Identity Crisis: Boxing vs. MMA Crossovers Solve Nothing

With Jorge Masvidal and Canelo Alvarez being the biggest stars in their respective sports, we take a critical look at a matchup that should not happen.

After defeating Nate Diaz at UFC 244, Jorge Masvidal began to ponder the possibilities of all things lucrative and to be fair, it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Fighting is a grueling and dangerous profession, so why not make as much money as possible before the window of opportunity closes?

As a fan of the fighters that climb into the ring or cage, I am always hoping they can make as much money as possible. But as a fan of the fights within boxing and MMA, as separate sports, I cannot help but cringe at the level of self-deception that fighters begin to employ when they talk about “crossing over” to another sport. To be clear, Masvidal was not the only one in 2019 that talked openly about this desire, on either side of the isle. Tyson Fury is talking about fighting in MMA and Floyd Mayweather Jr. is reportedly coming out of retirement for two bouts in 2020, and if he is to be believed, one of those fights will occur in the UFC’s octagon. Of course, we have had other fighters talking about it in the past; Junior dos Santos firmly believed he could defeat then-reigning heavyweight champion Vladimir Klitschko in the squared circle. Anderson Silva wanted to box Roy Jones Jr.

Truth be told, professional boxing and MMA have always been linked, and probably always will be. And while proximity has usually been a forgivable antecedent, not one single time has a crossover fight actually contained the gravitas due any situation where two fighters risked so much to simply confirm the academic truth that boxers are better at boxing and MMA fighters are better at MMA.

Boxing vs. MMA Is Not A New Thing

A very long time ago, Muhammad Ali faced Antonio Inoki in what was perhaps one of the most disappointing crossover bouts ever seen. Since then, Ray Mercer has knocked out former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in MMA, Randy Couture has submitted James Toney in the octagon, and Conor McGregor was defeated via TKO by Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2017 when the former thought he could defeat the latter in the boxing ring. Most recently, Pauli Malignaggi fought Artem Lobov in a bare-knuckle boxing match.

If these kinds of fights were realized simply for the money to be had, it would be understandable; McGregor, with exactly zero professional boxing bouts, cleared an ungodly sum of money (some estimate over 50 million or more), and Mayweather made over 100 million. Many pundits marveled at how quickly the bout was made, once the principals (McGregor and Mayweather) decided they really wanted to do it. The truth is, when that much money is available, everyone on both sides is going to do their best to see it to fruition.

But this isn’t scripted entertainment; this is real combat, and in real combat, people can die. It happens all the time in the combative sports―in boxing, approximately 13 times a year, on average―and it probably always will. That is precisely why we love the fighters; because they dare to do the things we can only dream of, even when the risk is total. They are different than the common man and woman on the street and we love them for that. Their pride and desire are compelling, and their dedication is awesome to behold.

It also happens to be the reason why I believe that Masvidal is going to get his wish to face Alvarez in the boxing ring, probably in 2021. His desire to go into boxing is real; you could see that twinkle in his eye when he was standing next to Roberto Duran after his victory at UFC 244. Rubbing shoulders with your idols is bound to inspire, and for Masvidal, that inspiration has him looking at Alvarez as the next seminal moment in his career. As for Alvarez, why wouldn’t he take it? The money would be raining down from the sky and he’s still very much in his prime. While this would be a huge moment for Masvidal, it would be a vacation for Alvarez; an easy money situation that would draw even more eyes to him, ergo making him a bigger attraction for boxing fans the world over.

And, of course, there is the historic rivalry that Puerto Rico has always enjoyed with Mexico in the combative sports, particularly in boxing. If you want proof, watch the fights between Wilfredo Gomez and Salvador Sanchez, Hector “Macho” Camacho and Julio Cesar Chavez, Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, just to name a few. Watch these fights and look at the crowd, then imagine Masvidal standing across the ring from Alvarez on Cinco de Mayo, in Mexico City Arena, or Las Vegas. Or Texas.

