Which combat sport is more engaging, Boxing or MMA?

As the popularity of MMA and boxing viewership fluctuates, I’ve witnessed a growing debate between fans of combat sports about which is the more entertaining of the two. I’ve finally decided to throw my hat in the ring and I’ll no doubt get an earful from both sides since its mostly a matter of personal taste. To put it simply, I believe boxing to be the more engaging and entertaining of the two. Generally, the fighters are higher quality in terms of technique execution and the stylistic matchups never get old. Pugilism is one of the oldest and engaging combat sport in the world because I believe it’s found the perfect mix of aesthetic technique and athleticism with unrefined and sometimes crude tactics.

I’ve been watching MMA since the first Pride event and it’s grown by leaps and bounds in terms of the quality of the fighters and variety of styles. However, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in terms of training each fighter to be familiar with all aspects of fighting in the octagon. The majority of fighters still lack footwork, cage generalship and fight IQ under the MMA guidelines, which is understandable as the sport is still developing. MMA’s appeal has always been it’s somewhat unrefined strikers and how turbulent the matches can be. After almost 20 years the sloppiness has lost its appeal to me, the quality of strikers remain low and the wrestling can be repetitive and tedious and often makes the 5 minute rounds seem like 8 minutes. I’ve become disengaged and somewhat passive with the stand up game as the fighters throw too many feints, excessively showboat/goad, and when in trouble, grapple to no avail and are made to stand up to resume their battle of attrition without really risking anything or risking too much and not paying for it, to my dismay. From what I’ve seen, fighters either tend to be way too cautious, which we can all agree is boring in both MMA and one of the main criticisms of boxing as of late, or too careless, which can be appealing sometimes but usually leaves me frustrated.

First, I’ll address what frustrates me about the stand up in detail. Number one on my list is the lack of effective activity. The amount of time MMA fighters spend goading, feinting, staring, and circling each other is frankly unacceptable. The lack of jabs, teeps and low kicks in MMA is embarrassing. My internal monologue is mostly “DO SOMETHING, STEP IN AND JAB, CHAMBER A LOW KICK, ANYTHING! THROW A DAMN JAB!!!!!!!!” Many of you will comment on the dangers that arise when you make the first move, but in combat, effective aggression always pays. These are the least risky strikes to throw and I’ve seen many fighters utilize them perfectly on occasion, but the majority of the time they don’t throw or are so uncommitted with the jab it becomes an opening in their guard.

Secondly, many fighters go with the high risk-high reward strike, often times with questionable technique. I know in a match you can not expect the technique to be perfect, but there’s a point where the technique is so bad you question how much time they actually spent boxing/kickboxing. One of the most common punches thrown in and outside of the octagon is the overhand right and somehow they still manage to throw it with embarrassing technique and no set up. Rather than set up the power punch they just throw whatever power punch they can, giving up their footwork and balance, hoping it will connect. They can manage to make such a gamble but can’t bother to throw a decent jab or kick to set it up properly? Why be so cautious and conservative with the jabs if you’re going to throw caution to the wind anyway and get countered? Most of the time you’re met with one of two extremes: a measly 2-3 strikes combined thrown in the first few minutes or a flurry of punches that fall on the guard because they only headhunt and throw with such bad technique the power is comparable to a stiff jab. I’d very much like to see more jabs and more body shots as well as variations with strikes. I know 12 to 6 elbows are against the rules, but it’s also very rare to see elbows in stand up. Spinning elbows are common enough, but a typical Thai elbow in the clinch is rarely seen in stand up. MMA needs better trained and more complete strikers in order to become more immersive and less repetitive.

The lack of striking technique and variation isn’t entirely due to lack of training. The element of wrestling expends a lot of energy and adds another element of danger leading the fighters to be more cautious. However, the fear is still largely mental. Most of the fights of late have largely remained standing and the quality of striking has increased but the rate of exhaustion and the lack of activity and fight I.Q still leaves to be desired. However, these  conditions ultimately point to the KO/submission, one of MMA’s largest selling points. Most fight fans love to see a decisive win in the form of a choke or someone KO’d.  These are ultimately the goals of combat, but I believe the journey is more entertaining than the destination. Boxing leads in terms of the journey to the KO while MMA is more about the destination.

