Power Punching: Boxing for MMA
In the early 19th century, the world’s first star sports writer, Pierce Egan, called boxing “the sweet science of bruising”. It was a century-old sport that was a major, if illicit, part of English sporting life along with horse racing, cockfighting and cricket. The English prize ring was the crucible of early combat sports, and while other martial arts are older, “the art of manual defence” is the precursor to modern ring sports.
Boxing, like wrestling, has been a part of human life since the dawn of civilisation. Almost all ancient cultures practiced a form of fighting with the hands, with the Indians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans all enjoying the spectacle. The sport really came into its own in 18th century England after centuries of lying dormant, with the English boxers ditching the ancient leather hand bindings and fighting with their bare hands.
The early English prize ring was a brutal place, but if we were able to travel back in time, what we would witness would not be too different from what happens in the octagon today. Aside from ground fighting, almost anything was allowed, including fighting in the clinch, standup grappling, throws, chokes and even leg kicks.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, the sport began another evolution. Aside from the introduction of the Queensberry Rules, first in amateur, then in professional, two influential characters set boxing on a path to the modern era.
Norfolk-born Champion of England and America, “Gypsy” Jem Mace, a prolific man, retired into a coaching career that saw him training the great fighters of the turn of the 20th century. These fighters all took on Mace’s style of fighting, including the first three division World Champion Bob Fitzsimmons. His style became the predominant one that shaped the early 20th century where the likes of Jack Johnson, George Carpentier and Jack Dempsey were slugging it out.
American fighter, John L. Sullivan, the last bareknuckle world champion, known affectionately as the “Boston Strong Boy”, actually preferred the 4oz gloves that were creeping into prize fighting, as he, much like Mace, did not like grappling and wanted to punch his opponents. His insistence on his opponents wearing them, changed the course of boxing history, and legitimized the gloves in the eyes of the sporting public.
As gloves got thicker, so punching became more sophisticated. Technicians began to rise to the top, with brawlers falling out of the sport. The flagship heavyweight division saw greats such as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson become instantly recognisable global icons.
Despite having had peaks and troughs, boxing has endured. It is at the very heart of MMA, with any serious striker having a fundamental knowledge of the art. The footwork, timing and powerful striking make it an invaluable weapon in a fighter’s arsenal. Nobody punches as hard, fast or with greater precision than a seasoned boxer. The feinting and evading taught by boxing are also vital to a striker in the cage, as conventional blocking is not available in the 4oz gloves.
It is not the complete fighting method that is used in MMA, but it has contributed significantly to stand-up striking in the octagon since the early days of mixed martial arts.