Opinion: The Dueling Insecurities of Boxing and MMA

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Few conflicts are as inevitable or as stupid as generational ones.

Without exception, every generation has bemoaned the one that follows. Kids these days are addicted to their phones; the kids before them had their egos overstuffed by participation trophies; the kids before them were rotting their brains with TV and video games; with the kids before them, it was all that darned rock and roll music; the kids before them ... you get it. Yet somehow, despite all these oh-so-serious problems with the youth and the even more serious fist shaking, the cranky folks yelling at generational passersby to get off their lawn have only ever been addressing the next group to take their spot on the porch.

There’s a flipside to that, of course. Older generations are not the only guilty parties when it comes to broad dumb accusations. Young people are frequently guilty of dismissing the wisdom of life experience, eagerly substituting it for Google voyages and Netflix documentaries. The abundance of information available to people and the 24/7 access to it make it easy for anyone to feign expertise about anything and everything, and unlike true expertise, the fake kind is often immune to listening.

These aren’t terribly difficult challenges to overcome -- all you really need to do is attempt to understand where the other is coming from -- but these differences and generalizations are so deeply entrenched that it’s hard to uproot them and give genuine empathy a chance to occur. The upcoming Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor boxing match has unearthed a similar mindset, much of it stemming from similar generational disparities.

To my mind, this is the most interesting aspect of the fight. The most embarrassing error the combat sports world has been making is treating the match as an actual fight. It’s not. It’s a money-fueled exhibition between an all-time talent who was born into a championship-caliber boxing family and someone who tried boxing for a few years as a kid before becoming a well-rounded and phenomenal mixed martial artist. Mayweather has been learning and refining his craft for longer than McGregor has been alive. Or to paraphrase Dave Chappelle: While Mayweather trains for this fight, McGregor will be learning how to box.

However, UFC President Dana White last week posted two videos for a combined 24 seconds of sparring footage showing McGregor get the better of retired boxing champion Paulie Malignaggi. For the pro-McGregor crowd, it was all the proof they never needed to validate their beliefs that the Irishman could hang with the best boxers in the world. For the pro-boxing crowd, it was evidence of a grand collusion. Both are delusional.

I’m not going to argue whether Malignaggi was pushed down or knocked down, because it doesn’t matter either way. What matters is how little those clips prove. Math can be a nuisance, but 24 seconds is only one percent of the 36 minutes of total sparring. Those 24 seconds don’t mean anything more than McGregor having a good 24 seconds. Sure, we can extrapolate that McGregor probably had more seconds of success than just those two clips, but we have no way of knowing how the entirety of that sparring session looked. We don’t even know if McGregor would have been considered the winner if judges were scoring the sparring session. Not to mention, there’s a big difference between sparring and the real thing. This is to say nothing of the kind of boxer Malignaggi is or was -- one who would have never had a chance to hang with Mayweather on his best day, let alone as a past-his-prime retiree. We could also get into the weeds about how Mayweather’s style of boxing is not at all like Malignaggi’s and how Mayweather is the worst possible matchup for an aggressive pressure fighter like McGregor. You get the point.

The delusion didn’t just fall on the MMA fanbase, though. As if compelled by a mystic force to defend the sanctity of the Sweet Science, boxing fans and writers began speculating en masse that this must have been a work. There was a palpable sense of denial about the fact that McGregor -- a man who punches people for a living -- could land a punch on Malignaggi. The natural conclusion was then to say that Malignaggi was somehow in on the scheme to hype McGregor’s chances. It’s an absurd rationalization. It’s one thing to point out McGregor’s very real boxing deficiencies, but the idea that he’s not capable of landing some good shots across 12 rounds of sparring, as if he’s some helplessly uncoordinated fish-out-of-water in combat situations, reeks of insecurity.

Boxing folks have been able to hold their noses high when it comes to MMA for a while now since the two sports have rarely overlapped. Even when James Toney, a fierce and menacing boxing champion across several weight classes got effortlessly dealt with by Randy Couture, the denial persisted. Boxing has existed for centuries as the premier combat sport, with boxing champions earning the dubious reputation as the baddest men on the planet. Mostly, this was never questioned because kickboxing never gained much footing in America, and America is the biggest, most important sports market in the world. With MMA, however, that notion has become increasingly less believable. In a competition that isn’t limited to just throwing hands -- otherwise known as “a fight” -- there would be few boxing champions who would make it to the final bell against a mixed martial artist and even fewer who could actually win. Psychologically, MMA has surpassed and replaced boxing.

There is, as always, another side of the equation. The insecurity and envy of MMA fans with regards to boxing has been equally painful to witness. Boxing occupies a place in popular culture that MMA frankly never will. Boxing has a storied legacy, a history. It gave birth to countless terms that pervade all aspects of society from politics to the arts -- “down for the count,” “on the ropes,” “to pick yourself off the canvas,” among countless others. The closest original contribution to popular culture that MMA has made, other than a ton of terrible movies, is “tap out,” but don’t hold your breath to see that one stick outside of MMA fans. Boxing is culturally entrenched even as its popularity has waned, and it has had real social influence outside of the ring. The social and historical importance of figures like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali cannot exist in MMA. Boxing is both balletic and brutal, a balance of savagery and poetry that the fusion of combat techniques found in MMA renders impossible. In order for MMA to truly replace boxing, the Sweet Science will have to completely disappear, and even then, it would take another hundred years of MMA’s existence for that argument to become debatable.

Boxing fans who believe wholeheartedly that McGregor is incapable of landing a punch will have to reconcile themselves with the fact that he knows how to fight, even if it’s not in the way they recognize. Fans of MMA who think that boxing is a dead sport will have to reconcile themselves with the fact that the sport’s biggest star is going to the so-called “dead sport” to make more money in a single night than he -- or any other MMA fighter -- has made in his entire career.

It’s weird to see these competing insecurities go at it so narrow-mindedly and so vehemently. It is possible, even preferable, to love both sports. There are some similarities between the two, but the unique wrinkles they offer are much more fascinating. The nuances can and should be enjoyed, and all it will take for respective purists to do so is to openly try to engage with the other side, to make an earnest attempt to see the appeal of the other sport. Unfortunately, the Mayweather-McGregor match is not such an opportunity. It’s not a fight, and it only technically qualifies as a legitimate boxing match. It’s a brilliant advertising campaign, a monumental sports spectacle. We should stop treating it like it’s anything else.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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