Something which I get asked a lot based on my technical analyses is the question of who is the best boxer in mixed martial arts. When people ask me this what they normally want is for me to reaffirm the argument for either Junior dos Santos, Anderson Silva or Nick Diaz (or occasionally there will be a hyper passionate Vitor Belfort fan).
These are the sort of questions I don't like to answer for several reasons: the first being that many fans of these fighters are so passionate about their chosen hero that they don't want to hear an objective evaluation of their boxing skills. The second is that it is almost impossible to make direct comparisons in the truly elite boxers of MMA because they use such vastly differing styles.
Here, for instance, is a list of possible criteria one could use to get a idea of just how good of a technical grasp someone has on boxing (aside from fundamental positions and movements). Beside each I will give examples of popular MMA fighters whose game each factor is particularly prominent in, and others who show very little aptitude or preference for said factor.
The marks of a good boxer are the ability to :
- Tie up whenever he wants to avoid punishment or smother an exchange that he is losing. (Fedor did this very well, Michael Bisping and Andrei Arlovski do not).
- Move his head or entire body off line or occupy his opponent's hands as he comes in, to prevent the opponent from simply punching back blindly and still finding the mark. (B.J. Penn was great at this, Rashad Evans, Diego Sanchez, Takanori Gomi and Frank Mir are not).
- Exit at a different angle from the line on which he entered, accompanied with head movement to evade the most likely counter. (Dominick Cruz is good at this, Vitor Belfort and Nick Diaz are not).
- Use footwork, distancing and head movement to take away the opportunities for strikes, not always use his gloves and forearms to block them. (Anderson Silva and Junior dos Santos are good at this, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson is not, though Stefan Struve might be the worst).
And that's about it!
If a fighter is working to get in safely and get out safely, and not simply relying on reactions and speed, he is doing a better job than most.
Even some great professional boxers can forget these basic principles. Ken Norton was able to beat Muhammad Ali up badly in their first bout because Ali got into the mindset that simply throwing his jab would work because it had every time before, rather than thinking about how he was going to step in without Norton simply throwing back a punch simultaneously and landing.
Really the line between mediocre and good, and good and great, is one of discipline and the understanding that good boxing is something you perform throughout the fight, not something you go in already having.
For example, it didn't matter that Alistair Overeem had performed far better against elite strikers than Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva, Overeem acted as if he was entitled to a win rather than having to work for it and ducked straight into a punch for his efforts.
Now we'll get on to aspects of boxing which make a fighter a more advanced boxer (or elite in MMA), but you will note that every single name put forward as the best boxer in MMA doesn't do some of these things. These are the factors which make it pretty much impossible to point to a "best boxer" in MMA.
An advanced scientific boxer might:
- Move laterally to force the opponent to pivot to face him, keeping them on the defensive and playing catch up with his feet rather than getting ready to attack. (Anderson Silva side skipping around the cage is seen in all of his fights, while Junior Dos Santos fights almost entirely on a straight line as if he is fencing).
- Counter punch and lead with equal aptitude, and often counter punch off of a lead. Leading exclusively will make a fighter an easier target for counters, refusal to lead makes for very slow fights with little to say one fighter is winning. (Dos Santos is effective at both, as is Nick Diaz, so was Cro Cop, while Anderson Silva leads very rarely and Vitor Belfort counters far less than he rushes his opponents).
- Cut off the ring, use hooks to stop an opponent from running, and 'herd' his opponent into punches. (Roy Nelson is very good at this despite his single-punch game, Quinton Jackson used to be very good at this, Nick Diaz is exceptionally poor at cutting off the ring, Cro Cop was awful at it in his late career).
- Work effectively to the body, realising that it pays dividends later in a bout and is more often available in MMA. (Nick Diaz is obviously impeccable at this, Dos Santos is brilliant at using straights to the body to open up head shots as his opponents begin to lose the will to take more body punches. Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort and nearly everyone else in MMA are almost exclusively head hunters with their punches).
- Can lead with both his right hand and left hand. (Dos Santos, Silva and Fedor were brilliant at this, Michael Bisping is a brilliant example of a technical boxer who is predictable because he cannot lead with anything but his jab, Georges St. Pierre is much the same).
Ultimately, as you can see, there are plenty of factors we can point to in a fighter's game and say "damn, that's some good boxing!" including plenty which I haven't even mentioned here for brevity's sake, but there are so many at play that we cannot accurately compare two fighters and come up with a definitive best boxer in MMA.
Obviously, this article won't stop the endless debate, but hopefully with a few more fans considering these criteria, we can start to move away from the old attitude that good punching equals good boxing.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.