MMA Fighters & Boxing Counterparts: Part 1

Vitor Belfort & Royce Gracie

By Jason Probst Oct 8, 2008
Dave Mandel/

Like Wilfred Benitez, Vitor
Belfort (above right) was a
teen-aged phenom.
Vitor Belfort = Wilfred Benitez

A world champion at 17, Benitez’s skills were both marvelous and woefully underserved due to his lack of focus. When he was on, he was a thing of beauty to watch. His combination of reflexes, timing and impeccable radar made him capable of slipping shots by scant inches and dazzling you with speedy counterpunches. Outpointing the capable Antonio Cervantes to win his title, Benitez made two defenses and then moved up to easily decision the tough Carlos Palomino. After another defense, he faced Sugar Ray Leonard, losing by stoppage in the 15th round of a tactical, taxing bout that will forever stand as a two-way technical masterpiece. Amazingly, Benitez trained just six days for the Leonard bout.

Benitez was hot-and-cold following that loss, as he easily decisioned Robert Duran, lost a close distance bout against Tommy Hearns and eventually turned into a trial horse as his gifts faded. The jury is still out on the “new” Belfort, but in his 185-pound debut against Terry Martin at the Affliction premiere in July, he showed enough of his vintage self to be considered one of the world’s better middleweights. Like Benitez, Belfort was a teen-aged phenom and has physical gifts that cannot be taught. It’s just a matter of whether or not he can apply them in a fight.

Royce Gracie = Jim Corbett

Nobody gave “Gentleman” Jim Corbett much of a chance going into his 1892 showdown against John L. Sullivan. The bout was the first recognized match to establish the world’s heavyweight champion, and the “Boston Strong Boy” was a feared battler with a record of 38-0-1. He had nearly a 20-pound advantage to boot.

But Corbett had an entirely different approach to boxing, far removed from the bare-knuckle style Corbett dominated. He used a series of technical innovations -- including feints, footwork and counterpunching -- and a consistent jab to set up smart combinations. The end result was Sullivan losing by knockout in the 21st round. The world of boxing was never the same, as Corbett formally ushered in the era of the Sweet Science.

The fight was also one of the first major boxing matches to be contested with gloves. Corbett knew these would give him an advantage; Sullivan did not care.

Gracie’s innovations in UFCs 1-4 proved every bit as important to the public perception of MMA. Undersized and scientific, his Brazilian jiu-jitsu prowess helped reshape the martial arts landscape and demonstrated what worked and what did not. Like Gracie, Corbett had some long bouts -- he once went 61 rounds in a draw against the incomparable Peter Jackson.

In both cases, fighters came along using the techniques each applied, with greater size and athleticism. Both were seminal pioneers in their respective sports.

Tom Erikson = Harry Wills

A feared super heavyweight in Japan during the 1990s, Tom “Big Cat” Erikson was 280 pounds of pure wrestling fury, punctuated by effective ground-and-pound. His savage knockout of Kevin Randleman in 1997 remains one of the more brutal ever seen in MMA. It was hard for Erikson to find fights, despite his skills or, more accurately, because of them. And even when he won, it was in Japan, so his stateside exposure was virtually non-existent. Nobody wanted to match up with an athletic guy his size for the paltry money involved. Erikson fought just 14 times in an 11-year career, retiring with a ledger of 9-4-1; three of those defeats came well past his prime.

If Wills were alive today, he could certainly relate. One of the great black heavyweights of the early 20th century, he was super-sized at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and combined speed with numbing power. If Erikson carries toiling in Japan as the albatross around his career’s neck, Wills was stuck in the parallel universe of having to fight other top black heavies who could not get a title shot, either. He battled in numerous fights with all of them, including Sam Langford (15 times), Sam McVey (four) and Joe Jeannette. Born in 1889, Wills was refused a title shot by Jack Dempsey in the early 1920s, as Dempsey’s manager, Doc Kearns, drew the color line.

Both men brought the right skills to the wrong era.
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