For too long we have seen fighters happy to stand in front of each other, man to man, and throw down until one of them drops. These fighters are the most celebrated in all of MMA, and indeed all of combat sports. Some excelled and revered more than others, Chuck Lidell, Marvin Hagler, Wanderlei Silva, “Irish” Micky Ward, Mirko Filipović (Cro Cop).
A large part of the crowd sees violence in its purest and simplest form especially when two such fighters meet each other in their respective arena. Among the many qualities of these fights are fearlessness, anger and desire. The desire to win. The desire to hurt the other man. The desire to prosper from every exchange.
However, one thing few fighters ever truly desire is to get hit. In boxing, it has been well understood for a long time now that fan favourites have short careers, and often with saddening effects. Dementia and Parkinson’s disease being the most prominent amongst those fighters who retired. (Erlanger DM, Kutner KC, Barth JT, Barnes R (1999). “Neuropsychology of sports-related head injury: Dementia pugilistica to post-concussion syndrome”. )
It may have taken the crowd many years to understand this, but boxers knew from very early on that getting hit was not fun or safe, and they didn’t want it to happen to them.
Very Quickly they went from (what is now known as, and understood to be) terrible technique, with flailing arms and chins way up high:
To clean, refined movement, chin down, hands up, elbows tucked into the body, in essence, to hit, and not be hit:
And of course, some who were exceptions to the rule:
These comparison gifs are perhaps unfair. Certainly, by as early as the 1930’s there were fighters who were doing all the things modern boxers are doing now (and more, as clinching was more prominent) but the trend was prevalent from very early on.
Now MMA fighters are slowly learning the same thing boxers have known for quite a while now; “Getting hit sucks, and I don’t want to get hit.”.
Many would wonder why right off the bat boxers weren’t schooling other styles left and right. The biggest factors are distance, and lack of wrestling skill. BJJ quickly dominated early matches. Wrestling countered with ground and pound and gave us many memorable fights. Now we are full circle and back to striking being the champion arts of MMA.
The distance in a boxing match and an MMA match are different, although they share similarities. On the outside the jab is king, and uppercuts and hooks are order for the day on the inside. That is where the similarities end, however. Takedowns and to a lesser degree kicks and knees changed the distance at which we worked. standing upright becomes a terrible idea as soon as someone is in range. The stance for fighting changes.”Can’t be bladed like a boxer, or I’m getting taken down. Can’t stand like a wrestler, or I’m getting head kicked.”. The natural progression leads to a hybrid. Square stance with the hips forward and the hands high and head and body tucked.
So now we are striking and to a much more technical degree. Welcome to MMA circa 1998 – 2006. Striking is still rudimentary and people are still learning how to hit with small gloves. At least we are getting more clean knockouts now though.
Now I’m coming to the main points I really wanted to make. Why did MMA have little lateral movement in the early days once striking was properly established? Why was aggression and not stepping backwards or slipping and moving laterally not done more? My best arguments are:
- The main styles composed in MMA are Muay Thai and Wrestling
- For the longest time, it was grapplers learning to strike and not the other way around
- Fighters consistently training with below average striking trainers
Muay Thai and Wrestling are two styles that do not reward backwards or lateral movement. In Muay Thai you score high giving more damage than you receive. Standing in front of someone is not as dangerous as it is in MMA due to the gloves and the way Muay Thai is scored, which favours body, leg and head kicks over any punches. As a result, you rarely see Thai boxers move off the centre and run. They take one or two steps to either side and that’s about it. They don’t bob and weave because they know a knee would be imminent. Mostly they slip, they lean back or they clinch.
I brought Wrestling into this because many pro fighters started as wrestlers and there is not much real pro wrestling going on. The result was an exponential amount of guys in the beginning learning striking with a strong wrestling mindset. Collegiate wrestlers are penalized for going backwards and have a sense of grit and determination that can’t be measured. Not a problem in wrestling, but when you get to striking “don’t back down” becomes “take one to give one”.
Point 2 stands for BJJ guys too. Those who were all too comfortable learning enough striking to get taken down or take someone down and then submit people from their back or sweep.
The last point is a big one. For years and years and STILL happening, many fighters “train striking with their BJJ coach” as a friend of mine puts it. Many grapplers will go to different countries to train with the best BJJ players but won’t leave their state for seminars by world-class strikers, or go to Thailand and train with Saenchai and his team. They look good and feel good on the pads and that’s enough for them.
This is changing. We are starting to see the value of boxing, karate and much improved Muay Thai in MMA. Boxing is the ability to hit and not get hit. MMA is learning from it’s more experienced counterpart.
Fighters are coming in with movement that was previously unseen, and not just from boxing, but karate and TKD. We are seeing a true crossover from strikers, who see the potential money and fame to be made, more so than their respective combat sports.
Part Two of this Blog will cover the advancement of other striking arts in MMA, and why Europe and Ireland will no longer be at the whim of grapplers.