Sept. 1, 2009.
There is much we can learn about the history of early boxing by observing the evolution of MMA in our generation. Boxing is a sport with a rich and deep tradition that has existed under its current form for nearly 130 years. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as a popular sport originated with the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and has existed since 1993, a period of less than 20 years. As a sport MMA has evolved along a similar path to that of early boxing. As eyewitnesses to the rise of MMA we can draw some parallels and learn much about the development of early boxing.
Background on Martial Arts and Boxing
Mixed martial arts started as a way for various fighting styles to test themselves in combat against each other. The concept of style is certainly not a new one. There are many types of fighting arts in the world some of which have been proven on the battlefield and some in sporting event s like UFC, XFO and PRIDE while others remain unproven. Authentic techniques are those that have been proven with this type of trial by fire. Just as Ju-jitsu evolved as an Asian martial art in the event that a Samurai lost his sword so is boxing a western martial art that evolved as a backup to the art of fencing. Early boxing masters such as James Figg trained in sword, quarterstaff, cudgel and fisticuffs. One of the first famous boxing matches ever recorded was on June 6th 1727 between James Figg and Ned Sutton. The event included a sword match, fist fighting that included throws and ended with a submission hold and a final bout fought with cudgels with Figg winning all three rounds. Figg’s boxing highlighted punching technique but included throws, trips, shin kicking, eye gouging, and submission holds on the ground. Grappling and hitting an opponent while he was down was completely accepted. There is no doubt that the original method of boxing was a complete and well rounded mixed martial art 300 years ago! Fighting arts that were used in combat were for real. One can argue all day about the superiority of one method over another or how boxing has “evolved” but the combat techniques of early boxing were battle tested. Certainly boxing has evolved as a sport, but that is quite different from real combat.
For sure the art of fencing had a huge influence on the development of boxing as a fighting art. The parries and ripostes of fencing became the parries and counter-punches of modern boxing. Jim Driscoll in his book Outfighting or Long Range Boxing drew many parallels to fencing such as the straight thrusting lead relating the lead jab, and the use of cadence or what Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do practitioners would call a “stop-hit” and “the fighting measure.” Driscoll wrote, “It is practically sword fencing without a sword, and follows all its movements, or rather, should follow, the same principles.” The use of cadence is probably not a technique that most boxing aficionados would be familiar with but is one that the ardent student of the techniques of boxing history should know of. Old school boxing master’s who styles developed from the use of fencing used the stop-hit to interrupt an opponent’s attack. This can be seen in the following photo of “The Old Master” Joe Gans below.
Gans demonstrates a stop-hit intercepting his opponent while checking the left hand.
Bruce Lee, whom many consider the forerunner of MMA, taught the stop hit to intercept an opponent’s attack. The following definition of a stop hit is found on Wiki- Jeet Kune Do: “Intercepting an opponent's attack with an attack of your own instead of a simple block. JKD practitioners believe that this is the most difficult defensive skill to develop. This strategy is a feature of some traditional Chinese martial arts, as well as an essential component of European épée fencing…. Stop hits & kicks utilize the principle of economy of motion by combining attack and defense into one movement thus minimizing the "time" element.”
Stop hits, checks and traps were among the types of techniques that were often used in early boxing. The boxing of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw a lot more infighting than what is commonly seen today. What changes occurred in boxing that lead practitioners away from some of the battle proven techniques that came from fencing and parrying dagger? And what changes occured for some techniques to evolve along another path? Perhaps the answers can be found by a close observation of today's MMA.
UFC and Early Boxing
When UFC started it was a no holds barred contest advertising that there were no rules, which was not entirely true as eye gouging, groin attacks and biting were not allowed. Many of the matches were prolonged ground fighting affairs that many fans found boring and difficult to follow. As one fan wrote on a message board, “I don’t want to pay to watch two guys hump each other on the ground for 20 minutes.” The new sport was also widely criticized as extreme and violent and was compared to human cockfighting. Government crusades to obliterate MMA nearly killed it at its onset and the sport had to reform its rules to rise from the ashes in this past decade. Likewise, boxing in the early days under London Prize Ring rules was quite brutal as a bare knuckle fighting contest. There were laws in many states against boxing and bouts were often held in secret and offshore on barges to hide from law enforcement officials.
Just as the techniques of MMA had to adapt to obtain popularity and acceptance as a legitimate sport so too did boxing have to change to become more socially acceptable. MMA fighters adopted open ended gloves and a round system similar to that of boxing to keep the bouts more action packed. Boxing evolved from bare knuckle fighting to bouts arranged with gloves to make the sport appear less savage and more of an exhibition of skill. Early boxing fans detested the change. An article in the Nov. 25, 1893 National Police Gazette read “big pillows are for amateurs” noting that real men fought with bare knuckles and not padded gloves. Today there are still fans that prefer the earlier vale tudo style MMA matches as they had the appearance of being more like “real fighting.” The truth is both are refined sports and not real combat. Real combat often involves weapons and if either a western boxer or Brazilian ju-jitsu expert ran into a real Philippino kali knife fighter, neither would stand much of a chance in a fight to the death and none of them would stand a chance against a trained soldier with an M-16.
