Which is better: Mixed martial arts or boxing? The young upstart, or the grizzled veteran who has been around the block a couple of times?
To settle this important debate, we're taking the fight to the streets, pitting ESPN The Magazine's Tim Struby against colleague Ryan Hockensmith. The showdown begins today at noon ET. After 12 rounds of verbal jousting, we'll put some ice on the wounds and let SportsNation determine the winner.
Tim Struby: I wasn't born into boxing. My father never took me to the fights or sat me on his lap on a Saturday to watch Ali-Foreman or Hearns-Leonard. I doubt the guy could tell the difference between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jackie Robinson. So my love of boxing isn't some teary-eyed, Field of Dreams-esqe romanticism. It's not a yearning for the 'good old days.' My passion developed two-fold -- both parts, coincidentally, around a left hook.
The first? I boxed. A few years out of college, I found myself in a dingy (a kind description) boxing gym above a funeral home in the Bronx. No air conditioning. No running water. A slightly insane trainer. After a few weeks he put me in with a seasoned pro with a mean streak who, after knocking out both my contacts, floored me with a left hook to the body. But I got up. And then I was hooked.
The second? I'd occasionally watched live boxing, seen old films of Ali and the greats, but it hadn't piqued my interest. Until a warm night in August 1998, when a scrapper named Arturo Gatti faced off against a Philadelphia junior welterweight named Ivan Robinson. Despite a loss, Gatti fought as valiently as any man I'd ever seen. Just when I thought he was finished, he'd fire off left hooks and find himself back in the fight (it won Fight of the Year honors). I'd seen great sporting events -- from the Dolphins-Chargers famed playoff game to my hometown Mets staving off defeat in the 1986 World Series -- but I'd never seen anything like this.
As for MMA? I understand the business savvy behind it, the buzz, and hey, look at the ratings! Spike TV never had it so good. But the product itself? The cure for insomnia. And until someone shows me the MMA equivalent of Gatti-Robinson (or something close), I'm switching the TV to something else. Maybe some boxing classics on ESPN 2
Ryan Hockensmith: First of all, let me say this: I love boxing, too. I love the sport. It gets knocked as a dying sport, from people who don't really peer into the raw data on this. Come up with another sport where you could put together a big event once a month and have, say, 400,000 people pay $40 or $50 to watch it. Because that's what boxing does. Think people would pay to watch, say, the entire World Series, for $50? Or even the entire NBA playoffs? Or the NHL Well, if I need to make the argument that nobody cares about hockey any more, then I want the man in the lab coat to first put you back in your "special jacket."
I'm a realist, too, though. Boxing will never again be what Tim remembers. And unfortunately, that makes Tim (and all those other boxing die-hards with their heads buried in the beach) exactly what he says he's not. He's clinging to the past. He's thinking of boxing as "The Sweet Science" instead of a sport where guys try to de-head each other for an hour on Saturday night. And he's overlooking the main problem with boxing: The sport itself is broken beyond repair. When Tim -- or anybody, for that matter -- rattles off great boxing matches, see how many fights they mention that have occurred, you know, RECENTLY. Corrales-Castillo maybe? And that fight perfectly summarizes how badly boxing is broken. When everybody demanded a rematch, what happened?
Tim's again clinging too hard to the past when he talks about what a bore MMA bouts are. This year, the UFC has had a rash of stunning upsets (Matt Serra over Georges St. Pierre, Rampage Jackson over Chuck Liddell, and on and on), and the numbers completely contradict that idea. The vast majority of people thinks that MMA blows away boxing. I'm one of that majority. It's just not even close. When we had Tim write something a few issues ago for The Magazine about the dream boxing matchups for the upcoming year, we came up with a list of fantastic fights that would draw major PPV buys. Except most of them will never happen because the WBC won't let the WBO champ step in the ring because the WBA commissioner's wife doesn't like the W-whatever's commissioner's wife, blah blah blah. On the other hand, ask an MMA fan to come up with a list of dream fights, and I'll send you the Web link with the date it'll happen.
