Appeal Sports Writer

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September 18, 2007
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Judging MMA vs. boxing

It was barely four months ago and when Roger Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya was being billed as the "fight that would save boxing," any right-thinking boxing fan shook his head and passed off the notion as absurd.

After all, boxing didn't need saving and if it did Mayweather and De La Hoya wouldn't be the kind of matchup that would do the sport the kind of justice that Hagler-Hearns, Corrales-Castillo I, or Pryor-Arguello I or II once did.

But beginning with the Mayweather-De La Hoya snoozer a combination of factors have conspired to shine the spotlight on the Sweet Science, which beneath its tawdry surface isn't nearly as attractive as it once was - sort of like shorn Britney Spears without her makeup after a weekend binge.

As if the proliferation of sanctioning bodies and crooked promoters weren't bad enough, a slew of canceled fights - Fernando Vargas-Ricardo Mayorga, Juan Manuel Marquez-Jorge Barrios (and the subsequent Marquez-Rocky Juarez cancellation) and Vitali Klitschko-Jameel McCline - have kept the sport off Showtime and HBO (not to mention out of the newspapers) for nearly a month.

So, if this case of out of sight, out of mind hasn't further imperiled boxing, up steps its newest adversary: mixed martial arts (MMA).

Whether it's the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) or the newly created Elite Xtreme Combat (EliteXC), MMA has emerged to give boxing yet another kick to the cajones - or for that matter, get it in a keylock choke.

While boxing fans eagerly await Jermain Taylor-Kelly Pavlik - to be shown Sept. 29 on HBO - to once again supply the kind of action to make the sport relevant again, MMA is gobbling up the younger fan base with the speed of hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi.

For boxing promoter Gary Shaw, the decision to expand into MMA was an easy one. While he admits he is what he called "less than a novice" when it comes to knowing the nuances of the emerging sport, he has a pair of eyes and ears and a keen enough sense of perception to see where fight consumers' dollars are going and why.

While speaking about his new female "face of the MMA" - new signee Gina Carano, a former Reno resident now living in Las Vegas - Shaw said a world full of video-playing teenagers and young adults have found the sport of their dreams in the MMA, where use of elbows, knees, head butts and chokes are permitted in matches.

Factor in the gladiator-like confines of a cage instead of a ring, MMA has become Halo 3 to boxing's Pong, which many will argue is dated, outmoded and ready for the scrapheap.

MMA is so popular that the eminent Sports Illustrated featured the UFC on its May 28 cover. After a long hiatus, boxing finally made its return to SI's cover less than a month before, when it featured a preview on Mayweather-De La Hoya.

But the magazine allowed only three pages for its boxing piece, compared to eight for its UFC feature.

Reality TV has jumped aboard with its "The Ultimate Fighter" series, which it uses as a feeder system for the undercards of UFC's high-profile pay-per-view events, which easily outdraw boxing PPVs.

If "The Ultimate Fighter" is the Bismarck, then that boxing retread "The Contender" is the Hood and it's getting blown out of the water by its new foil, which is televised on Spike TV.

This raises the question: Can boxing, once the undisputed champion of sports in the early 20th century, survive the challenge of MMA?

The answer, although some will argue to the contrary, is yes.

If nothing else, boxing, for all its many ills, has proved time and again that it's as hard to kill as the cockroach population in New York City.

MMA is still in its infancy, so it's hard to say with conviction whether it's a phenomenon or a fad. Fourteen years ago, there weren't even rules to speak of - with the exception of barring biting, eye-gouging and fish-hooking - in UFC. The sport didn't even have any rounds, where it now has three five-minute rounds in non-title fights and five three-minute rounds in championship contests.

Comparing it to the evolution of boxing, MMA is where pugilism was in the first decade of the 1900s, roughly a decade or so after boxing did away with bare-knuckled combat.

In addition, boxing not only has a far longer history, it is firmly entrenched in the American tapestry and in the world's DNA, remaining a primary vehicle by which many of the world's downtrodden try to escape their harsh socioeconomic conditions.

And let's dispense with arguing who is better - a mixed martial artist or a boxer. If the combat is limited to boxing, the boxer will easily win. If the contest is under MMA rules, the mixed martial artist will prevail. It's that simple. End of discussion.

While the MMA can point to Ken and Frank Shamrock, Royce Gracie and Dan Severn as its progenitors, boxing's tradition is much richer. Casting aside non-heavyweights like Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson and Marvin Hagler, the heavyweight division alone is filled with historical names like John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, among others.

Compared to the pedigree of boxing, MMA names like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Randy Couture and Chuck "the Iceman" Liddell are like flavors of the month.

And the hot new technology - the almighty Internet - isn't exactly doing MMA any historical favors. Whereas boxing has been saved for posterity in books and uncountable magazines, the majority of MMA action is captured on Web sites, whose stories disappear into the same electronic ether whence they are formed.

What's more, Hollywood hasn't even managed to come up with the MMA version of "Rocky" or "Raging Bull."

Newer isn't necessarily better and there's no reason why someone can't enjoy both sports.

That said, even though the MMA has outdistanced and dated kickboxing and its legends Bill "Superfoot" Wallace and Kathy Long, compared to boxing it's still the new kid on the block.

Boxing has a saying: To be the champion, you have to beat the champion. And boxing, for all its faults, is still alive and well, the champion and the standard to which all combat sports will be compared.

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The Nevada Appeal Updated Sep 19, 2007 12:51AM Published Sep 18, 2007 03:00AM Copyright 2007 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.