Due to their origins from sword play and other combat martial arts both boxing and MMA do involve real fighting techniques. Boxing’s jab, parry and stop-hit all originated from fencing. MMA’s arm bars, chokes and submission holds came from Samurai ju-jitsu and other Asian arts. When MMA developed as a sport requiring the use of gloves it began to incorporate more elements of boxing into its game. When one views MMA with its 4 ounce gloves one realizes why early boxers, fighting bare knuckle and then with 4 and 5 ounce gloves, did not often throw a lot of combinations. The sheer impacts of such blows were and still are devastating. Boxing, like MMA is a very unforgiving sport where one mistake and one blow can end further action. Imagine Mike Tyson fighting with 4 ounce gloves. The old school boxer fighting with horse hair padded 5 ounce gloves had to land his blow and get out of harms way or stop and smother his opponents attack so as not to be hit in return. One could not afford to stand and throw a combination of blows against an opponent without an opening due to his opponent’s good defense and the possibility of being countered, such a mistake could get a fighter destroyed. Think of throwing a kick against an MMA fighter, unless there is an opening or the kick is low and fast there is a good chance it will be countered and the attacker taken to the ground. The same thing can be seen in MMA punching techniques where it is usually the big counter punches that flatten opponents such as the right hand by Anderson Silva that crushed Forrest Griffin. Infighting skills in old school boxing were paramount because the ability to stop-hit and clinch on the inside could make the difference in winning or losing. If a boxer did not have infighting skills he was a certain loser against a seasoned fighter. When viewing films of men like Joe Gans and Jack Johnson one can observe them using stop hits, clinches and other inside fighting tactics to neutralize an opponent’s offense. This is why men like Gans and Johnson were considered such great defensive fighters by those who saw them.
Those who claimed that the evolution of boxing has created better more skilled fighters today than those of the past are simply unaware of Boxing’s origins or the techniques they employed. One can argue that some boxers today are better athletes but that does not mean they are better boxers or would prevail in an actual contest against the great master’s of the past. It would all depend upon the rules they are fighting under. The uninformed opinion that boxers of the past lacked skill and/or did not throw combinations is certainly wrong as they were highly skilled and did throw combinations and this can be proven through film study. More importantly however is that those making such claims do not understand the important “why” as to the reason old school boxers did the things they did in the ring, such as the type of infighting skills they displayed.
One can see some samples of stop hitting and infighting in the short video below:
Old School Boxing Stop Hit from Cox's Corner
Despite the modern myths about old school boxers they had great boxing skills throwing accurate straight punches, superb counters and had great infighting ability. The modern MMA fighter combines some outside boxing with grappling skills. The old school boxer combined outside boxing ability with infighting skills; such as the clinch, stop-hits, elbow control, a very refined uppercut and short jolting straight shots. Few modern fighters have a better defensive skills than did Jack Johnson. In many ways Anderson Silva reminds me of Jack Johnson in terms of his athleticism, sharp-shooting straight shots and shocking counter punches. They are also about the same size and even look and move similarly. If one wants to know how good a fighter Jack Johnson was take a look at Anderson Silva in the modern MMA octagon.
There is a similarity in the records of MMA fighters and early boxers. In modern boxing there is an inordinate amount of emphasis put on the idea of being “undefeated”. Because of this misplaced conception fighters are a protected product with carefully guided careers to a “championship”, although the word “champion” is hardly the word I would use. There is only one world but we have four “world champions” in every weight class in boxing. As a result of modern boxing’s continued pressure on a fighter to avoid loss the top men avoid each other which is not difficult to do since there are four so called champions in each weight class. This leads to a situation where there is very slim competition with the best fighters not facing each other except on a very rare occasion for a big pay per view showdown, while in the past the top men often faced each other two, three or more times.
In contrast to this MMA fighters often fight the best of the best. Look at a fighter like Chuck Lidell his record is 21-7 at the time of this writing yet no one thinks he is a bum. A boxer with this record would be thought of as a class C fighter. Lidell is not so poorly thought of because fans can appreciate the quality of his wins with victories over the likes of Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture. The same thing can be said of Couture who has a record of 16-10, a winning percentage that would be laughed at in modern boxing, but due to the quality of his wins fans know how good he is. Using the quality of opponents as a measurement instead of the raw won-loss record one gets a better picture as to the ability of a fighter.
Apply this understanding of viewing records to an old school boxer. The official record of James J. Corbett is 16-4-3 (won-loss-draw). His opposition is similar to that of modern MMA fighters as is his record featured quality wins over Joe Choynski, Jake Kilrain, Charley Mitchell and John L. Sullivan and a 61 round draw with the uncrowned black champion Peter Jackson. One can understand how Jim Jeffries was thought unbeatable when he retired as champion with an undefeated record of 18-0-2 against such quality of opponents as Bob Fitzsimmons, James J. Corbett and Tom Sharkey. That would be the equivalent of Randy Couture being unbeaten against all the opposition that he has faced and having retired as champion.
The early days of UFC saw prolonged fights to the finish often ending up on the ground for much of the fight as there were no rounds or time limits in those early events. Boxing likewise had finish fights with rounds scheduled for 45 or 75 rounds or “to the finish” with no set number of rounds. As boxing limited the rounds to first 25 and then a 15 round standard to today’s 12 round championships the techniques changed as boxers did not have to conserve so much allowing them more energy for mobile footwork and outside boxing. As a result boxers began to rely less on feints, infighting and body punching and while those techniques still exist today they have slowly eroded over the course of time while footwork has evolved and became more sophisticated.
Through the course of this study we have learned that old school boxing has many similarities to today’s MMA in the quality of skill of its participants and its development. Both sports evolved from true combat arts and contain proven fighting techniques. The quality of opposition is a greater indicator of skill more so than a fighter’s won-loss record. Techniques have been modified to accommodate the change in rules but a great fighter is a great fighter under any set of rules.