Before Conor McGregor: 7 MMA Fighters Who Would've Been Great Boxing Headliners

Matthew Ryder@@matthewjryderFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2017

Before Conor McGregor: 7 MMA Fighters Who Would've Been Great Boxing Headliners

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    It's only days away now.

    Soon, all the hyperbole and hype in the world won't matter a lick, because Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor will enter the ring and throw hands Aug. 26 in Las Vegas. You can be part of it all for the low, low price of $99.95.

    Does that last part sound a little used-car salesman-y?

    It should.

    The event is a culmination of events never before seen in sports, a confluence of one man's love of money and another's unfathomable rise to the top of sports culture. No matter how good or bad the final product is, there's no way around the fact that it came about out of a some major huckstering.

    Mayweather was retired and has employed this promotional song and dance more than once on his way to becoming the richest athlete alive.

    McGregor was in another sport, a man who outgrew the cage that contained both he and that sport so rapidly that he needed to create his own sports and entertainment company just to keep up.

    They'll meet to blow off summer 2017 with some fisticuffs, and as the record-less McGregor said on their press tour together, "Somebody's O has got to go!"

    But there have been others from MMA who might have been viable candidates to cross over into boxing. Be it skill or star power, or maybe even both, the sport has had its share of big names and decent boxers who would have been able to sell pay-per-views.

    Here's a look at seven such individuals.

7. Vitor Belfort

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    Andre Penner/Associated Press

    This name is an obvious choice to the more ardent MMA fan, but Vitor Belfort wouldn't ring many bells for the boxing crowd.

    That is until he started ringing the bells of the boxing crowd. He'd get some attention then.

    Belfort was an icon in the early days of the UFC, earning his nickname "The Phenom" by obliterating competition on his way to a heavyweight tournament win at UFC 12 and later securing the UFC light heavyweight title as well.

    He's also the rare case of a man who's stayed relevant in a combat sports career across multiple decades. That UFC 12 win came when he was 19 years old; his light heavyweight title reign was in his 20s; and he had multiple cracks at the UFC middleweight title in his 30s. His most recent UFC win came only weeks after his 40th birthday.

    Lauded for his wild, blitzing style and piston-like punches with both hands, there was a time where nobody else in the sport would have been chosen to take on a prolific boxer ahead of Belfort. That time only ended in 2016 when he dropped two fights in a row, as even deep into his 30s he was routinely scoring vicious knockouts (many by head kick, mind you) instead of squeaking by on judges' scorecards.

    Though he might have lacked the mainstream clout to earn a massive payday in the boxing ring, it's hard to argue that he wouldn't have given professional boxers plenty of trouble in his heyday. His only boxing match ended in victory after a minute, and with more focused training and refinement, he could have been something special at cruiserweight.

    Ideal Opponent: Evander Holyfield, 2010

6. Chuck Liddell

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    If you're looking to talk mainstream, Chuck Liddell would have been the guy in the mid-2000s. When the UFC was exploding, Liddell was the face of the barnstorm.

    He was getting minor endorsements and television and movie appearances at a time when MMA was just emerging from the dark ages in North America. He had the skills to pay the proverbial bills, but at the same time he had a look that drew attention.

    He was the total package.

    Scowl permanently etched beneath a handlebar moustache, mohawk uniquely close-cropped and creating space for his head tattoos, and penchant for exploding in a yelling fit after demolishing some poor schlub who dared try to take his world title from him, Liddell was terrifying.

    Nobody would have wanted to fight him in any context, be it the cage, the bar or the ring.

    If they could have found a boxing heavyweight willing to try, the whole world would have been interested. Though he was a karate and kickboxing practitioner by trade, he was highly skilled with his hands; he won eight of nine fights between 2003 and 2006, and every one of them was a stoppage via punches.

    Consider that names like Hasim Rahman, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko and Nikolai Valuev were holding titles when he was at his peak, and it's easy to see the appeal in matching them up against Liddell in the 225-pound range.

    Unlike some on this list, Liddell never took a boxing fight in his career. Still, based on what he did in the cage and the way he did it, plus the level of stardom he achieved, he'd have made a great headliner.

    Ideal Opponent: Hasim Rahman, 2007

5. Anderson Silva

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Speaking of skill and star power, how many people have been at the level of Anderson Silva in both realms? Not many.

    Though he's older now and subsequently resigned to battles with the Derek Brunsons of the world, there was a time when Silva's name on a boxing marquee would have had combat sports buzzing. Silva himself even knew as much, lobbying to fight Roy Jones Jr. for years right up until it was shut down as a proposition for the Mayweather-McGregor undercard.

    It wouldn't have even been foreign to him, as he's 1-1 in boxing, having fought in 1998 and 2005.

    Silva, today a step from his prime, still has exceptional understanding of footwork and balance. It would have served him nicely in a pro boxing match when he was at his peak. He's notorious for his powerful counterstriking and straight, crisp punches, which also would have been useful tools in the squared circle.

    The biggest concern for a Silva boxing headliner would have surely been his volatility, as he was always known to be temperamental if the opponent or circumstances weren't to his liking. Give him Chris Leben or Forrest Griffin, and you'd get the type of violent poetry nobody else in combat sports could provide. Give him Thales Leites or Patrick Cote, and he'd infuriate you with disinterest and inactivity until you demanded your money back in outrage.

    Either way, though, people would have been fascinated at the prospect of The Spider in the big gloves for a night—and justifiably so. He's likely the best to ever compete in MMA.

