Mixed martial arts and boxing have always been cousins with a weird relationship. Joe Rogan and Lou Dibella once famously argued on ESPN about the merits of both. We’ve had some interesting crossover, most notably the James Toney debacle and the much more legitimate Holly Holm, who just claimed UFC gold with a stunning win over Ronda Rousey.
Some boxers, including Floyd Mayweather, Jr., hate MMA. Others, such as Oscar De La Hoya, love it. Some MMA fighters have working relationships with those in the boxing world. Georges St-Pierre has trained with Freddie Roach, and Cub Swanson trains with Timothy Bradley, Jr. There is so much cross-pollination between the two forms of combat sports that we figured we’d draw some comparisons of MMA fighters and their boxing counterparts.
The term “golden boy” links these two fighters. St-Pierre was a champion who fought everybody. He was extremely popular and his name translated to money in the bank when it came to pay-per-view buys. GSP consistently was in the 500,000-750,000 buy range. The UFC could have gotten 400,000 buys from fans just to watch him fight a cold. De La Hoya was the same way. He was the bridge, in terms of pay-per-view, between Mike Tyson and Mayweather. He was the box-office draw for years. De La Hoya also fought everyone and, unlike some fighters, he got their best. He fought most of his opponents in their prime. The major difference between St-Pierre and De La Hoya is that GSP knew when to walk away.
Gatti is the most exciting fighter of all time. It’s an opinion, for sure, but one that is tough to argue. Jim Lampley said of Gatti, “It wasn’t whether he won or lost. It was how he fought that mattered.” His fights with Mickey Ward are so legendary that they almost are unnecessary to mention because they are so front of mind. Gatti was called “the blood and guts warrior,” and he went into every ring set to prove it. It wasn’t about titles (he held them) or money (he made plenty of it). Instead, it was about the unspoken agreement he made with the public of what he felt he owed them and how he innately was built to fight. The same can be said of Gaethje. He is going to trade with opponents. That’s the bottom line, and he likes his chances in those exchanges. So far, it’s for good reason. While it would be the combat-sports equivalent of blasphemy to say Gaethje-Palomino I and II were every bit the fights that the Gatti-Ward trilogy were, they were still damn good, and probably the best in World Series of Fighting history. Gaethje’s performances in both probably would have gotten Gatti out of his chair.
Cormier and Frazier have a lot in common. Their attempts at title runs were affected and ultimately overshadowed by perhaps the greatest fighters of all time in their sport. Frazier had everything thrown at him by Muhammad Ali in and out of the ring. At times, there was real hatred between the two men. But ultimately they needed each other and became the benchmark to define a true rivalry, so much so that when a champion is dominant, the question then comes up asking who the Joe Frazier is for the champ. While Cormier is not the one who pushed Jon Jones the farthest — that honor goes to Alexander Gustafsson — Cormier did push Jones enough to show himself as an able adversary. Cormier won the title after Jones had been stripped of it, just as Frazier did after Ali was stripped of his belt. Also, Cormier, like Frazier with Ali, will always be viewed through the Jones lens. His accomplishments will mean nothing if he never beats Jones. Cormier will forever be in his shadow otherwise. Frazier beat Ali in the first fight and no one remembers because Ali was “The Greatest” and won the other two meetings. Another similarity that is a byproduct of everything that has already been mentioned is that Cormier, and Frazier before him, seem to be on a quest for respectability for what they have done. They tout themselves in a way that fans don’t agree with. Frazier’s win didn’t endear him to fans, and neither has Cormier winning the title and defending it against Gustafsson, the man many feel defeated Jones.
This may be the easiest of all. These two fighters, who are friends and have knocked the idea around for years of fighting each other, conduct themselves very similarly in the ring. They both have been known to embarrass opponents and play to the crowd. There is a showmanship within each that only a few rare athletes have both the skills and guts to try to attempt. Very rarely are moments too big for either of these fighters. They both possess the type of power to end fights with one strike and have maintained the power even when switching weights. Both also had their runs of dominance effectively ended by a couple of young lions that they could just never figure out. For Silva, it was Chris Weidman. For Jones, it was Antonio Tarver. Jones beat Tarver once, but Tarver knocked him out and then beat him again in the rubber match. Both Silva and Jones in their primes came to the arena with a swagger that had opponents more worried about not getting embarrassed than about winning.
I get the Muhammad Ali comparison. It’s wishful thinking at best, but it does make some sense. However, McGregor aligns better with “Money” Mayweather. It’s not McGregor’s greatness that is his most telling quality (at least not yet). Instead, it’s his ability to control the narrative. Mayweather is the best promoter in the history of combat sports. He had a proven track record of disappointing fights, yet he was still able to weave that into fans having a desire to watch him fight. This has largely been a case of fans wanting to see him get beat up, but they never got paid off on that wish. In the same way, McGregor is very polarizing. He is either loved or hated, but everyone has an opinion and they come to the arena or the TV looking for him to kick some ass or get his ass kicked. They also share a preoccupation with money and presenting themselves as being apart from the masses based on their riches. It’s not just that they are making money, but that they are the reason the promotion and the other fighter are making money. They know it and they make damn sure their employer and adversary know it too. Which leads us to the final parallel: They dictate terms. No one tells UFC President Dana White what’s up, but McGregor does. McGregor says what arenas he wants to fight in and on what days. He makes a fuss about the Reebok deal and his belt being called interim. He knows he can do all this because the needle moves when he says these things. The same is true of Mayweather. Good luck getting to pick where you fight if you’re Mayweather’s opponent. Or in what size ring. Or even what gloves you are going to wear. If you want to fight Mayweather, you did it on his terms or he will find someone that will. Mayweather beat the game, so badly in fact that he ran it. McGregor’s not quite there yet, but stayed tuned.
Let’s start with the obvious: The age thing. Both of these guys had a lot of big fights after they turned 40. Hopkins is still going and has a path to big fights if he wants them (Gennady Golovkin, anyone?). The more impressive thing about these two guys, though, is their ability to evolve. Fighting the type of diversity in fighters that they did is not possible without evolution. One of the most impressive performances in MMA history came when Couture took Tim Sylvia apart in a UFC heavyweight title bout. When history looks back at these two fighters, Couture will be the more decorated and admired fighter, but Sylvia was in or near his prime at the time and Couture out-struck him. Sylvia was the bigger man, but Couture did it with head movement. Hopkins fought Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Kelly Pavlik. He had speed disadvantages to all of them and yet figured out the puzzle of each and broke them down. Which leads us to what made these fighters similar in their primes. They set the pace. Hopkins did it with defense and Couture did it with wrestling. They determined where and at what speed the fight was going to take place. Hopkins is now 50 and Couture is 52, but I would like to see each of them fight once in their 50s just to see what type of a game plan they would bring to a contest, because it’s hard to see either of them go in there and embarrass themselves.