Struby: Lots of points here (including the one where Ryan's insuating I'm an old man ). In the words of Mark Twain, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." People have been predicting the death of boxing for 50 years. Howard Cosell did. And guess what? May set the monthly record for ALL-TIME PPV (Mayweather and Cotto bouts). Boxing goes through phases -- there's a dearth of heavyweights now, but the welterweight division might be as good as it's ever been.
Is the MMA a bore? There were a string of recent upsets. Very true. But they were boring upsets. You happen to check out Cotto-Judah last week? Was that recent enough, my young historian?
Hockensmith: Not many points (good ones, anyway) made by my colleague.
OK, a good month. And I'm not sure how Cotto-Judah in June factors into May PPV sales, but Tim's living in Utah now. And he's sick. And he's arguing an impossible topic here. So we'll cut him some slack.
Cotto-Judah? How excited could you get? It was one guy beating the other guy up badly. True, Judah was valiant. But he took a beating, spent about five minutes whining about low blows and just doesn't matter much in the sport.
A huge upset, one with a knockout as an exclamation, is exciting. It just is.
And if you want lengthy, exciting wars, how about Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar? Randy Couture manhandling Tim Sylvia? Liddell knocking out Tito Ortiz? Couture toppling Liddell the first time? I can keep going if you'd like.
Struby: One guy (Cotto) assulting the other (Judah) for 11 rounds (it was stopped -- a TKO) is a thing of beauty. Valor, heart, ebb and flow. Now, don't get me wrong. The MMA fighters are some exceptionally brave fellows. They display heart and courage (although generally not as much required of boxers -- solely because of the nature of MMA stoppages. Which make the sport SAFER than boxing). They are exceptional athletes. Nice guys, too. That's not the issue.
The problem lies with the fighting itself. What's lacking is the ebb and flow. It's choppy, unruly. Tides turn in MMA matches, but the drama isn't sustained, as it is in boxing. That's what makes boxing so beautiful (at its highest level) and so brutal.
Hockensmith: First, let me just get this out of the way, because I'm about to be thrown in a nasty rear naked choke at my desk. I sit near the hockey and college basketball departments, and nobody's happy about the shot I took at the NHL. Especially pitbulls Elena Bergeron and Sarah Turcotte. They're frothing back there, and not in hearty laughter at Tim's hollow arguments. So I apologize. Hockey is great. Sarah and Elena are great. And smart. And beautiful. And tough. Tougher even than Chuck Norris (don't mean to get off on a Chuck Norris tangent here, but MMA begins and ends with the man. And so do most things in life.) Now, back to our discussion
Wow, I can't believe you keep climbing up off your stool, old man. No mas, Struby! No mas! I disagree about Cotto-Judah. One man assaulting another is great? Says who? Aren't there supposed to be two fighters in there? Why not watch Cotto pound on a punching bag, then? Also disagree with the drama point. Just watch any of those fights I mentioned. Or this weekend's UFC event. Or an IFL event, where there's the added team scoring. They're better fights.
Struby: One: Did you watch the Cotto fight? It was superb.
Two: Stop sucking up to your co-workers. You haven't watched a minute of hockey in years.
Three: Dana White (a fine chap), personally sent me a DVD with his top 5 UFC fights of all time. (It's actually labeled like that -- people can bid for it on eBay after this debate.) By the third fight, my neighbor (an MMA fan) and I were dozing off. And it wasn't because I'm deathly ill.
Four: Let's talk about the MMA crowd at these events. Sort of like a cross between a truck-pull and the green room at the Jerry Springer show. Pure blood lust. They'd cheer if our grandmothers faced off.
Hockensmith: One: Watched the fight. It was a one-sided mauling. You said as much.
Two: You're right. I haven't watched a minute of hockey in years. But I know four of the 11 people who have. So I've got that going for me.