    Ideal Opponent: Roy Jones Jr., 2009

4. Ronda Rousey

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    If McGregor, the biggest star in the UFC, can do it, why couldn't Rousey? Over the past couple of years, it was her and McGregor carrying the stardom flag for the promotion—they even shared a video game cover together—and she's no less qualified than McGregor on paper.

    He combat sports experience spanned decades in amateur judo, right up to her Olympic bronze in 2008. As of her semi-retirement in 2016, she had 14 pro MMA fights with another three amateur bouts. Furthermore, in 2014 and 2015, her wins were beginning to come via strikes, which may also have influenced her chances of heading to boxing for a bout.

    Given the Nevada Athletic Commission apparently has considered broader combat sports experience in licensing McGregor, there's no reason to think it wouldn't have done the same for Rousey.

    Though her experiences against gifted strikers has been problematic in MMA, there was even a time when people wondered if she might ride her popularity over into a boxing payday the way McGregor eventually did. Also, given her profile in the sporting and cultural mainstreams, it's a near certainty she'd have made a lot of people—herself included—rich by hopping into the ring.

    As it stands, however, it's unlikely Rousey will compete in any combat sport ever again. Dana White is on record saying he believes she's done with MMA and that she wants to start a family. There are also rumblings she might be making her way to a WWE ring in the not-too-distant future.

    Still, in her time, there's no question she would have gotten major attention for making the jump.

    Ideal Opponent: Lucia Rijker, 2014

3. Nate Diaz

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Where better to start than with McGregor's truest MMA nemesis, one Mr. Nathan Diaz?

    Diaz memorably ranted about McGregor after pounding Michael Johnson into the dirt on Fox in December 2015, demanding the Irishman meet him in the Octagon after "taking everything [Diaz] worked for."

    He got his wish.

    A series of fortuitous events followed for Diaz. A few months later, he was not only thrust into a fight with McGregor on nine days' notice, but he was also smacking him around the cage and choking him out before two rounds were through.

    It was about as genuinely shocking a moment as MMA has ever produced, and he became an overnight sensation a decade in the making.

    In actuality though, Diaz has long been lauded for his hands in the MMA space. While his footwork is sometimes plodding and deliberate, his ability to maintain a high workrate and land shots both from range and inside is among the best in the game.

    He's also highly skilled at cutting angles to lead into his slapping lead-hand hook and left-handed body shots out of the southpaw stance. It's a skill that would mesh nicely with traditional boxing rules if he worked to polish it a bit over the course of a training camp or two.

    All of this, coupled with the fact that he has plenty of experience in the ring with high-level pro boxers like Andre Ward, would position him to be the perfect blend of skill and star power to make something of himself as a boxing headliner.

    Ideal Opponent: David Lemieux, 2016

2. Brock Lesnar

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Let's not get anything twisted about this: Brock Lesnar cannot box. He can't punch, he has bad footwork and he hates to be hit.

    But Lesnar is a star. And if there's any part of you that thinks he wouldn't have done a massive pay-per-view number when he was at his UFC peak, you are mistaken.

    Lesnar is among the all-time athletes ever seen in professional sports. He's a multiple-time WWE champion, a former UFC heavyweight champion and a guy who narrowly missed out on an NFL career that he undertook more or less on a whim.

    He even managed to walk off the scripted pages of the WWE for a month last year to headline UFC 200 and beat the beloved Mark Hunt out of the blue (though the win was marred by a performance-enhancing drug suspension and subsequently overturned).

    Lesnar is a draw in every sense of the word, and a foray into boxing for him might look similar to the Phil Brooks/CM Punk UFC saga that played out in 2016. The right boxing promoter would find a capable, raw young heavyweight to test Lesnar in a bout supporting a bigger star on pay-per-view.

    In fact, considering Lesnar is still rumored to be interested in returning to combat sports, just imagine the hoopla that would have surrounded him booked under Mayweather-McGregor or Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin in September. He'd probably add 800,000 pay-per-view buys or more just on his name recognition and crossover appeal to pro wrestling fans.

    Competitively? Yeah, this is silly. But from a cash-generation standpoint? Lesnar to boxing would make all the sense in the world.

    Ideal Opponent: Francois Botha, 2012

1. Georges St-Pierre

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Similar to Liddell, Georges St-Pierre was a karate-based superstar during the sport's greatest growth period. He was decidedly different in his approach, however, developing a yearslong win streak on a cerebral attack that evolved out his karate footwork and into some of the best wrestling and boxing in the game.

    St-Pierre was often criticized for abandoning the pursuit of a finish later in his career, instead more interested in minimizing risk by taking fights down his easiest path to victory. Against strikers, this often meant he'd work powerful double-leg takedowns and ground-and-pound. Against grapplers, he'd be happy to work behind the lethal jab he found later in his career and run away on points.

    It put him in the position to be the face of the sport, securing massive pay-per-view paydays and a host of prominent sponsorships. He was repeatedly named Canada's Athlete of the Year at his peak and is still revered by the masses now as he plans his comeback from a four-year hiatus in late 2017.

    St-Pierre would have been an ideal candidate to make a one-night sojourn into boxing, much as McGregor will against Mayweather. He has a similar work ethic and obsession with greatness to McGregor—running so deep in his prime that he blamed it for his burnout after UFC 167—and would surely have devoted the same level of resources and discipline to a run in the sweet science.

    Ever the gentleman, the only thing that would have been missing for St-Pierre in boxing would have been trash talk. Even so, it never harmed his drawing power in MMA, and you can rest assured he'd have moved units in the ring as well.

    Ideal Opponent: Carl Froch, 2011


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