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Martial Boxers

Martial Boxersby Guru Scott Mcquaid

The art of combat comes in many configurations, from wrestling to boxing to the martial arts, with each having their own techniques and disciplines. The blend of these fighting arts formed MMA (mixed martial arts), which in itself has created a new unique style of combat. The age old question asked by many has been which style of fighting is better, boxing or martial arts. Who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali.

The fact is they are one of the same. Any realistic practitioner of the martial arts should always consider incorporating boxing components. Each martial system has their strengths - Muay Thai fighters are perhaps the hardest kickers, while Ju-Jitsu Senseis are very effective in locking joints, and Silat gurus are exceptional in manipulating the body. This leaves the area of punching to boxers. Naturally boxers work only from the waist up. The only striking they do is punching, so arguably they are the best punchers. A lot of world champion boxers started their career in some form of martial arts, while others incorporated certain elements of various martial systems into their style of boxing.

Martial Boxers - Bruce Lee

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee integrated various techniques and training methods from boxing into the style he created known as Jeet Kune Do (way of the intercepting fist). When Bruce Lee finally left Hong Kong to America in 1959, he left as the 1958 School Boxing Champion. Bruce took the light, on-your-toe dancing footwork from his idol Muhammad Ali, and blended it with a wide fencer's stance. Bruce lead with the nearest hand, much like a jab and he would bob and weave using boxing head movement. Today many UFC fighters regard Bruce Lee as the godfather of MMA. 

Chinese actor and 6-time Wu Shu pro champion Jet Li started his early career in combat with amateur boxing. The late karate legend Joe Lewis from America always preached the importance of boxing techniques in his training. During the 1960s and 70s, Lewis attained various titles and he noted that boxing methods is what separated him from his other kick-boxing and karate opponents.

Don 'The Dragon' Wilson started his career as a student in Pai Lum Tao Kung Fu, before transitioning into American kick-boxing where he scored 47 knockouts and became 11-time world champion. Don trained with former two time boxing champion Michael Nunn. 

Britains former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis started his humble beginnings in combat with karate. It is said that before his big fights he used to relax in the changing room watching kung fu movies.

Manchesterʼs former two-time super-middleweight champion Robin Reid previously tried karate at his local community hall before moving from the dojo to the boxing ring.

Londoner David Haye, who became the undisputed cruiserweight champion as well as a heavyweight champion, learned karate at a young age from his father who was an instructor within the art. In 2012, when Haye got into a brawl at a press conference with his opponent Dereck Chisora, he lead with a straight right hand and then came down with an elbow on the back of Chisora's head. Then Chisora's entourage started to attack Haye, he used his footwork and some parrying techniques, to deflect the men that launched towards him. Perhaps his basis in karate helped to develop his agile footwork.

American boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard trained in Kempo Karate in Los Angeles during his boxing career. He is quoted in 1996 October's Black Belt magazine as saying "Bruce Lee, he was my idol. His focus, his intensity, his presence - he was the ultimate in grace." 

Modern boxing legend Roy Jones Jr., a champion in four weight divisions, trades techniques with Yoshukai karate instructor Richard Pope in his hometown of Pensacola Florida. Jones Jr. would parry punches of his gloves like martial artists parry with the palm of their hand. Jones also is said to have a large collection of martial art movies.

Former British and European middleweight champion Herol 'The Bomber' Graham is now a black belt in Kick Boxing and teaches classes in his hometown of Sheffield.

Martial Boxers - Herol Graham, Nigel Benn

Britain's former two weight champion Nigel Benn, aka the 'Dark Destroyer', practiced in martial arts for six years. Benn notes that he was into Bruce Lee and that he once used a flying kick to knockdown a skinhead in a street fight. Benn trained in Wu Shu Kwan, Lau Gar Chinese boxing, Kick Boxing and even dabbled in Silat. In 1985, just months before turning pro as a pugilist, he fought in a full contact kick boxing match against 6th Dan karate and kick boxing fighter, Pat O'Keeffe. Benn was actually very agile on his feet, throwing round houses and back spinning kicks. But it was Benn's body shots that eventually knocked Pat out. Benn was a devastating puncher and he used to launch himself from a distance underneath his opponent's jab to close the gap, delivering a right hook at the same time, sending many of his combatants to the canvas. Closing the distance using various heights in one motion is not often seen in boxing but within martial art schools it is a regular training method. 

Benn started his career in combat in the military as an amateur in the boxing ring. Now he is retired and has returned to his roots as an ambassador and teacher for British Military Martial Arts in the UK. This organization has both ex-military instructors and civilian instructors teaching martial arts such as karate, kick-boxing and ju-jitsu.

