MMA Boxing vs The Sweet Science

You can’t box in MMA, right?

Or is it just that MMA fighters can’t box?

It depends who you ask. Boxing purists turn their nose up at MMA fighters’ technique, while the MMA crowd insists that pure boxing doesn’t work in MMA.

Today, eBoxing Academy gets to the bottom of this long-standing-and-super-annoying debate to tell you which side got it right, and why you should be training traditional boxing to get better at MMA.

Best practices for “MMA Boxing”

Is “MMA boxing” even a thing?

It’s a divisive topic. Boxing proponents argue for the “universality” of the sweet science, insisting that “what works in the ring, works in the cage.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the “MMA boxing” crowd–usually made up of nak muay, kickboxers, and MMA fighters–claims that some boxing fundamentals are invalidated once kicks, elbows, takedowns, and clinching are introduced.

As is often the case, the extremists’ argument falls apart on both sides.

However, more moderate voices in MMA and boxing have offered up some “best practices” to use when boxing in MMA, and they’re generally thought to be sound.

Shane from fightTIPS is a perfect example of the moderate point of view. He agrees with the idea that there are “major differences in the mechanics and the body positioning” in MMA and boxing.

However, he’s careful to point out that everything depends on your style and that of your opponent. In fact, every single tip he shares comes with this caveat. Keep that in mind next time somebody starts talking about a one-size-fits-all “MMA stance” or “MMA boxing” style.

Nevertheless, Shane’s list gives us a good starting point.

These are just a few of the common tips you’ll hear in regards to tweaking your boxing for MMA–as you’ll see, most are minor, and they’re all are context-specific:

Turn the lead foot/knee turned outwards. In boxing, the knee tends to point forward or inwards to add power to the lead hand. In contrast, when fighting kickers, MMA fighters and kickboxers may turn the knee out for faster checking. However, there’s no often adjustment needed when fighting a boxing-dominant MMA striker–e.g. KJ Noons, Frankie Edgar, Jorge Masvidal.

Square the hips. A “bladed” boxing stance (where you turn the hips, torso, and shoulder towards the back hip) makes you a smaller target, inches your lead hand closer to the opponent, and gives the cross more room to turn over. However, when fighting wrestlers or kickers, MMA fighters may square the hips for faster checks and takedown defense.

Adjust the guard to suit your style. Shane’s tip for the MMA guard is to keep the lead hand held high as insurance against kicks. This is pretty standard advice that does not conflict with boxing theory in any way. Again, Shane is careful to point out that you can use a wide variety of guards depending on your style and the opponent you’re facing.

Shane’s tip runs counter to another common piece of “boxing for MMA” guard advice you may have heard, which is to hold the hands lower to help fight off the takedown–that way your hands are already where they need to be when the wrestler shoots. This apparent contradiction hammers home the fact that there is no single answer in any sport–long live king context.

Adjust the clinch to suit your style. Shane reduces the boxing clinch to over/underhooks and “working until the ref breaks it up,” which is a personal pet peeve. But, moving past that, he recommends designing your clinch game around your style. Interestingly, while MMA fighters do have to deal with lots more in the clinch–elbows, body locks, knees, takedown attempts, snapdowns, and so on–the fundamentals don’t really change. You still want to enter the clinch with a strong base, good posture, eyes and “center line” pointed at the opponent, and hands ready to work. The techniques you initiate from this base may change, but the foundation does not–that’s why Conor McGregor found Mayweather to be so strong on the inside, despite having no formal grappling experience.

“Strong in the clinch. Great understanding of frames and head position. He has some very strong tools he could bring into an MMA game for sure.”

Conor McGregor on Floyd Mayweather’s clinch game.

Beware of new threats at long range. From sidekicks to teeps and spinning backfists, MMA fighters have to deal with attacks at longer range than most boxers fight. Shane cautions boxers making the transition to MMA to reevaluate what they consider as “out of range.” Fair point!

Recognizing these new threats takes time and experience, but it really falls under the umbrella of “knowing your range” and “understanding distance,” both of which are fundamental boxing principles.

Bonus: Limit your head movement. This tip didn’t appear in Shane’s video, but it’s extremely common.

As high-level nak muay and kickboxers have shown, you can commit to slip, ducks, weaves, rolls, and pulls, so long as your opponent commits to their punch. But boxers must be careful about using excessive head movement, and especially of falling into patterns or rhythms, because they might be timed with kicks and knees.

Boxers with good head movement already know the dangers of falling into patterns and rhythms. But this is still a valid point, particularly when combinations like the “1-fake2-rear roundhouse” are so popular–trying to slip that fake cross runs you right into the incoming shin or knee.

Remember: these tips are not absolutes. In some cases, you can ignore all six and box as normal. Context is king!

Keep these points in mind as you find your own style and adjust to the opponent in front of you.

Practicing the Sweet Science ups your MMA IQ

So we’ve established that there is some value to the “MMA boxing” argument. There are, in fact, some (context and opponent-specific) adjustments that can be made to optimize your boxing game for MMA.

But is there any value to what the boxing heads are saying? Is there some degree of universality to boxing technique? Can practicing traditional boxing improve your MMA game?

