Boxing and MMA have their differences, but they push each other to be better


Lance Pugmire / On Boxing and MMA

Theirs can be a begrudging relationship — a familial bond — but the rival sports also have an interest in accentuating the divide.

What boxing and mixed martial arts cannot deny, however, is that each has pushed the other to improve.

Spike TV, which televises both the Bellator MMA circuit and Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions bouts, is bridging the combat-sports cousins this weekend for a Friday-Saturday MMA-boxing doubleheader at Honda Center in Anaheim.

Headlining the Saturday boxing card is Robert Guerrero, a former two-division world champion from Gilroy, Calif., who is one of the best examples of how the MMA effect has altered the way fight fans view a loss.

Although Guerrero has lost three times since 2013 — to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (49-0) and unbeaten welterweight champions Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia — his ability to produce an action fight keeps him relevant in a way it wouldn’t have 20 years ago.

UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping, for instance, has seven losses, yet in his first title defense Oct. 8, he’ll meet Temecula’s Dan Henderson, who has 14 losses.

In their first bout at UFC 100 in 2009, Henderson delivered a crushing knockout punch to Bisping’s jaw. Now their rematch is a pay-per-view main event.

“In MMA, a loss or two or three really doesn’t mean anything, but in boxing, a loss had been a death sentence,” said veteran boxing matchmaker Tom Brown, who runs Sherman Oaks-based TGB Promotions and is promoting Saturday’s PBC card.

“Because of exciting styles and good performances, guys like Guerrero and [Covina junior-welterweight] John Molina (29-6) get past the stigma of a loss.”

Boxing’s payback to MMA is … boxing.

At last Saturday’s UFC 202 in Las Vegas, the five bouts before Conor McGregor’s gripping, three-knockdown main-event victory over Nate Diaz, were stand-up bouts ended by a knockout punch.

There wasn’t even a submission-of-the-night bonus awarded on the UFC card, as fighters have gotten the point that the most excitement is generated on their feet, not by drawing yawns from wrestling moves or pressing an opponent against the cage.

“We’ve always looked for guys and girls who have striking ability … there’s a reason my past company was called Strikeforce,” Bellator MMA President Scott Coker said.

“MMA has evolved. When you look at an MMA fighter’s skill set, boxing has to be a big piece of it. All of them have a boxing coach now and strive to have a good stand-up game, knowing that to be a complete fighter you have to tend to your striking skills.”

The most marketable MMA fighters also cultivate their personalities, which former UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta acknowledged at the time of Muhammad Ali’s death is a direct descendant of “The Greatest.”

“The thing he obviously contributed in a massive way was the showmanship and the entertainment that goes along with combat sports,” Fertitta said. “He’s definitely, clearly created the road map for our promotion.”

The ability of UFC’s management to order the best matchups possible has also pressed boxing to answer for its legacy of feet-dragging when it comes to staging big bouts.

There have been some strides recently in the case of Haymon’s 200-fighter PBC stable, with fight-of-the year contenders in June’s Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter welterweight fight and July’s Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz featherweight-title clash.

But it took six years of negotiations before the Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bout took place. And boxing fans are increasingly impatient with Canelo Alvarez and his promoter Oscar De La Hoya for not arranging a middleweight showdown with unbeaten, three-belt champion Gennady Golovkin.

Alvarez, at his training camp in San Diego on Wednesday, tried to deflect the heat he’s received. McGregor referred to him as a “cherry-picker” — before Alvarez’s junior-middleweight title fight against obscure champion Liam Smith on Sept. 17 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“You’re never going to make them all happy, so my job is to go fight and do what I do,” said Alvarez, calling McGregor a “big mouth” who “gasses out after two rounds.”

Still, the outrage is so fervent from fight fans who’ve come to expect better in the UFC. It would not be surprising to see weak pay-per-view sales for Alvarez-Smith next month and a poor audience for a possible Alvarez fight in December. That may force an Alvarez-Golovkin bout in May 2017, not September 2017, as now planned.

“It’s not an even playing field. MMA, particularly the UFC, is a virtual monopoly. [UFC fighters] are all employees, so it’s either take the matches or go on the shelf,” veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum said.

“I don’t know why in God’s name that boxing is subject to [fighter protections contained in the federal] Muhammad Ali Act and MMA is not, except for the fact they have lobbyists they’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to.

“In politics, money talks.”

Nothing can ruin a good family visit like politics, but at least as MMA and boxing break bread this weekend, they can find some mutual appreciation.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire

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