Three: So Dana White's picks might not have been great. Betcha, though, if you throw out the fights he listed, you would get big-time disagreement. I know one of them was Ortiz-Liddell. Not a fantastic bout, if you only watch the fight. But Liddell, at the time, hadn't been beaten in years. And Tito actually won a round and was giving Chuck a hard time. Then he went down. Hard. Factor in an awesome backstory (by the way, the UFC tells those backstories way better than boxing does these days), and people loved the fight. You didn't, but I think we all know by this point that you're predisposed to not like the sport. Plus, you're really, really, really old.
Four: I hate to say this, but I agree a little bit about the crowd. But you really are senile if you want to argue the intelligence levels of MMA crowds vs. boxing crowds. Let's just say that Mensa doesn't do much recruiting at either sport's events.
One more thing about the whole sustained drama thing. Take the mega-fight of the millennium, Mayweather-De La Hoya. I loved the fight. Thought it was great. Thought it was magnificent boxing. But most people didn't. Talk about choppy action -- they now have Mayweather's picture (sombrero and all) beside that phrase in the dictionary.
Struby: First of all, I'm always right. Let's get that clear
Listen, I'm not going to argue about MMA promotions. The Fertitta brothers didn't build the most profitable casino in Vegas becasue they are rubes. But 'telling the backstory better' (whatever that means) doesn't mean a good fight. And they aren't. Why? Because those goons are practicioners of many disciplines, masters of none. That's right. They're average boxers. Average wrestlers. Average kickboxers. You don't see a violin soloist at the Philharmonic playing the drums as well, do you?
I mean, you have heard of the Philharmonic, haven't you?
Hockensmith: OK, you're always right. But please, you were supposed to take your medication an hour ago.
Come on, the stories of these fighters make the fights. People want to know who they're rooting for, or rooting against. Why should we care right now about Mayweather, or Jermain Taylor, or just about any boxer? They have good stories, but nobody's hearing them.
Masters of none? Average? There are guys who are Olympic gold-medal winners in wrestling, back belts in karate, former pro boxers. That's just ridiculous.
And yes, I've heard of the Philharmonic. That's the "Saturday Night Live" guy who was also on "The Simpsons."
Struby: As for backstories -- boxing has history on its side. An MMA event might have fireworks and light shows, and TV screen and whatever else to get audiences amped up, but boxing has loads of tradition and backstory. Irish vs. Italians vs. African-Americans vs. Mexicans vs. Puerto Ricans. You name it. If you'd been at the Cotto fight, you would have seen what I mean. No laser lights needed for excitement.
Hockensmith: Boxing does have history. But the UFC, IFL and MMA as a whole are making history. This isn't going anywhere. Track interest in every big sport except the NFL and you'll see interest is dwindling. Reality is, MMA is exploding upward. It is. By any measure. It will be even bigger in five years, and bigger than that in 10 years, and on and on. Lots of sports people are underestimating that, and that might be why every year audiences for the so-called "major sports" dwindle. You're giving boxers too much credit for being amazing technicians. Give us a break. They punch people in the face and take punches in the face.
Struby: Sadly, an MMA fighter doesn't have the honed skills of a fighter. Never will. There are Olympic wrestlers and pro fighters but none who are both. They can't. Not the fighters' fault -- you just can't be a master of so many disciplines.
Hockensmith: There's a lot of debate going on in the "comments" section about an MMA guy vs. a boxer. We all can admit that if a boxer fights an MMA guy with MMA rules, the MMA guy wins. And if an MMA guy fights a boxer with boxing rules, the boxer wins. But tell me this: if Randy Couture fought Oleg Maskaev in both the ring and the Octagon, wouldn't any sane person agree that Couture would fare far better in the ring than Maskeav would in the Octagon? It's not even close. (Note to Tim: please don't answer that question. I said SANE person.)
Struby: Pop quiz time! What do all of these things have in common? a) hula hoops b) beanie babies c) Rubik's cube d) MMA.
Hockensmith: They're part of a dopey point that Tim Struby is trying to make!