Yes, absolutely! Count on Nick Diaz to explain it like nobody else can:

“These kickboxers out there, they know they’re going to kick a boxer… right in the head, right in the leg,” Diaz says. “Of course you can. But then once you learn how to defend a kick, and you understand how to break out of a clinch… you gotta get back to the fundamentals. You need to reestablish the fundamentals when it comes to boxing.

“Maybe you should learn how to punch so that you can stand your ground in there against somebody who can punch. That way when you go fight in the UFC you don’t just get knocked the fuck out.”

Nick Diaz

Diaz also mentions Luke Rockhold sparring pro boxer Andrew Tabiti at the Mayweather Boxing Gym, which you can see in full on the Mayweather Channel. This sparring session is a perfect example of how practicing boxing techniques could improve the MMA game of a high-level fighter.

Pure boxing in MMA: Luke Rockhold case study

Over the course of 11 minutes of work, we see Rockhold making a number of glaring boxing mistakes that cost him a few brain cells. Specifically, Rockhold makes the following boxing errors:

No jab defense. Just as the jab is the most important punch to throw in boxing, it’s also the most important punch to defend. Across all striking sports, the jab is the preferred tool for setting up offense, so shutting this punch down can effectively disarm an opponent.

Rockhold makes some amateurish mistakes with his jab defense.

First, his poor hand position leaves the “jab lane” open at all times. Since Rockhold never covers the path to the target (his face), Tabiti can land the jab whenever he likes. Rockhold’s only option is to react, which pits reflexes against reflexes in a dangerous gamble. He has some success fading straight back, but this creates other problems if Tabiti follows up with a combination. More often than not, Rockhold eats the jab flush. He absorbs dozens of them over 11 minutes and never adjusts his hands. Simply holding his hands higher to passively obstruct the path of Tabiti’s jab would go a long way. This “defensive traffic” can be created with either hand.

Second, Rockhold does not actively defend with his low lead hand. Holding a low guard isn’t a problem if you use advanced lead hand tactics. But why drop the hand and expose yourself if you’re just going to let it hang limp?

jabD–full vid for point

Poor footwork. In boxing, most coaches today understand the importance of teaching “feet first.” After all, maintaining balance and moving to dominant or safe positions are the most important parts of boxing. Once your feet are right, punching is easy.

Though there are tweaks you need to make when facing a high-volume kicker (knee turned out) or a badass wrestler (hips more squared), “good footwork” in boxing is good footwork for anything. It’s all about maintaining the optimal fighting posture/position and keeping your balance at all times.

Rockhold makes some major footwork mistakes:

He crosses his feet while inside punching range (stepping the wrong foot first):

He frequently brings his feet too close together:

Instead of pivoting his body “as a unit,” he moves his torso first and legs second:

And he often struggles to keep his balance, shifting his weight way too far forward or backwards:

Poor understanding of range. One of the toughest skills to develop is a true understanding of range and distance. In our desperation to punch as hard as possible, we often step too far in with our punches and smother ourselves. In worst case scenarios, the opponent can time this excess forward momentum (“falling in”) and walk you into a devastating counter punch.

In MMA, knowing your range and maximizing your punching distance is essential for keeping you safe from takedowns and clinches you want no part of.

Rockhold really struggles with his punching range. Here we see him fall in on a cross, leap in too far with a hook (and eat a headbutt for it), blunder in with a sloppy 1-2-1, and fall in hard enough with the jab to smother his uppercut (that’s tough to do!):

In every instance, he needed to hold his ground and rotate. But he just doesn’t know his punching range well enough.

Practicing boxing fundamentals would take Luke’s MMA game to the next level:

  • More efficient footwork (e.g. not crossing the feet, pivoting the body as a unit, avoiding a narrow stance) would keep Luke on-balance and ready to initiate offense or react effectively to his opponent at all times;
  • Better understanding of range and the distance needed to punch would stop him from running into strikes or smothering his offense. It would also allow for a better “low guard” game, which would give Luke the TDD benefits of low hand positioning without exposing him to the risks;
  • Improved jab defense (via better hand positioning, parries, and active lead-hand obstructions) would minimize the amount of damage Luke absorbs, both directly from the jabs themselves, and indirectly from any follow-up offense that the jab sets up;
  • Improved jab defense would also improve Luke’s takedown defense by eliminating the jab as a viable takedown setup;
  • Boxing-specific hand positioning would help Luke block strikes–anything from a Belfort kick to a Bisping hook–especially those he doesn’t see coming;
  • Boxing-specific lead hand work (feints, “defensive traffic,” traps, and control) would cut down the number of strikes that land against Luke, and also set him up for better clinch entries and defense.

I’ll go as far as to say that, among other things, Rockhold’s low hand position, inactive lead, sloppy footwork, and poor understanding of range got him knocked out against Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping, and Yoel Romero. Addressing these fundamental boxing flaws might have kept him safe.

So yes, the “pure boxing only!” perspective is still nonsense, but there’s no doubt that training traditional boxing will make you a better MMA fighter.

So what’s the bottom line message here?

  • Ignore militant voices on either side of the “MMA boxing” argument
  • Adjust your boxing style based on the opponent you’re facing
  • Boxing fundamentals work in MMA and must be practiced
  • MMA fighters have no excuse for poor technique other than time constraints–there is so much more to train in MMA and only so many hours in the day, so naturally MMA fighters’ boxing will be weaker
  • For best results in freeform combat, train boxing and think MMA

Get more advanced boxing and “MMA boxing” tips

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