All both men need do is say yes, then agree on a few basic terms and this fight is getting made, and it won’t need much promotion from the fighters to sell. And I do not think that is a good thing, in this case.

Why?

Quite simply, because it doesn’t answer any real questions, it simply confirms what we already know; in a boxing ring, Alvarez is so superior that the outcome never should have been in question, let alone dramatized with such a theater production.  

To be plain, as great a fighter as Masvidal is in MMA or on the street, should he enter the boxing ring and face Alvarez, he is going to get his clock cleaned, viciously. The dimensions of Alvarez’s arsenal, both offensively and as a sublime counter-puncher, are simply too vast to dismiss. Whatever fans and pundits think they learned from watching McGregor fight Mayweather, they can throw it all right out the window because this fight is a totally different affair, and it is tailor made for Alvarez.

Canelo-Masvidal and Mayweather-McGregor Are Not the Same Thing

Mayweather has always been about maintaining his own safety first, which saw him become one of the greatest defensive counter-punchers in the history of the sport. Alvarez has always been about becoming one of the greatest fighters in the proud history of his country, which has seen him evolve into a supremely skilled wrecking machine, personal safety be damned.

Mayweather employed a totally different style for his bout with McGregor, designed to make the bigger man fight backing up, which in turn helped to wear him down so the smaller man could score the stoppage the boxing community demanded. Alvarez is going to employ the exact same style he always has, which will play to every advantage he has, and his aim will not be to wear Masvidal down, but to destroy him at the earliest opportunity. He will do whatever he wants to do with Masvidal, whenever he decides to do it, with Masvidal aiding and abetting his own demise.

There are many other differences as well; McGregor not only had a size advantage against Mayweather Jr., but the advantage of youth, being nearly eleven years younger. Against Alvarez, Masvidal will roughly be the same size, and Alvarez will be approximately five years younger. Of course, none of these incredibly important factors are going to be given any due consideration by the UFC or Golden Boy Promotions because if Masvidal won’t recognize them, why should anyone else?

The MMA Fighter Identity Crisis

So, we come back to the problem of identity crisis, which is needlessly ongoing. What is it that makes MMA fighters believe they are going to transition over to the sport of boxing, at the highest levels? It’s not like Masvidal is saying he’s going to ease his way into the sport, and fight his way up, confident that his skills are good enough that he will rise like crème to the top. That would be the smart way to do it; Jens Pulver, the first ever UFC lightweight champion, entered the sport of boxing to test himself and learn, and he did so by going in low, like any other amateur. Pulver went 4-0 in the world of professional boxing, with all bouts being nearly club level, but he learned the right way. He didn’t assume that because he had championship experience in the world of MMA that he could just walk into a boxing ring and challenge the champion. Pulver might have had many shortcomings (all fighters do; every single one of them), but hubris was not one of them, outside of that one fight with Joe Lauzon.

Fighters are told to protect themselves at all times, but very rarely can they defend against their own hubris or reckless ambition. That’s why they have managers and advisors; to make sure they don’t hurt themselves engaging in dangerous folly. Desire is what makes fighters great, but too much desire can get them seriously hurt. Jake LaMotta wanted to fight heavyweights, for Christ’s sake, and even getting beaten damn near to death by Sugar Ray Robinson, a man in his own weight class, never changed his mind. Thankfully, he never did it, for a variety of reasons. But certainly, those in LaMotta’s circle didn’t encourage such dangerous dreams. Joe Lewis was the champion back then, and he would have killed LaMotta in the ring. He wouldn’t have liked it―in fact he would have hated it―but he would have done it, because Lewis took every opponent seriously.

Is Masvidal’s Team Letting Him Down?

