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Click Debate: With top MMA fighters wanting to box, what are challenges facing regulators?

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Stipe Miocic wants to box Anthony Joshua. Jimi Manuwa wants to face David Haye. Jose Aldo and Cris Cyborg are planning transitions to boxing.

In the wake of Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, the MMA-fighter-turned-boxer trend is real. Just take a look at social media. Rarely do a few days go by when some mixed martial artist isn’t openly contemplating stepping into the boxing ring.

McGregor has said he’ll make in the range of $100 million for the August fight with Mayweather and obviously people have noticed that purses for high-profile boxing main events are typically more lucrative than purses in the UFC on a similar scale. With boxing hotter in 2017 than it has been in a long time, MMA fighters are clearly catching the bug.

All of this talk — and already some action — could put some unique pressure on regulators. UFC standouts like Miocic, Manuwa and Aldo don’t want an entry-level opponent in boxing. They want big, money fights. Miocic is the UFC heavyweight champion and Aldo is the former two-time featherweight champ.

But they’re also neophyte pro boxers and it’s up to athletic commissions to determine what is an appropriate matchup for them from a health and safety standpoint.

“Getting a license in boxing in the state of California — a professional boxing license — is quite easy,” California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive officer Andy Foster said. “Getting approved for a contest, to actually compete is not easy.”

McGregor, Cyborg and Nate Diaz are all currently licensed to box in California. None of them have attempted to actually fight there yet, though. All currently under UFC contract, the promotion would have to allow any crossover into boxing the way they did for McGregor.

The Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) was panned by some critics for approving Mayweather vs. McGregor. Mayweather is one of the best boxers in history, while McGregor had no pro boxing experience whatsoever. All MMA fighters train in boxing, obviously. But that isn’t the same thing as getting in the ring with elite opponents.

Mayweather vs. McGregor, in reality, ended up being fine. McGregor even won some of the early rounds before Mayweather knocked him out in the 10th. Beforehand, Foster told reporters that he would not have approved that bout. He stands by that now, though he admits it wasn’t the fight he thought it would be.

“That fight was more competitive than I thought it was gonna be,” Foster said. “I thought Conor did quite well there for a little while. I don’t like to talk in things I already know — hindsight is always 20/20. I don’t think it’s a bad decision. [Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett] did a lot more research than I did. He looked into it a lot more.

“I think any time you have an 0-0 boxer versus a world champion — and let’s take Conor and Floyd out of it — an 0-0 boxer and they want to go fight a world champion boxer, I think anybody, no matter the name, would be a reason to pause over here and look at it really hard.”

Bennett did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

New Jersey State Athletic Control Board commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr. said his state has not seen an uptick in MMA fighters applying for boxing licenses. High-level amateur wrestlers bypassing amateur MMA for the pros is far more common, per Hazzard, who cited UFC fighters Chris Weidman and Gregor Gillespie as examples. Thai boxers and kick boxers applying for MMA licenses is also more frequent in New Jersey, he said.

If an MMA fighter does apply for a boxing license, Hazzard said, the things that the NJSACB would consider are trainer recommendations, video review of sparring, amateur boxing competition, stand-up striking ability shown in MMA and MMA competition level. In approving matchups, Hazzard said he’ll also take into account how hard the foe hits.

“When considering match making, punching power of the opponent should be considered along with their skill and competition level,” Hazzard said.

MMA fighters licensed in New Jersey seem to have more diverse amateur backgrounds, Hazzard said. Quite a few have amateur boxing, kickboxing and grappling competitions under their belt. UFC contender Jimmie Rivera and prospect Julio Arce have “extensive” amateur boxing and kickboxing experience, per Hazzard.

“I believe the transition from MMA to boxing, while presenting challenges, is much simpler than a boxer transitioning to MMA,” Hazzard said. “Thus, the licensing process is somewhat easier.”

Foster doesn’t necessarily disagree. Much in the same way an 0-0 boxer probably should not be fighting world-class competition in the boxing ring, an 0-0 MMA fighter who might be a great boxer shouldn’t go out and face a UFC champion in mixed martial arts. It’s impossible to be sure of a fighter’s prowess in any combat sport if they have no experience in it, Foster said.

“How do you know?” said Foster, who was an amateur boxer and professional MMA fighter. “You just don’t know. With fighters with records, you know. This isn’t against MMA fighters coming to box, it would be against the boxers, too. I wouldn’t let a high-level boxer, like an up-and-coming guy like Christian Gonzalez, I wouldn’t let him go fight a Tony Ferguson or something in MMA. That wouldn’t make any sense.”

If a top MMA fighter with great skills standing up crossed over into boxing, Foster said he would be willing to match that athlete up with a “high-level” boxer, but not a world champion.

“World champion is quite a few steps up from that,” Foster said. “Let’s see how they’d do with eight rounds against a high-level fighter. I don’t think we should be making decisions in the dark on somebody’s abilities when we don’t have a track record. I do think records matter, I do believe that. In some respects.”

It seems like, at least in the influential state of California, someone like Miocic probably wouldn’t be able to face Joshua right off the bat, nor would Aldo be allowed to face someone like Miguel Cotto or Keith Thurman. For that matter, Foster probably wouldn’t approve Paulie Malignaggi to face McGregor in MMA, either.

“MMA fighters train boxing, among other things,” Foster said. “It’s not like they don’t know how to box — of course they know how to box some. But boxers are specialists, especially high-level boxers. All I’m saying is that mixed martial artists who want to come box, they’ll almost always be granted a license, especially if they have a license in mixed martial arts. If you have a high-level mixed martial artist, it hardly ever equates to an automatic, high-level match in boxing. And vice versa, I would point out.”

For every McGregor vs. Mayweather, there’s a tragic case like Tim Hague, a UFC veteran and successful MMA fighter who was approved to fight a boxing prospect with a 7-1 (6 KOs) record in Adam Braidwood back in June in Edmonton, Alberta. Hague was only 1-2 as a boxer with a knockout loss just six months earlier. Hague was knocked out by Braidwood and died two days after the fight due to injuries sustained in the ring.

While fantasy matchmaking with MMA fighters and boxers from afar is fun, the reality is stark. And it’s possible this is a quagmire that regulators will be faced with more and more in the future.

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