The quality of fighters and the broader rules of MMA provide an element of uncertainty in the results of a match. Someone could be leading the cards with their striking and one bad move gets them submitted; two strikers could be settled in and just throwing haymakers to see who drops first; a wrestler might advance at the wrong time and eat a nasty counter. Ultimately, the journey to the KO is irrelevant when you consider my standards of what makes an exciting fight. Fighters gasping after a few minutes of feinting and grappling, sub-par striking and positioning, and repetitive grappling all don’t provide nearly as much excitement or wonder as the culminating KO or submission. It can typically be 2-14 minutes of boredom leading up to the 10-20 seconds of excitement. The general ebb and flow of the match is usually irrelevant to the KO in MMA since there are so many different roads to the KO/submission, when it comes to boxing, most of the time the prior rounds tell the tale of how the knockout arises, be it consistent counters, bodywork, prior knockdowns, exhaustion, and who seems to have the better chin. While generally this is the case, there is still an element of turbulence when it comes to the heavier weight classes or two well known heavy-hitters in the ring.

I prefer to watch boxing because generally the fighters generally have more experience and are more comfortable with their unique styles and tactics. While there are still plenty of boxers that are sloppy and depend on their power more than technique and can have little to no ring IQ, they add an element of variety and uncertainty about their development as a fighter and the outcome of each match. I can enjoy an unrefined slugfest as well as a technical match in the same night but it can still be rather frustrating to watch for the same reasons MMA can be frustrating, perhaps even more so because boxing has been around for so long. There is no reason a professional boxer should have shoddy footwork, endurance, bad technique, or ring generalship, yet sometimes the most technically sound boxer loses to overwhelming power and vice versa; that is just the nature of combat.

Boxing has a problem with making some of the more enticing match ups happen with fighters playing it safe and the difficulty of organizing a fight with two boxers under different banners, be it Showtime or HBO, as well as agreeing on the fight purse and even what weight to fight at. It can be very frustrating to wait a few months to a few years to see a desired fight. Luckily there are plenty of fighters that don’t have this issue and you can find great fights of differing calibers and stylistic match ups in any and all weight classes. Although I prefer boxing to MMA, the combat sport I like the most happens to be kickboxing and Muay Thai. They can be as technically sound as a boxer, with more action per round and some devastating KOs. The fights only last from 3-5 rounds and in K-1 they are obligated to continually engage, hence why K-1 has one of the highest if not the highest finishing rates in all combat sports.

Unfortunately K-1 does not allow elbows and the clinch is not allowed to have more than one or two knees before they are broken up. Under Muay Thai rules, the first round is tends to be the slowest, yet this trend seems to be dying down even in the most traditional venues. At times their boxing technique may not be as refined as a kickboxer’s, but there is plenty of overlap between the two and make for exciting fights as you have some technically sound boxers vs more rough thai boxers and even some karate practitioners. It’s one of the most diverse and exciting of the three. Usually the discourse is between MMA and boxing since they have the biggest viewership and at times you can have a K-1 fight on the undercard of an MMA match.

So let’s try to compare apples to oranges: why boxing is more entertaining than MMA. Boxers are more proficient under their sport’s rules vis-à-vis their MMA counterparts under their rules. It’s much harder to avoid a loss by KO in boxing when you’ve been rocked and grappling can’t save you in boxing as much as I’ve seen it in MMA. Yes, sometimes there is excessive clinching, but typically it’s broken up and the guy ends up on the canvas. The early stoppages are less controversial in boxing than it tends to be in MMA and the KOs tend to be cleaner as well. Since boxing has been around longer, the stable for fighters is larger and the training is generally up to reasonable standards across the board.

With MMA, especially Bellator, the quality of training and the fighter’s ability is questionable. It’s really a gamble most of the time how prepared the fighters will be for stand up and groundwork. The pace of the fight is generally much faster in boxing and keeps your attention with the variation of strikes and where they’re aimed while MMA tends to be 2 dimensional with little strike variance. Usually a fighter has their preferred 2-3 strikes and rarely strays from them as the fight continues. The ground game finds either fighter vying for side control, keeping the guy in your guard, and pretty much just trying not to get submitted. Grappling is generally used as time for recovery rather than an actual wrestling match, slowing down the pace of the fight. The ground and pound is boring and lacks aesthetic unless they’re really in a great position and utilize their elbows effectively, and punches/hammerfists on the ground generally look like toddlers having a dispute over a toy car.

Overall, boxing has the edge in its consistently high pace, aesthetics in technique, cleaner KOs and higher consistency in quality of fighters. You can make a case for either as to what you prefer to spend your time watching. But I’d rather watch a boxing match go to decision rather than an MMA match. Ultimately, it’s easier to sum up an MMA match into a singular GIF whereas for boxing you would need more backstory on what set up the KO. As I mentioned earlier I prefer K-1 or Muay Thai to both since they are shorter and full of action and can be as technically sound as boxing or as rough as MMA.

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