Masvidal is surrounded by many great minds, yet none of them seem to be advising him in any way that honestly highlights the potential dangers. Such as, for instance: “You might get hurt so bad you don’t ever fight again, let alone fully recover”; a fate suffered by the once-incredible Meldrick Taylor. Or; “You might actually die in the ring, or in the hospital,” as was the case when Gabriel Ruelas defeated the valiant Jimmy Garcia, who died 13 days later from brain damage sustained in their bout in 1995. No, no one is advising caution, because no one ever found a dollar bill on the safe side of the street.

Do these graveyard grey possibilities seem too improbable to honestly consider? Do they sound too cautious and out of place when applied to a sport that, by its very design, is intended to balance great risk against great reward? Perhaps, but in this case, the risk is greater than it has been for any other crossover fight that has come before.

Consider the severity of the knockout victories Alvarez has displayed over Amir Khan and James Kirkland; two fighters that could defeat Masvidal quite soundly. Both suffered the kind of vicious stoppages that can take years off a fighter’s career―and neither of them was a rank novice like Masvidal. The idea being advanced by Masvidal and his handlers is that MMA fighters can give boxers trouble by giving them “looks” they aren’t used to seeing in the ring. Unfortunately, “looks” aren’t going to provide a window of opportunity that will allow an MMA fighter to deliver the force necessary to secure a victory against a veteran boxer. To assume so is to also assume that veteran boxers don’t have any experience dealing with feints; an ignorant assumption when you consider that feints are a cornerstone of boxing. Alvarez, with a massive professional record of 53-1-2, with 36 victories by stoppage, has forgotten more about feints and their application in professional boxing than any ten MMA fighters combined are ever likely to learn. The kind of experience he has acquired is a rarity for a fighter his age. He’s never been knocked down (although he came close against Jose Miguel Cotto) and he’s never failed to improve; a sure-fire indicator that he is every bit as serious as his sport demands.

Witnessing A Murder

When Alvarez steps into the ring to face Masvidal, few people are going to really recognize what they are seeing, because they don’t have any honest appreciation of history. Alvarez may be fighting in the modern day, but he is every bit a throwback to earlier years of the sport as were Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward. Alvarez is not going to be fighting Masvidal as if the whole thing is some kind of post-Mayweather-McGregor novelty; he’s going to be doing it to send a message to anyone else that might speak too loudly from across the aisle.

He’s going to be doing it with ill will, which is something we’ve never really seen in any crossover fight. We see it in fight gyms the world over; hell, that’s why they not only have insurance but rules in place to prevent amateurs from getting hurt by dangerous veterans. You could go into any boxing gym in Philadelphia in the 1970’s and you would never have seen a fighter with a single bout on his record sharing the ring with a fighter with a record like Alvarez, in a green-light situation; it wouldn’t have happened, even during the fabled gym wars, when everyone was willing to break almost any rule.

The reason why is simple: people are incredibly breakable, and if they get broken too badly, they die.

Masvidal is a fighter on the rise in the sport of MMA and that is wonderful. The fact that it simply isn’t enough is an indictment of the current pay scale for the UFC; another topic all together. But this isn’t simple gambling, like it might seem to those who link the combative sports in Las Vegas to big name fights with lots of money attached. No, this is something far more serious, and depending on the mood of Alvarez, possibly grave. Consider how this could all come apart, should the ginger-haired Alvarez decide: “Enough. I’m sick of hearing this kind of stupidity from people that should know better. The disrespect is going to come to an end, tonight. I’m going to make an example of this guy. I’m going to send a message. I’m going to write the ending of this story, and it’s going to be savage.” It could to have the same shock value as going into the MGM Grand and finding a game of Russian Roulette unfolding right next to the slots.

            Round 1: click. Masvidal survives. Whirl the chamber and pass it on.

            Round 2: click. Masvidal survives. Whirl the chamber again.

            Round 3: click. BOOM. Mourners, please send flowers.

