Boxing. For western martial artists it’s been the go striking art for what feels like an eternity. In the realm of mixed martial arts it was once the preferred striking option for the dominant wrestler. Matt Hughes, Frank Trigg, Randy Couture, and Sean Sherk were just a few fighters from the old school era of the sport that utilized a hybrid boxing and wrestling game. When BJ Penn came onto the scene he utilized a similar approach albeit with more knees and a suffocating jiu jitsu top game. Penn was a man to fear based on his solid boxing skill and ability to dominate on the ground if in top position. But what we saw yesterday showcased the fact that having a terrifying boxing game isn’t going to cut it in the current landscape of mixed martial arts.
Many will undoubtedly point to the fact that BJ Penn had seen better days. It’s true that Penn has looked sharper and more dangerous in the past. It’s also true that at this point the Hawaiian native is past his prime and likely had no business being in the cage with Yair Rodriguez. While those arguments may be valid, I’m finding it hard to see how an even in his prime BJ Penn gets the victory over Rodriguez. Why? Because of Penn’s limited boxing attack.
Yes, I’m a huge fan of traditional martial arts and I’m even of the idea that it may be the best striking art in the MMA today. A lot of you may think I’m biased because of that fact, but let’s just take a moment to look at the facts.
Boxing is a tool that is undoubtedly needed in every fighter’s arsenal. When you’re in the pocket you have little options to utilize. You’re either going to look for the clinch, throw elbows or knees, or look to throw punches. Most every fighter falls in the latter category and with good reason. Punching in the pocket allows for power, precision, and quicker reactions than say trying to throw a kick from the same position. But once out of the close range, once there’s some distance between you and your opponent, a punching game is going to be harder to employ.
In the main event of UFC Fight Night 103, what we saw was a Penn who was looking to utilize a punching based attack where Rodriguez looked to work from the outside where his longer limbs and strikes would serve him best. Throwing jabs and feints is an effective method of closing the distance and it’s exactly what Penn was likely planning. Too bad for the Hall of Famer that Rodriguez had no intentions of letting remaining in boxing range. Rodriguez utilized some slick movement to ensure that Penn would always be at kicking distance. Rodriguez’s own boxing leaves much to be desired, but thus far he’s been able to use his taekwondo effectively enough that striking in the pocket hasn’t been an option.
So why does it seem like I’m trashing boxing? Well, first off I’m not. Boxing is fundamental in a good striking game. But the problem is when boxing is a fighters only means of attack. The distancing of boxing isn’t enough to contend against a style that utilizes kicks. Rodriguez could comfortably land strikes from a distance while Penn was left to figure out how to close distance and land his own meaningful offense. Barring some unique genetics, a fighter’s legs are usually going to be longer than their arms. Their legs will more than likely be longer than their opponents arms. Putting two and two together easily reveals that a fighter with a good kicking game holds an advantage over a striker who only utilizes punches.
Yes, there are ways to countering against kicks with punches. We’ve seen enough accounts of a counter punch landed before, during, or after a kick is launched end a bout with devastating results. The X-Factor in all this is the distancing game. Styles like taekwondo and karate are based on hitting from a distance and not being hit in return. When striking from a long distance, the chances for being countered with a punch drops drastically. It doesn’t mean a competent puncher couldn’t land his own blows, but it does mean that how they close the distance will be paramount to their success.
So while BJ Penn may not be quite his old self, the reality is that even if he was in his prime he likely would have had trouble closing distance on a striker with a versatile striking game like Rodriguez. Boxing may have it’s merit, but at this stage of the game distancing is key. Whoever can adapt the superior distancing game whether that be through footwork or a sharp kicking game, is likely going to be the victor in modern MMA.
What’s your thoughts on traditional boxing in MMA?
Jonathan Salmon is a writer, martial arts instructor, and geek culture enthusiast. Check out his Twitter and Facebook to keep up with his antics.
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