U.K. Boxing Community Talks MMA

Jul 12, 2008
From flyweight terror Jimmy Wilde back in the early 1900s, through the golden era of the 50s when Randy Turpin briefly ruled the world, to today's current stars like Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton, it's an undeniable fact that Britain has consistently produced household names and sporting heroes in the sport of boxing.

Despite the sport's ups and downs, not to mention sometimes-wavering credibility, boxing has remained comfortable in a relatively unchallenged niche. Indeed, the "sweet science of bruising" has been the established combat sport on the British Isles for decade upon decade.

But it's no longer alone. Recently, MMA has quickly risen from little more than an unruly terrier snapping its heels to a serious and rapidly growing sporting entity that's surging in popularity, selling out big arenas, making sporting headlines and now teetering on the edge of the mainstream. Is it a threat to boxing, a fad or simply just another sport?

Sherdog.com spoke with some well-known British boxing figures to find out their thoughts on the United Kingdom's latest sporting phenomenon.

"Perception might very well be age related," says respected boxing journalist and britishboxing.net editor Ian McNeilly. "Relative old-timers -- and as boxing is a young man's sport, I mean anyone over 30 -- tend, in general, to have a negative view of MMA, whereas the younger audience can be more open-minded and accepting."

Dazzling submissions and beautifully executed takedowns may provide wonderful eye candy to connoisseurs of MMA who recognize the skill involved. But what if you're a lifelong boxing fan and your first glimpse of MMA is a suffocating 15-minute horror show of Randy Couture (Pictures) repeatedly taking down a bleeding Vitor Belfort (Pictures) and elbowing him in the face, or worse again, Joe Stevenson turning the canvas into a crimson mess with a badly hemorrhaging Yves Edwards (Pictures)?

"It's rather brutal for my pallet," continues McNeilly. "The boxing skills of MMA fighters are usually appalling too. I don't think it's as artistic or aesthetically pleasing as boxing. My general negativity isn't helped by my ignorance, though. Promotionally, I think it's outstanding and can teach boxing more than a thing or two, but most people I know just call it 'cage fighting,' if I'm honest with you. Some think UFC is a sport."

Frank Maloney, the man responsible for steering Lennox Lewis to the heavyweight title, is one of the U.K.'s leading fight figures. He's of a similar opinion.

"I read about it sometimes and have a look if it's on TV, and [promotionally] we do look at it," he says. "But to be honest, I can't get too excited by it. I think you'll find [in the U.K.] MMA attracts boxers at the end of their career. It lacks proper organizational structure, and there's too many pirate outfits operating. I think boxing is the truest and purest of all the combat sports. I see judo, karate as sports, but not MMA. It seems to me to be like modern-day gladiator fighting."

Despite MMA's growing popularity and ever-increasing coverage, it seems the sport still represents something of a leap of faith for traditional boxing people. Mark Bateson is a popular, respected boxing manager and trainer. He also regularly promotes sellout professional shows in his home city of Leeds.

"MMA -- what's that? I know the sport as ‘cage fighting,' to be honest," says Bateson. "But I think it's OK. It's actually taking over boxing in a fashion. Some of the young lads are moving away from boxing to give it a try -- even Butterbean's been doing it!"

Does Bateson see MMA as a threat to boxing ticket sales?

"Quite possibly," he acknowledges. "If there's an MMA event on the same sort of time as one of my shows, that could possibly affect the numbers.

"My friend Dave Mangon promotes cage shows in Doncaster, and they always sell out. My main problem with it is the lack of consistency. From what I know, there's very few long-running champions in MMA. Everyone seems to lose their titles quickly, and almost everybody's been beaten at some stage. It seems to me that you get a guy good enough at any one thing, like Royce Gracie (Pictures) for example, they'll just take the fight where they want it and win. In a way, it's another form of street fighting."

British Boxing Board of Control Secretary Simon Block is in similar accord to McNeilly, Bateson and Maloney.

"The board's position on this and similar sports may be as relevant as our position on golf or cricket," Block says with a laugh. "I'm a great admirer of the former Nevada state athletic commissioner Marc Ratner, and recently I attended the UFC show at the 02 Arena in London as a guest of Marc. … As for my personal opinion, commenting on it would be rather like Brian Barwick [chief executive of the Football Association] talking about rugby!"

So how did Mr. Block rate the overall experience at UFC 85?

"All I can say is it's not my sport, but some of our people were there, such as doctors, medical staff," he says. "I did have one observation: There were 12,000 [actually more than 13,000] in attendance. I've seen similar numbers for boxers like Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton. This is just a general observation based on a quick glance around, but there seemed to be a greater number of women and a different mix of people than you can expect to see at a boxing show."

The issue of fighter safety is at the top of the Board of Control's agenda. They take a dim view of a licensee -- be it a boxer, trainer, promoter or second -- having any involvement in an unsanctioned boxing event.

For most, it would be a considerable stretch of the imagination to compare a UFC event with an unlicensed boxing show. But to the British Boxing Board of Control, MMA is technically just that -- an unlicensed combat event. However, board policy on a boxing license holder's participation in MMA at least indicates recognition of MMA's legitimacy in terms of fighter safety.

"We wouldn't penalize one of our members for involvement in an MMA event," Block says. "That has no real interest to us on anything other than medical grounds of an injured athlete [who may also box regularly] of course."

Everyone seems to agree that a U.K.-based independent sanctioning body would be a huge step forward to further legitimize the sport in Britain and Ireland. Could the British Boxing Board of Control be the organization to take on that mantle?

"Not in the foreseeable future," Mr. Block tells Sherdog.com. "Remember that the British Boxing Board of Control was formed about 80 years ago because people working in the sport recognized that boxing needed an independent regulatory authority. The likes of UFC and Cage Rage are a business, rival promoters running an enterprise, and anyone that works with them is part of that business. With boxing we license our managers, promoters and boxers. And until those who work in the business of MMA get together and do what people in boxing did many decades ago, that status won't change."

Mr. Block raised a further point by highlighting an interesting, and potentially worrying, gray area that could affect MMA's status in the U.K.

"Even with permission, you're not allowed to assault someone," he says. "For example, even if someone paid a lady dressed in leather to inflict pain, that's still assault. It's seen as a breach of the peace.

"The reason why boxing is not a criminal offense is because it has clearly defined laws. To my knowledge, [MMA] has not had a court case due to an injured fighter, so it's unclear what the legal position of these types of events are [in the U.K.]. So if someone is injured or killed in one of these promotions, [legally speaking] that may bring its status into question."

It seems that while boxing and MMA will always be similar yet different, there's ample room for fans and detractors of each -- and room for those of us in the middle. While MMA is undoubtedly growing, boxing, as Maloney points out, has rich tradition on its side.

"Boxing is like football," Maloney says. "It has history and has been around forever. I can't imagine a world without boxing. I can easily conceive of one without MMA."

From an albeit limited consensus, it seems the British boxing barometer on MMA is set somewhere between disdain and moderate interest, rudimentary knowledge to perhaps a lack of genuine understanding, acknowledgment and indifference. The latter part of that statement is best summed up by McNeilly.

"Most boxing folk acknowledge its success but fall back on boxing's longevity, even in these days of political correctness descending into farce," McNeilly says. "MMA is a foreign land to most of them -- and not one they want to visit."
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