I know; any kind of writer covering the combative sports isn’t supposed to speak so out of hand, so out of turn, because it sounds so disrespectful. Who the hell am I to act as if a real fighter like Masvidal, made of flesh and blood, just like Alvarez, doesn’t have a chance of winning? Who am I to say that he is going to get blown out of the water? Who am I to assume that I know, without ever having been in there, like Masvidal and Alvarez?

Good questions, really. I am a writer that loves both boxing and MMA, attending to the defense and celebration of both, for as long as I can remember. I cried as a little boy when Ali was beaten by Leon Spinks. I went into a deep depression as a very young man when Roberto Duran defeated “Sugar” Ray Leonard. I remember being surprised when Ken Shamrock beat Dan Severn, and again when Frank Shamrock defeated Tito Ortiz. In short, I am a fan, but there is nothing casual about my fandom. It is more akin to an allegiance; many are like me, but my words are my own and should not paint a poor picture of my peers.

Masvidal Should Stick To What He’s Good At

I really like watching Masvidal fight. I would like to see him keep fighting in MMA for another five years, if he is amenable to that. I feel the same about both Diaz brothers. I have often pondered aloud how well the sport of MMA would be served if Masvidal and both Diaz brothers were defenders of their own titles in the UFC because I believe it would be incredible. Real titles defended by real fighters that fight as a point of pride, with no regret. But Masvidal and the Diaz brothers, they are MMA fighters, and that is where I want to see them shine; in their natural environment. Watching Masvidal try his hand in professional boxing, assuming the role of challenger at the championship level; it’s simply sleight-of-hand bullshit, plied upon a consumer base that should know better, and would, if they weren’t so casual. If Alvarez were the one calling out Masvidal to a fight in the octagon, we’d be in the same place; a meaningless fight that answered no questions while proving that which we already know: in an MMA fight, Masvidal beats the hell out of Alvarez. But Alvarez isn’t calling out Masvidal; he’s going about the business of his profession, getting better and trying to cement his legacy, staying “in his lane,” and now, suddenly, Masvidal; publicly and needlessly.

While other crossover fights have seemed almost “harmless,” this fight feels different. This fight could very quickly turn mean, on a dime. Remember, for the common man, the casual fan, this barely more than fiction, better only better because the blood is real. But no one in the crowd really thinks anyone is going to die, mainly because it’s incredibly contrary to their inexperience.

The promoters aren’t going to be selling death if Alvarez agrees to fight Masvidal in the boxing ring; not exactly. Alvarez is a good-looking fighter that is serious and skilled, but he doesn’t command the same frightening aura as Mike Tyson, Ernie Shavers, George Foreman and others. He’s clearly dangerous, but he doesn’t seem malicious. Yet given such harmless appearances, the promoters selling this fight sure as hell aren’t selling safety either, and if safety isn’t a true consideration (and it’s not if a man with a 1-0 record is fighting a multi-division champion with over 50 victories against great fighters), then real death is just a coin toss away.

Imagine, for a moment, if it wasn’t Alvarez in there, but a prime Marvin Hagler, greeting Masvidal? Is there any doubt as to how serious the situation would be? How grave? The promoters would still sell the hell out of the names involved, but the spectator consciousness would be more keenly aware of what was at stake because there was nothing wholesome about Hagler, there was simply the promise of brutal aggression; savagery that was not a matter of prejudice, but simple policy.

It Is All About The Numbers

They say that fight math is folly and when it comes to trying to predict the winner of a fight, the A-B-C pyramid usually failing because no two fighters are the same, and thus no two fights.  But there is another kind of math to be found in the combative sports that is very telling and obvious: 53-1-2 > 1-0.

Like the saying: “arithmetic has no mercy,” the answer to this pointless problem is obvious to anyone with the eyes to see. Here’s to hoping that Masvidal’s trainers, handlers and friends open their eyes long enough to see it and their mouths, long enough to speak it, because if they don’t and the whole things goes south, after click: BOOM, it’s way too late.

Identity Crisis: Boxing vs. MMA Crossovers Solve Nothing

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