<
>

MMA pioneers meet boxing's forebears

Igor Vovchanchyn's all-angles striking style became the template for modern MMA combat. Luke Power/Sherdog.com

As mixed martial arts heads into the latter half of its second decade of worldwide exposure, the legacies of the sport's pioneers are easily forgotten. Today's athletes build upon a hard-learned template of preparation, technical refinement and know-how, elements largely built from scratch.

Watch some fights from even just five years ago and observe the tactics and process of matches unfolding -- at times it seems like a different sport. Nothing changes so much as an activity that goes from being a niche attraction to a worldwide phenomenon, with the sum total of human knowledge rapidly accelerating how participants approach it.

Boxing has many parallels with MMA, particularly when one examines the vital pre-World War II era, during which the pioneers of the sport helped forge the way. The sweet science and MMA both benefited from their earliest pioneers, whose achievements and approach mirror each other's -- whether in their public personas, fighting styles or approaches to competition.

Here's a closer look at some of MMA's figures and their historical boxing counterparts.

Dan Severn: John L. Sullivan

Larger than life, and with a thirst for it to match, the great John L. Sullivan is universally recognized as the first heavyweight champion and perhaps the most famous off all bare-knuckles boxers. As much an icon of late 19th-century America as boxing itself, Sullivan had a physicality and imposing style that were underscored by a gameness few could match. Witness his stupefying 75-round battle with Jake Kilrain.

When Dan Severn materialized at UFC 4, his timing couldn't have been better. As a powerful wrestler with a 260-pound frame and imposing quickness, Severn showed how important a wrestling base could be. Like Sullivan's bare-knuckle, near-death experience with Kilrain in the Mississippi heat, Severn's 15-minute battle with Royce Gracie was riveting theater. In an era with no stand-ups or rounds, their climactic struggle culminated with Gracie's science prevailing -- but only after one helluva struggle. Like Sullivan, Severn embodied the natural advantages of a physical style -- he just never seemed to refine his technical game to the point that he could adapt to a changing sport.

Severn, who fought into his 50s, is owed a thank-you from every wrestler in the sport today for representing what many believe is the best core discipline in the MMA game. Plus, both he and Sullivan rocked awesome moustaches -- which is 10 kinds of awesome.

Igor Vovchanchyn: Joe Jeannette

As the original sprawl-and-brawl stylist, Vovchanchyn was years ahead of his time. And he packed considerable power, to boot. His violent dissections of opponents overshadowed his considerable skills -- but from a technical perspective, he did things that basically opened up new areas and methods to strike. Whether it was a violent up-kick at an opponent coming down at him, a thumping elbow to the head while fighting off a takedown, or his trademark bombs landed in stand-up exchanges, Vovchanchyn's ability to beat an opponent a million different ways had no equal when he was in his prime.

Given the circumstances of his career and the timeline of the sport's explosion, Igor was a star in the Pride organization yet remains largely unknown by today's casual fan. But his contributions to the sport were considerable. Vovchanchyn showed that a fighter could take a strike-first approach as long as he had a strong takedown defense. His offensive mindset helped pull the sport back from a ground-heavy approach, paving the way for the integrated style we associate with today's MMA.

Joe Jeannette was another great fighter with a timing problem: He arrived in the early 20th century along with several other great black heavyweights. With the champions of the time drawing a color line, Jeannette -- a marvelously gifted fighter with power in both hands and technical acumen galore -- was forced to fight numerous black contemporaries, many on multiple occasions. These included stalwarts such as Jack Johnson, Sam Langford (15 times), Sam McVey and Harry Wills. If Jeannette had come along during a different era (he fought from 1904 to 1922), history surely would look a little different. The same can be said of Igor's decline coinciding with the explosion of MMA's popularity.

Jeremy Horn: Tommy Loughran

One of the great light heavyweights of the 1920s, Loughran epitomized refinement, technical know-how and thinking on your feet. The slick boxer would spend hours watching himself in the mirror, studying the placement of his hands and feet and fine-tuning every move until it became second nature. There wasn't a lot of flash or knockout machismo in Loughran's approach. He just picked apart an opponent's every flaw and made him pay for the smallest mistake -- things few other fighters could capitalize on.

Largely forgotten by all except boxing historians, Loughran helped advance the pure-boxer template that Willie Pep and other high-minded technicians later improved upon. Loughran also was exceptionally effective against heavyweights, including future champs Jim Braddock and Max Baer, despite his lack of strength and size. Loughran also lost a decision in a title shot against behemoth Primo Carnera, but even then he was unique in his approach. Knowing Carnera would throw his 260 pounds of bulk on him in the clinches, before the bout he smeared his hair in a foul-smelling grease that kept Carnera from staying in close.

If Jeremy Horn had been an old-time boxer, that's exactly the strategy he would have considered. Horn is early MMA's best example of a fighter integrating disciplines seamlessly into one another. While most of his contemporaries had a seeming stop-start button when transitioning between grappling, striking and positional moves, Horn's game was wonderfully advanced for its time. Many moves you see in matches today -- such as the cross-mount palm-elbow to the face -- were popularized by Horn and shared with teammates such as Matt Hughes.

Horn was also an incredibly active fighter -- much like Loughran, who had 174 bouts and boxed 1,280 rounds -- with well over 100 bouts. Yet he has been knocked out only twice and submitted eight times (according to our records at Sherdog.com; Horn's exact record remains forever unquantifiable).

Horn never held a major championship, but his vast experience and tactical fighting IQ made him a walking dictionary for what did and didn't work in the sport. Based on those merits alone, he's a champion like none mixed martial arts has ever seen.

Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.