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Transitioning From Boxing to MMA: Mercer, Toney, Darchinyan, and Cintron

By: William Holmes

During the early years of MMA , you’ve heard fans of both boxing and MMA argue over which is the better fighter, a boxer or a mixed martial artist. As time progressed, educated fans of both sports acknowledge that if a boxer were to fight a mixed martial artist under the rules of boxing, a boxer would win. They also acknowledge that if a mixed martial artist were to fight a boxer under the rules of MMA, the mixed martial artist would win.

Current UFC heavyweight champion, Junior Dos Santos, has recently expressed a desire to try out for Brazil to compete in the Olympics in boxing. Prior to signing a contract with the UFC, former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz publically stated his desire to compete in professional boxing, and even began negotiations to compete against Jeff Lacy in the ring. While it is still questionable if these mixed martial artists were genuine in their desire to compete as a professional boxer, professional boxers have competed in MMA to mixed results, but there are a few who have the potential to be successful in MMA.

Former boxing heavyweight champion Ray Mercer has competed in MMA. He first dabbled in MMA in an unsanctioned exhibition bout against street fighting legend Kimbo Slice on June 23, 2007 for Cage Fury Fighting Championships. That match featured Kimbo Slice charging Ray Mercer, taking him to the ground, and locking in a guillotine choke for the first round submission. Mercer admitted afterwards that he did not train enough in any other aspect of MMA except for boxing. Ray Mercer was able to redeem himself, and make boxing fans proud, when he knocked out former UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia in an MMA bout in June of 2009. Ray Mercer’s victory over a past MMA champion proved that boxers can compete in MMA if they can keep the fight standing, and all it takes is one punch. This victory however, garnered little attention in the mainstream press since it did not occur in the UFC.

The most famous boxer to make the transition to MMA is former middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight champion James Toney. James Toney only fought once under MMA rules, under the UFC banner, in August of 2010 against former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Randy Couture. The UFC hyped this match as a legendary boxing champion taking on a legendary UFC champion, while seemingly ignoring that this type of matchup happened in 2009, when the boxer came out victorious. As many predicted, the savvy cage veteran Randy Couture took James Toney to the ground with an ankle pick takedown and submitted him in the first round. It was painfully obvious to observers that James Toney had no training or ability whatsoever in wrestling or jiu-jitsu. James Toney was the worst type of boxer for the UFC to pick to fight inside a cage if they were serious about seeing a high level boxer compete in MMA, and Dana White took advantage of the obvious mismatch when he matched him up with a high caliber wrestler such as Randy Couture. It would have been foolish for Dana to pick a boxer to fight in the UFC against a boxer who might actually win, and James Toney had a very small chance at winning.

Can a legitimate professional boxer compete in MMA and become successful? That answer mainly depends on the boxer you choose to compete in MMA. Ray Mercer’s 2009 victory showed that a former professional boxer certainly has the ability to knock out a mixed martial artist under MMA rules. James Toney embarrassing defeat showed that if you can’t stop the takedown, or at least train how to sprawl, you shouldn’t bother attempting to compete in MMA.

Last week, former flyweight, super flyweight, and bantamweight champion Vic Darchinyan announced that he plans on competing in MMA1. This announcement drew the attention of many, as Vic Darchinyan claimed to have a strong wrestling background, the martial art that is the most important to learn in order to be successful in MMA. Unlike Ray Mercer and James Toney, Vic Darchinyan’s claim to be well versed in some of the grappling arts has merit, since his father was the former Olympic wrestling coach for Armenia. However, Darchinyan’s plan to compete in MMA has some problems. Darchinyan is thirty five years old, and he just lost a tough bout to Anselmo Moreno in the Bantamweight division this weekend. The bantamweight division is fought at 118 pounds and the heaviest that Darchinyan has ever fought at. The other problem Darchinyan will have is that the lightest division that the major MMA promotions currently promote (UFC, Strikeforce, and Bellator) is the bantamweight division. The bantamweight division in MMA however is fought at 135 pounds, not 118 pounds. Even if a major promotion adopts the flyweight division at 125 pounds, Darchinyan will likely be giving up size and weight if he decided to compete. Can Darchinyan compete and be successful as a flyweight in MMA? If his wrestling ability is as good as he says he is, yes. Stopping the takedown is the best way for a striker to avoid the ground and pound of wrestling dependent MMA fighter, and the best way to avoid the slick submissions of a jiu-jitsu practitioner. Wrestling is also an excellent base to learn submission defense, as many of the weight distributions, body controls, and hip movement required in wrestling also applies to jiu-jitsu. If Darchinyan can use his wrestling ability to keep the fight standing, very few mixed martial artists will be able to match his stand up striking ability.

There is another well-known boxer who has the potential to be successful in MMA. Kermit Cintron is a former welterweight title holder who has also competed for the junior middleweight title. In 2007, Floyd Mayweather Jr. claimed any boxer could transition to MMA and beat an MMA fighter in their own game. Dana White responded by challenging Mayweather to take on their then lightweight champion Sean Sherk. Mayweather denied Dana White’s request, but Kermit Cintron accepted Dana White’s challenge. Dana was probably wise to not respond to the challenge of Cintron, because while Sherk would have most likely been favored, Cintron would have had a legitimate chance at winning.

Prior to taking up boxing, Cintron was an accomplished wrestler. He wrestled in high school at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has long been known to produce some great talent in wrestling, and is one of the deepest. Pennsylvania State University won the NCAA championship in wrestling in 2011. How good was Cintron at wrestling? He received full scholarship offers to wrestle at Ohio State University and Wisconsin University. He wound up wrestling at a junior college in Pennsylvania while focusing on his boxing career, but he obviously had the talent to succeed in wrestling based on his accomplishments at a wrestling tough state such as Pennsylvania during high school, and his scholarship offers to wrestling programs in the big 10 conference. Cintron is also thirty two and three years younger than Darchinyan. Darchinyan may have a father who competed in wrestling, but it appears that Darchinyan does not have the actual experience at wrestling as Cintron does.

If a professional boxer is serious about making an attempt at becoming successful in MMA he has to learn how to stop the takedown and some submission defense. Wrestling is an excellent base to learn how to apply those skills in MMA. Professional boxers who have no experience in wrestling will likely fail in MMA. However, professional boxers who know how to wrestle at a high level have the potential to become legitimate MMA fighters. It may be too late in the careers of Kermit Cintron and Vic Darchinyan to become feared MMA fighters, but as their boxing careers wind down and their title opportunities disappear, it might not be a bad decision on their part to take up MMA and see how they do. The dedication, heart, and determination required to be successful in boxing also applies to MMA, and the ability to wrestle and keep the fight standing will allow boxers to fight an MMA fight in their domain.

It’s unlikely that any of the boxers mentioned above will ever become an MMA champion, but the idea of a fighter being an MMA champion and a boxing champion, is not impossible. In fact, it is more realistic than most MMA and boxing pundits would admit to.

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