The nemesis of Benn during the 1990s was two time champion Chris Eubank. Although Eubank did not officially study in any martial art, he was a self taught student of martial components that he attributed to his boxing style. Eubank's foot work in the ring was very unique and he said that he observed different martial arts foot movement, using the positioning and escape tactics. In an article posted on in 2006, Eubank said "the stance and poise in martial arts is 98% on your back foot and 2% on your front. Boxing is 50/50, unless you go into a position to strike, at which point you vary the weight distribution. I took that and spliced into my boxing style."

Martial Boxers - James Toney

There are many boxers that have turned to the octagon in recent years after declining from glory or retiring from the ring. The modern boxing legend James 'Lights Out' Toney, a former multi-division champion, challenged Randy Couture, himself a legend in his sport as a three-time UFC champion. This bout took place in 2008 and gained much publicity. The bout was over within the first round as Randy shot underneath Toney's jab with a low single takedown. Randy said in the post fight interview: "I had no illusions about trading punches. You don't see the low single much in MMA because you have to start from farther away, and a good grappler will just step out of it." Fortunately for Randy Couture, James Toney was not a good grappler. When asked later whether he'd take on James Toney in a boxing match, Randy Couture responded, "I would respectfully decline such an offer." He also pointed out that he wouldprobably do as well in a boxing match against Toney as Toney had in MMA against him, reiterating that MMA and boxing are two different sports.

Former boxing heavyweight champion Ray Mercer retired from the ring and took up MMA. His first appearance was in an unsanctioned exhibition bout against internet street fighting sensation Kimbo Slice in 2007. Kimbo charged Mercer, taking him to the ground and locking him in a guillotine choke for a first round submission. However Mercer redeemed himself when he knocked out former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in an MMA bout in June in 2009.

Boxing contender Eric 'Butter Bean' Esch took up MMA while continuing his professional career in boxing. His MMA record stands at W15 - L10 - D1 - KOs8. His boxing record to date is W77 - L10 - D4 - KOs58. Butter Bean only lost by submission in the octagon, but in the ring he was knocked out. This does not prove that a boxing punch is stronger than a martial artist's punch, but it does question ones approach to the mechanics behind punching.

Martial Boxers - Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather

If you look at the last decade of pound for pound fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, both have great movement and the ability to hit from various angles. De La Hoya is left handed, so by right he should fight as a southpaw, but he fought in the orthodox boxing stance, meaning his power punch was also his jab, straight cross and his hook. This caught many of his opponents off guard as they were always looking to move away from his right hand that was cocked back and this is when his left hook would catch his opponent. De La Hoya had an unusual uppercut, again using the leading left hand that would scoop from low, coming up but then turn diagonally and whip across. This allowed De La Hoya to have two chances of catching his target, first with the straight uppercut, then if the fighter pulls back the punch continues its motion and pulls off to a side angle catching its target with the followthrough.

This kind of strike is very much Pencak Silat mentality, as pesilats (silat players) always attack using a strike or technique that will have multiple options in one motion. Most boxers snap their punches back and fourth, never risking leaving their guard down for too long. However De La Hoya was very fast with his hands and he also had a cast iron jaw, so he was able to take a solid hit. 

Floyd Mayweather is a right hand orthodox boxer but he uses a very unorthodox approach using his power right hand as a stern jab, even though its cocked back. This means he is so fast he can use the hand furthest away to jab with. Mayweather shoots that right back hand out as a jab much like a Wing Chun practitioner snaps their back fist out and back again in a linear strike. 

All the boxers mentioned that trained in martial arts before taking up a boxing career took some part of their martial training into the ring with them. This provided them with an edge over their opponent, be it hitting from a distance, foot work, punching from an angle or body movement. Martial artists can equally learn from boxing and some clearly have. A complete fighter must encompass all combative principals. Despite martial arts training of kicks, locks, disarms and take-downs, the first line of defense should be punching, as most street brawls will result in fists first.

The first lesson you learn in all forms of combat should be hit and move. Often this motion is carried out together as one counter move. Boxers simply have much better timing when it comes to counter punching and they should as its 90% of their training, whereas martial artists are looking to master a selection of techniques using all their body parts.

This is why most boxers will lose in the octagon - they have no ground work. It is true to say that much street conflict results in the fighters rolling around on the floor at some stage. We, as students of the art, must look to engage and end the altercation before it becomes a fight and the quickest and most direct route is a punch. So we must be versed in punching. Having a powerful straight cross, uppercut and hook with the correct balance and weight distribution will be the difference between a punch and knockout punch.

Exclusively published for Black Triangle Silat, 2015