Combat Sports Need Not Be a Shakespearean Tragedy

Part 1 of a look at the adversarial relationship between combat sports communities

If you have an eighth-grade education you’ve likely read sections of at least one of the Bards famous works. The story of Romeo and Juliet is often held up as THE romantic tale of doomed young love when it’s really a satire of the genre, or at least I think so. But I’m sure you’re not here for a half-assed English lesson: you’re here to read about mixed martial arts. MMA is often hyped as the fasted growing sport in the world or even the most exciting sport in the world by its promoters, including the UFC’s president Dana White.

I bring up William Shakespeare’s infamous tragedy because like the feud of the Capulet and Montague families (or Hatfield and McCoy if you don’t like 450-year-old British plays), the rivalry between combat sports is fated to end badly and helps none of the parties involved.

Well known MMA media contributor and XM radio host Luke Thomas said a while back that there is limited cross pollination between the fans of mixed martial arts and boxing; that the worlds don’t mix. Considering how much boxing is a part of MMA technique, it just seems odd how often these sports and their communities act like water and oil, often clashing with no real reason. The recent announcement and extensive media coverage of Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather’s boxing match has only intensified the feud between MMA and boxing.

The rivalry with boxing is especially odd because MMA has positive relationships with so many other combat sports communities.

MMA has deep ties to and appreciates professional kickboxing and Muay Thai. There have been notable crossovers with great and not so great success for athletes competing in both sports. Dustin Jacoby is an MMA fighter who has had recent albeit mixed success in Glory. Mirko Filipovic, Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem, Tiffany Van Soest (though her MMA career isn’t off to a good start) are all fighters who have competed at the high level in both. Every one of those four have held legitimate titles from tournaments or recognized championships in one or the other, sometimes both.

More of an Eastern European sport; sambo is also appreciated by most MMA fans if not followed very closely. Many popular fighters have an extensive background in the system including top lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski and arguably the best heavyweight of all time Fedor Emelianenko.

Karate, Taekwondo, Sanda/Sanshou sometimes get dismissed even by MMA fans, due to old prejudices against “traditional martial arts” not working well in early MMA events. But fighters like former UFC champion Lyoto Machida, top welterweight Stephen Thompson, former Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le, and former UFC champion Anthony Pettis have helped show that if used effectively, the techniques of these sports/styles can be devastating in MMA.

Though 2008 Olympic bronze medal winner Ronda Rousey is likely the most famous judoka to compete in MMA; Karo Parisyan, Dong Hyun Kim, Satoshi Ishii and others came long before her. Current UFC champion Amanda Nunes is a brown belt in the discipline and two time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison will likely make her professional debut sometime in 2018; so it’s likely that sport will continue to be represented for years to come in MMA.

Collegiate, freestyle, Greco-Roman, Olympic style wrestling was at one point the biggest determining factor in a fighter’s success at a high level. Even now some say that it is the single most dominant and important discipline one can have in their arsenal. Multiple Olympic team members and medalists, NCAA champions, world and European wrestling champions have competed in MMA, with scores of world titles between them. There is no need to list any names, if you’re reading this you already know.

Many MMA fans also follow the Brazilian Jujitsu circuit, especially when a well-known MMA fighter is competing or the name Gracie pops up. The grappling is so interconnected and important to the sport that even casual MMA fans understand the importance of high-level accolades and accomplishments in both gi and no-gi Brazilian Jujitsu. Much like wrestling, listing off names here would be pointless.

Besides a few elitists here and there, like the French Judo Federation threatening to ban any coaches who teach MMA out of their schools, most of the martial arts world seems to get along with and even work with the MMA community.

The boxing community can be incredibly antagonistic; from the hardcore fans to media, promoters and the athletes themselves, they are routinely dismissive; condescendingly calling MMA athletes “guys who couldn’t make it as boxers.” Many ignore the accomplishments of the high-level fighters, with barely a thought to what they may be, even when they dwarf the accomplishments of many pro boxers. A famous boxing promoter recently said the “UFC sells bar fights,” and many in the community label the sport sloppy brawls. A boxing fan recently told me that they wished certain MMA athletes had chosen boxing instead of “mingling” with MMA fighters.

There are plenty of exceptions to these examples, with many boxing coaches and athletes growing more welcoming of MMA fighters in recent years, though a few backhanded comments still seem to slip through all the same.

Where does this attitude come from? Is boxing this antagonistic with other combat sports? Is it defensive posturing due to MMA’s popularity or heaven forbid because so many in the media have labeled boxing a dying sport, touting the superiority of MMA in the face of the boxing community? Is it possible to mend the relationship before somehow, some way the two sports destroy each other?

I appreciate the read; I will be delving into the contentious relationships between sports and their communities further with the next part of this article. Please feel free to contact me on twitter @wolfmanwalter13

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MMA fan for more than a decade. Had a short amateur career from 2010 to 2012.