Sun Media columnist Jose Rodriguez recently penned a passionate -- if surprisingly naive -- argument to justify his assertion that "as boxing stands poised to blow a tire on the train track, the locomotive of mixed martial arts, in particular the Ultimate Fighting Championship, shows no sign of slowing down."
Outside of infrequent mega bouts like Oscar De La Hoya vs Floyd Mayweather, boxing is all but dead, Rodriguez says, "delivering a once-every-three-years knockout while serving as a boring clutch-and-grab existence of no-names to fill the gaps in between."
Pretty harsh stuff. But like most fans that have trouble putting the flavour-of-the-week faddishness of MMA's human cockfighting into proper perspective, Rodriguez believes that its appeal will snowball at the expense of boxing. Sooner rather than later, they assure us, the sweet science will be steamrolled once and for all by this new wave of innovative fistic entertainment.
Well, don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. MMA is neither new nor particularly innovative. A century ago, when newspapers were filled with doom and gloom stories about the impending demise of boxing because reigning heavyweight champ Tommy Burns was too boring to excite the masses, there was a renaissance of MMA's precursor: the battle royal.
In their original incarnation in the 1890s, battles royal were bizarre fighting contests deliberately designed to debase blacks and reinforce white notions of racial supremacy. Rarely, however, were promoters satisfied with simple man-on-man showdowns. Like today's MMA bouts, they were billed as "anything goes," with kicking, kneeing, choking, eye gouging, etc. For the crowd's amusement, the combatants were sometimes blindfolded or bound together by the wrists or ankles.
Hugely popular for the better part of a decade, the battles royal saw another spike in public resonance right up until Burns lost the heavyweight title to Jack Johnson in 1908. "Anything goes" matches then disappeared for most of the 20th century because boxing had -- once again -- beaten the count by finding another champion whose impact reverberated well beyond the confines of the squared circle. From Johnson to Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali, boxing's cyclical tradition of passing the torch to the next great hero-legend continued for decades. As it will again.
And there's the crux of the boxing vs. MMA argument.
Defenders of the latter can talk until they're blue in the face about the science of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the drama of a sudden choke submission or the sanguine splendor of a stylish head-butt to the face. But in the end, that's all you've got. No history. No tradition. No pageantry. Just raw violence. And that wears thin rather quickly.
In one form or another, what's now called MMA has been around for more than a century, but it still doesn't have -- and never will have -- a mythos to match the mystique and lore of John L. Sullivan or Rocky Marciano. No UFC "legend" will ever cross the boundary into mainstream sociopolitical commentary like Muhammad Ali, or come close to matching the pop culture icon status of George Foreman -- or even Mike Tyson. And doesn't it say something about the fabricated "cultural impact" of MMA and UFC that the average sports fan doesn't even know what the initials stand for and can't name a single "superstar" fighter?
But hey, if you enjoy MMA, more power to you. For me, watching two guys rolling around for six minutes until one is sufficiently "busted up" to be unable to continue is not even mildly entertaining.
Boxing has been, and always will be, on a rollercoaster in terms of public acceptance and mainstream identity, but it's not going away. Ever. As Fightworld.us editor Joe Rein so eloquently puts it: "Boxing survives - and always will - because its values are as old school as black-'n'-white trunks: character and pain. It's as heroic as a man taking care of his family - just not too sexy."
That says it all.