Is mixed martial arts the new boxing?
When it comes to combat sports, we live in the age of boxing. Two people throwing punches inside a ring has long been much more than sport; it has produced great literature, a festival’s worth of glorious films, excellent music and legendary works of journalism.
The stars of the boxing world are also global cultural icons. The heavyweight champion is also, simply, the champion of the world.
It was not always like this. Boxing as we know it is not very old; it’s only been around since the 18th century, and became the cultural behemoth it is now in the 20th century.
For hundreds — perhaps thousands — of years before that, the mantle of the ultimate hand-to-hand combat sport belonged to wrestling; a sport as beloved in villages as it was in kingly courts, a sport that even gods and epic heroes needed to prove themselves in.
Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of another shift, the slow fading of boxing’s cultural and sporting significance, and the gradual rise in stature of MMA.
For one, boxing seems to have lost its way a little; there are now too many governing bodies, too many belts, and no champion who transcends cultural boundaries. It used to be that the heavyweight champion of the world was also the champion of the world. Could you tell me who the heavyweight champion of the world is right now? Unlikely.
The second, more functional reason is: if the premise of a combat sport is to test two fighters in hand-to-hand combat, then what could be better than a sport that allows punches like boxing, kicking like Muay Thai, and grappling like wrestling, judo and jiu-jitsu?
In On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates writes: “To the untrained eye most boxing matches appear not merely savage but mad. As the eye becomes trained, however, the spectator begins to see the complex patterns that underlie the “madness”; what seems to be merely confusing action is understood to be coherent and intelligent, frequently inspired.”
This is exactly the movement that has happened in my mind with mixed martial arts — where at first I saw savagery and madness, I now see form, function, beauty, intelligence and inspiration.
This shift has happened through the medium of a fighter who, last weekend, abruptly announced his retirement from the sport while being its undisputed, undefeated king. I am talking of Khabib Nurmagomedov. Yes, while you were watching the IPL on Saturday, I was watching the 32-year-old take down another great, Justin Gaethje, in a furious, breakneck battle in Abu Dhabi. A fight that lasted less than seven minutes — the most intense, memorable, skilful seven minutes of fighting imaginable.
Such is Nurmagomedov’s skill and authority that, in the second round, when he grappled Gaethje to the ground, he was already setting up for an armbar but changed his mind halfway through the move and managed to effect an altogether different hold, clamping his legs around Gaethje’s neck in a triangle, till the American champion had to relent.
Consider that Nurmagomedov managed to do this to a fighter not only at the top of his game but also famed for his wrestling skills. And the reason he changed his mind? It occurred to Nurmagomedov in that split second when he was taking Gaethje down that his opponent had said before the fight that he would not submit. The armbar is a painful move meant to make an opponent submit. Nurmagomedov did not want Gaethje’s parents, who were in attendance, to watch their son go through that much pain.
This was important. It was family; his opponent’s, but even so. Family is also the reason Nurmagomedov retired. He had lost his father and coach earlier this year to a heart condition complicated by Covid-19. Nurmagomedov did not want to carry on fighting without his father by his side.
If you are interested in combat sports but you’ve never watched MMA, Nurmagomedov is a good place to start. Watch his fights, how he dominates, fearlessly and with relentless pressure, each of his opponents, no matter what their strengths. From powerful, fast strikers to champion wrestlers, everyone went down to Nurmagomedov.
Watch the story of his life — I highly recommend a wonderful and evocative documentary series on YouTube called Anatomy of a Fighter: The Dagestan Chronicles. It documents the life of this incredible fighter in the harsh, violence-torn yet beautiful mountain region of Dagestan in Russia.
Watch because Nurmagomedov’s legacy is important. It is a thing of inspired beauty.