MMA Meets Boxing: Looking at Dana White's 'The Fighters'

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MMA Meets Boxing: Looking at Dana White's 'The Fighters'
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

And so it begins.

Or, perhaps it should be said: “And so it has finally happened.”

As a longtime proponent of MMA, it is an often forgotten fact (dismissed as a notion of comfortable equitability, toward the end of granting a kind of safe harbor from which to criticize the sport of boxing) that Dana White has said, time and again, that he is still a fan of professional boxing.

MMA fans dismiss this as simply the kind of statement a critic posits in order to afford himself a position of validity before engaging in harsh criticism. After all, White is the president of the UFC, the biggest MMA organization on planet Earth.

But it looks like he was not simply cloaking himself as a boxing fan in order to give his criticisms of boxing more “credibility.” White looks to be putting his money where his mouth is by producing The Fighters, a reality television show that showcases the sport of boxing, on what appears to be an amateur level, in his hometown of Boston, according to Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting.

And it looks glorious.

Granted, as a longtime boxing fan, I take exception to anyone who claims that the heart of boxing has always been in Boston—when I truly believe it has been in Philadelphia—but given the daring of the project, I am simply splitting hairs.

The Fighters looks to be all the things The Contender wasn't, for the simple reason that it tackles the sport at the most fundamental (i.e., relatable) level.

Reality television has always seen promotion based around “a hook,” which is to say there had to be an angle by which to hook the viewers at home—some aspect that made it must-see television. More often than not, watching men slug it out with boxing gloves and head gear missed the mark; it made it look like nothing more than men “playing” at being fighters.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to the sport of boxing, there is always a profound need behind the deed; headgear isn’t required because this is “Little League,” it’s needed because most amateur boxers do not yet possess the defensive skills needed to defend them against the full venom found in the punches of their opponent.

Boxing has always been and always will be a sport where the greatest practitioners are those men and women who can hit without being hit in return; it isn’t bumper cars out there, it’s blunt force trauma, and as an amateur, you need that headgear, just like Floyd Mayweather Jr. needed it in the beginning and just as all professionals use it in sparring today.

But that is one of the greatest aspects of The Fighters. It puts boxing on the line, exposed, raw nerves and all, which is something The Contender never did.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Contender for countless reasons; but I am a fight fan and have been since 1973 or '74. I was raised on the combative sports, so it’s much like falling in love with a familiar song, like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

But The Fighters looks as if the aim is to pull you into the world where the only things that keep you safe are that boxy, clumsy looking headgear, those typical-looking corner men, that dull looking referee. It forces you to put your trust in the unknown, based on a belief in the unseen (or in the case of the amateur, that which cannot be easily identified or quantified).

In other words, it introduces you to all the strangeness in a strange land; it touches that which is factual and necessary with a needle while letting the fiction drift away into pleasing memory, unharmed yet rightfully downsized by necessity.  

While it is far too soon to predict success, The Fighters looks to have all the necessary components needed to show fight fans of all stripes the beauty and the beast fighters confront every time they slip through the ropes of the fabled squared circle.

Yet, as a fan of both MMA and boxing, I cannot help but be excited.

Boxing has always been an unforgiving sport, but in the midst of all that is wrong with it as a whole, there is something very noble and pure about a young man slipping through the ropes to square off against an opponent; they aren’t doing it for the money, because the money isn’t there at that level.

They’re doing it because, as Joyce Carol Oates explains in her book, On Boxing:

Each boxing match is a story—a unique and highly condensed drama without words. Even when nothing sensational happens: then the drama is “merely” psychological. Boxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings; they will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess—of how much, or how little, they are capable.

In a world where reality television seems anything but real, The Fighters looks like it may be an honest, crystalline actualization of what it means to be, or not to be, a boxer.

As always, that really is the question, always has been the question: to be or not to be a fighter? That’s why they slip through the ropes to begin with.

Because it’s only in the ring that they will find their answer.

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