Struby: Did you just use the term 'dopey?' You are an MMA fan!
I'm making the point that lots of people have jumped on the bandwagon. MMA is hot. Buzzing. Part of the zeitgeist. Boxing, on the other hand, has seen better days. The organizations are a mess. The promoters are myopic. As a sport it's far from the mainstream. But it's like Evander Holyfield -- it's stuck around a LONG time. Why? Because of the product. Arturo Gatti's top 5 fights are better than the top MMA fights of all time. Simple.
Hockensmith: Do you own a dictionary? I'll read the dopey entry for you: "stupid; inane." I think your driver's license says that, too!
By the way, the UFC has been getting people to pay to watch its events since 1993. I guess when you're as old as Struby, 15 years is a fad.
One little anecdote to show how much better MMA world operates. When Tito Ortiz mauled Ken Shamrock and the PPV bout ended in a shaky stoppage, Dana White immediately announced a third fight between the two. And it was free. (OK, so the third fight was just as bad. At least we didn't have to pay to see it. We probably have to pay to watch Floyd Mayweather take a nap these days.)
Struby: Hey, the MMA guys have it right, putting together the best matches. Dana does a heck of a job. But tell me this: How much are those MMA guys getting paid? Not much. Certainly not enough -- the Fertittas are making money hand over fist at the expense of these guys. So guess what? The whole UFC will fall apart when fighters start holding out, start demanding more money. Then the MMA fiolks will get a taste of the boxing business. Free enterprise, young man.
P.S. I am not that old.
Hockensmith: Note: Tim Struby might indeed not be that old. But his arguments are. Yawn.
The fighters do not make enough money. Agreed. But the one-man leadership model is the only way to go. MMA -- and let's be sure to include the IFL in this discussion -- knows better and won't let that happen. The paychecks keep getting bigger, and so will the sport.
Struby: Time will tell. Maybe the UFC suits could get some advice from Vince McMahon. I mean, he produces a 'product' that gets pretty good numbers. More importantly, if you're looking for more evidence of quality bouts, look no further than this weekend -- Castillo-Hatton. Should be explosive unless you're listening to the young editor who claims there are no such fights any longer.
Hockensmith: I hope you're right about Castillo-Hatton. I'm rooting for that "free" bout to be great, too. The difference between MMA and what Vince McMahon does is that McMahon has a script and the "bouts" are rigged. Ask boxing and MMA fans which bouts are more likely to be fixed, and I think you know what the answer will be.
Struby: The final round. The championship round. Had a good time intellectually pushing our young editor from one corner of the ring to another. So I will sum things up and add a little bonus:
Hotter topic? MMA. Better promotion? MMA. Nicer guys? MMA. Better fights? Boxing. Simple.
Bonus: To further prove my allegations, I will invite three of our fine ESPN.com fans to join myself and the young editor for a night of fight viewing at my New York City apartment. Three MMA bouts and three fights. The young editor and I chose. Interested? E-mail me at email@example.com (if you live in the tri-state area) and let's get talking!
Hockensmith: This is the final round, so let's give Struby a round of applause for not tapping out. The guy has lost every round (minus, I admit, a few low blows, with more to come), and he's old and weak. If he owned a title belt (Tim's so old, he resorts to suspenders), it would be mine by now. Yet he fought valiantly. Thank you for giving me an easy stay-busy victory. Your great-grandkids are proud of their Pappy.
Better fights? Come on, Tim. Just not true that boxing has the better bouts.
I stopped taking Ambien for my sleep problems, and now just pop in the Jermain Taylor-Cory Spinks "championship" fight from a month ago. I'm out in half a round.
I'll take you up on that offer to watch fights at your house. It's the assisted-living place on Madison Avenue, right?
And there's the final bell
Who wins the belt? Vote now, SportsNation!
Tim Struby is a features writer for ESPN The Magazine. Ryan Hockensmith is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine. Chances are good they will speak again.