The first time I saw a naked woman on television, I was five years old. I can still picture her-tan and sultry, brown-haired, thick-lipped, with doe eyes and a bush you could lose yourself in. A real classy number. It was roughly a decade later that I was introduced to MMA via the medium of a documentary on Kimo Leopoldo, and it was no less apocalyptic than the bush on the big screen. Until that point, my experience with pugilism was limited to boxing, usually the free fights showcased on ESPN. I don't remember the first time I bore witness to the Sweet Science in action, but I do remember sitting down with my grandpa one evening, watching the fights, and this advertisement for Ultimate Fighting came on. The old man clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "Human cock-fighting," he called it, shaking his head. "No decency at all."
Papa was a purist; believed MMA had no place in upright society. Said boxing was the most refined way to fight: there were strict rules, and within those parameters you had to find a way to win...alone with your opponent, just the two of you, trying to beat each other senseless. It was classy, like piano music. "Not like these cage fights," he'd say. "That's just street fighting. Where's the art?"
This attitude towards mixed martial arts is slightly less prevalent today (praise Jesus), but it still exists nonetheless. It's the reason guys like Anderson Silva and John Jones get stiffed for "Fighter of the Year," losing to a then imprisoned Floyd Mayweather who, let's be honest, had a mediocre year to begin with, fraught with controversy. The purists feel that if boxing is in decline, it's surely a result of the influence of MMA (realistically, this is hogwash; a majority of the MMA fan-base is composed of fighters and ex-fighters, and boxing is stagnant because of a cancerous amateur program and an abundance of paper champions, but we'll save that argument for another day). These little stabs at MMA are ways of maintaining the balance. The sports are like two roosters, competing for a hen. On the one hand you've got guys like Mayweather and Larry Merchant and the stream of shit they render unto the mixed martial arts community - and each other, for that matter - and in the other, Randy Couture's choking out James Tony. It's Elizabethan in its scope and scale, an ever-unfolding drama, a soap-opera of knuckle and bone.
There are fundamental differences between the sports; this is obvious, but it extends beyond the simple rules and regulations. There's a cultural difference, too. MMA is like hardcore pornography - a Hustler, if you will. It's visceral and intense and up-close and in your face and, at times, it's hard to look at. It's as personal as coitus. There are little rules. Take UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro. That card was brimming with brutal knockouts, painful submissions, and violent, back and forth brawls. The main event saw Stephan Bonnar crumpled by a knee to the solar plexus by Anderson Silva. The fighters wear little clothing, they're locked in a cage, they're told to kill. Concepts terrifying to most people, much as sex is if you've never had it, or you hold a conservative view of the act. But, like sex, these fights are essentially human too. They're gritty and hard, yes, but provide an intimate glimpse into the primal side of human nature. Men, women, children - people fight. MMA offers a venue for this aspect of humanity, strips it down, gives you the chance to indulge in something that, perhaps, you wouldn't normally consider.
If MMA is Hustler, than boxing most closely resembles Playboy. It's a gentlemen's sport. It's scientific, harkening back to the days of curly mustaches, monocles and tailcoats. It smells of tobacco smoke, it sounds like depression-era New York. It shows just enough skin to be adult, yet still retain its dignity. It is highly regulated, calculating in its brutality. Boxing, to the casual fan, has the illusion of being safe, whereas MMA seems geared solely to put someone in the hospital. These are general observations, and they aren't to say that boxing can't be savage (the recent, seven-round slugfest between Brandon Rios and Mike Alavardo was awesome in its savagery) or MMA beautiful - the fight between Nick Diaz and Karo Parysian, for example, was as technical and graceful a fight as I've ever seen. But it's from these simple, general observations that I believe stems most of the misconceptions that keep the sports and their proponents at each other's throats.
Truthfully, both MMA and boxing are complicated, each with their own pitfalls, each unique, each incredible in its own way; they could never be simplified to the point of comparison between two men's magazines. However, as between men's magazines, there seems to be a rivalry and this rivalry is due, in part, to the fundamental differences discussed earlier. It is my fervent belief that the sports can reconcile and formulate a symbiosis of sorts, because they essentially accomplish the same thing and always have: they illustrate an aspect of humanity that we only vaguely understand and which won't go away. Just as a fascination with taboo sex and gratuitous nudity seems ever manifest in our world, human beings are drawn inextricably and inexplicably to combat. And they've been so drawn since the advent of civilization, appearing in various incarnations throughout all of history - one such instance is the original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, where MMA appeared alongside boxing in the form of Pankration.
Fighting isn't going to go away. Mankind will forever have the desire to test itself against its fellow brothers and sisters. Pugilistic sports naturally undergo periods of decline and prosperity; with the pool of amazing athletes one may choose from today, we have the potential for a golden age unlike any yet seen in combat sports (those who think boxing is dead are a bunch of nimrods: Boxing has endured far greater periods of atrophy). In both MMA and boxing there are rising stars such as Eric Silva and Canelo Alvarez, future legends like John Jones, Ben Henderson and Jose Aldo, old-schoolers like Ricky Hatton emerging from retirement (not a great idea, in my humble opinion, but commendable and unavoidable), and whispers of super-fights around every corner (Mayweather/Pacquiao? Silva/St. Pierre?)Â… You can read the story of a nation through the posterity of its warriors, and the fighters of today seem ready and able to impart a masterpiece onto future generations. And just as that enormous mound of 70's style pubic hair on the television screen those years ago marked a paradigm shift in my life, the inception of Mixed Martial Arts into mainstream sports signals the beginning of a new era of fighting.