter half of its second decade of worldwide exposure, the legacies of the sport’s pioneers are easily forgotten. Today’s athletes build upon a hard-learned template of preparation, technical refinement and know-how, elements largely built from scratch.

Put in some fights from even five years ago and observe the process of tactics and how matches unfold -- at times it seems like a different sport. No phenomenon changes so much as one that goes from being a niche attraction to a worldwide phenomenon, with the sum total of human knowledge rapidly accelerating how participants approach it.

Boxing has many parallels with MMA, particularly during the vital pre-WWII era, where the pioneers of the sport helped forge the way. Whether it was in their public persona, fighting style or approach to competition, the sweet science and MMA both benefitted from the earliest pioneers, whose achievements and approach to both sports mirror one another.

In our continuing series, here’s a closer look at some of those similar figures in MMA and the historical boxing figures they best resemble.

Dan Severn: John L. Sullivan

Larger than life, with a thirst for it to match, the great John L. is universally recognized as the first heavyweight champion and perhaps the most famous off all bare-knucklers. As much an icon of late 19th-century America as boxing itself, Sullivan’s physicality and imposing style were underscored by a gameness that few could match -- witness his memorable 75-round battle with Jake Kilrain.

When Dan Severn materialized at UFC 4, the timing couldn’t have been better. As a powerful wrestler with a 260-pound frame and imposing quickness, Severn showed how important a wrestling base could be. Like Sullivan’s bare-knuckle, near-death experience with Kilrain in the Mississippi heat, Severn’s 15-minute battle with Royce Gracie was a riveting thing to watch. In an era with no stand-ups or rounds, their climactic struggle culminated with Gracie’s science prevailing -- but only after one hell of a struggle. Like Sullivan, Severn embodied the natural advantages of a physical style -- he just never seemed to refine his technical game to the point where he could adapt to a changing sport.

Fighting into his 50s, Severn’s best days have been behind him for some time, but every wrestler in the sport today owes him a thank-you for representing what many believe is the best core discipline in the game.

Plus, both John L. and Severn rocked an awesome moustache -- which is 10 kinds of awesome.

Igor Vovchanchyn: Joe Jeannette

As the original sprawl-and-brawl stylist, Vovchanchyn was years ahead of his time. He packed considerable power, to boot. His violent dissections of opponents overshadowed his considerable skills -- but from a technical perspective, he did things that basically opened up new areas and methods to strike. Whether it was a violent upkick at an opponent coming down at him, a thumping elbow to the head while fighting off a takedown or his trademark bombs landed in standup exchanges, Vovchanchyn’s ability to beat you a million different ways had no equal in his prime.

Given the circumstances of his career and the timeline of the sport’s explosion, Igor was a star in the Pride organization yet remains largely unknown by today’s casual fan. But his contributions to the sport were considerable. Vovchanchyn showed that you could be a strike-first fighter, as long as you had the takedown defense. His offensive mindset helped pull the sport back from a ground-heavy approach, paving the way for the integrated style we know as MMA today.

Joe Jeannette was another great fighter with a timing problem: He came along in the early 20th century along with several other great black heavyweights. With the champions of the time drawing a “color line,” Jeannette, a marvelously gifted fighter with power in both hands and technical acumen galore, was forced to fight numerous black contemporaries, many on multiple occasions. These included stalwarts such as Jack Johnson, Sam Langford (15 times), Sam McVey and Harry Wills. If he’d come along in a different era instead of 1904-1922, history surely would be a little different. The same can be said of Igor’s decline right when MMA started to explode.

Jeremy Horn: Tommy Loughran

One of the great light-heavies of the 1920s, Loughran epitomized refinement, technical know-how and thinking on your feet. The slick boxer would spend hours watching himself in mirrors, studying the placement of his hands and feet and fine-tuning every move until it was second nature. There wasn’t a lot of flash or knockout machismo in Loughran’s approach. He just picked apart your ever flaw and made you pay for the smallest mistakes -- things few other fighters could capitalize on.

Largely forgotten outside of boxing historians, Loughran helped advance the pure boxer template that later saw Willie Pep and other high-minded technicians improve upon. He also was exceptionally effective against heavies despite his lack of strength and size, including future champs Jim Braddock and Max Baer. Loughran also lost a decision in a title shot against behemoth Primo Carnera, but even then, he was unique in his approach. Knowing Carnera would throw his 260 pounds of bulk on him in the clinches, before the bout he smeared his hair in a foul-smelling grease that kept Carnera from staying in close.

If Jeremy Horn had been an old-time boxer, that’s exactly what he would’ve done. Horn’s the best example in early MMA of integrated disciplines flowing seamlessly into one another. While most of his contemporaries had a seeming stop-start button while transitioning between grappling, striking and positional moves, Horn’s game was wonderfully advanced for its time. Many moves you see today -- such as the cross-mount palm-elbow to the face -- were moves he popularized and shared with teammates like Matt Hughes.

Horn was also an incredibly active fighter -- much like Loughran, who had 174 bouts and boxed 1,280 rounds -- with well over 100 bouts, yet he’s only been knocked out twice and submitted eight times (according to our records at Sherdog -- the likes of Horn and his exact record remain forever unquantifiable).

Horn never held a major championship, but his vast experience and tactical fighting brain made him a walking dictionary for what did and didn’t work in the sport. On that alone, he’s a champion like none the sport has ever seen.

More in This Series » Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3

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