The evolution of combat sports

Just recently, I watched the fight between one of my favorite boxers, Roy Jones Jr. and his opponent, Enzo Maccarinelli, which got me thinking about the evolution of combat sports. I always liked Jones a lot. In his prime, he was a master of the ring, dancing around his opponents as he pleased. Both his offense and defense was impressive but most of all, he seemed to land punches at will. He was arrogant and a showboat, but he had the skills to back it up so people didn’t mind as much as he always tried to give viewers a great show.

Here are some highlights of him at his best:

This video doesn’t do him justice though. Watch some of his full fight videos to get a better idea of just how impressive he was.

Then watch this video of his last fight…

Roy is still a great boxer, much better than most people who ever stepped into a boxing ring. But at almost 47 years old, he is becoming a shadow of his former self. When you watch his last few fights, you’ll see he is almost flat-footed compared to how he moved in his prime. He still hits fast and hard, but that’s not enough anymore against those younger opponents.

There are two points I want to make about this:

First, competitive fighting is a young man’s game. I know men who at age 70, I still don’t want to take a punch from. Nor would I want to fight them because even though I’m pretty sure I can take them out, it would hurt doing so. So it’s not a matter of them not being effective with their techniques; the point is that other aspects of combat sports are equally important and as you get older, you lose out there. E.g.: Roy doesn’t have the energy anymore to dance around his opponents or keep up the insanely high pace he used to fight at. Those are now things his opponents can do to him because physical attributes like anaerobic conditioning, speed/strength endurance and the like are easier to train at the highest levels when you are young. Once you get older, they start degrading. Nothing you can do about that.

The second point is not related to Roy personally, but more general: there is always an evolution in combat sports.

This is true of all sports of course and here’s an example of that. Watch this tennis match by the elite female players of the early 1980’s:


Now watch this year’s Wimbledon’s finals for women

You can clearly see the difference in how the game has evolved in only a few decades. The same is true for martial arts in general and combat sports in particular. Take a look at this fight of kickboxing champion Benny Urguidez vs. Fujimoto:

For that time, Benny was one of the best. But now compare it to the generation that came after him…

Ramon Dekkers vs. Hector Pena is in stark contrast to Benny’s fight:

I believe it is fair to say that Benny in his prime wouldn’t stand a chance against (the late) Ramon in his prime. Ramon was in the same weight class as Benny, so that can’t explain the difference in power and effectiveness. Look at how Benny and Fujimoto kick: there is nowhere near the power compared to Ramon’s leg techniques. They also look like amateurs compared to Ramon: there is no integrated approach to using arms and legs.

In part, this can be explained by the stage of development the sport was in back then: Benny came from a boxing and karate background and it shows in how he fights. He didn’t practice muay Thai, few Westerners did back then. In essence, him and his contemporaries made things up as they went along, developing skills and adapting their karate techniques to what was then relatively new sport. In contrast, Ramon Dekkers trained muay Thai (Dutch version) from the beginning and you see this in the way he moves, punches and kicks.

If you compare Ramon to today’s fighters, you’ll see even more differences between them and Benny, but also Ramon. The sport has changed, evolved and grown. Not just on a technical level but also strategies, tactics and training methods.

We’ve seen the same thing in MMA when you look at the first UFC events where the Gracies demonstrated the need for effective ground grappling which many fighters lacked. Fast forward 20 years and there are no Gracies any more in the UFC. Today, every fighter has a good ground game along with good stand up (an area in which the Gracies always were severely lacking) to be able to compete. The funny thing is that the next step in the evolution of the sport is a resurgence of techniques from traditional martial arts. Karate, Tae Kwon Do and other arts are used as a source for innovating in the cage. In a few years, it’ll be something else.

This process is natural and normal for all sports, combat sports included, which brings me to my actual point:

If you don’t follow the evolution of the sport, you become obsolete.

Your style of fighting, your techniques, your skills, they are all the result of the environment you learned and used them in. When that environment changes and you don’t, they will eventually become less and less relevant until they are finally obsolete. Case in point:

  • When was the last time you say somebody do a scissors jump in a high jump competition? With the advent of mats to fall on instead of being forced to land on the feet, high jump technique changed radically.
  • When was the last time you saw somebody unable to throw or block leg kicks reach a high level in muay Thai or kickboxing? Back in the 80s, American champions came to Europe to fight with leg kicks and knees; they routinely got beaten up like in this case. I remember reading interviews with them in which they explained how they would side kick over the leg kick and it wouldn’t be a problem…
  • Compare the punching in the early UFC events to those after the introduction of gloves. One piece of equipment changes and the techniques change with it.

I could go on but you get the point: change is the only constant in life.

If you refuse to change, eventually, you will find it increasingly difficult to win whatever competition you enter. Instead, I believe embracing change is the smart thing to do. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon the things that work for you right now, but it does mean always trying to make progress and not dismissing out of hand what other fighters are doing.

If you practice traditional martial arts or self-defense systems instead of combat sports, this is equally important. Today’s youth looks increasingly at MMA as a base for what they consider “fighting” and mimic it if they don’t actively train in it to begin with. The odds of having to defend yourself against somebody who uses MMA techniques have shot up significantly in the last 10 years and your training should reflect that.

Which means that for traditional martial arts, change is just as important as the parts of the curriculum that have been preserved throughout the ages. Knowing what to change without messing up the system, that’s the real question, but beyond the scope of this article.


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  1. Hi Wim
    The line: “If you don`t follow the evolution of the sport you become obsolete” sums up the direction of the South African rugby team the last couple of years perfectly. If you don`t mind I am going to use the quote the next time I talk to people about rugby.
    I like to follow athletes and fighters that show improvement every time they compete. It means they learned from their mistakes and worked hard on their weaknesses in between fights or matches. This motivates me to work harder and to try to improve every day. On the other hand I get hugely frustrated if people just go through the motions year after year. Making the same mistakes or doing the same things with exactly the same negative results.
    This is something I saw in people I trained with in the Dojo. They did not work on their weaknesses. For example if it is struggling to get through a tough class. Just work harder on fitness and lose weight. Or notice the mistakes made under pressure, research drills that can fix the mistakes and get to work. Getting the most from the training. Instead of being frustrated, talking about stopping training after every class.

    • Quote away Elfie, no worries.
      In the Chinese martial arts, there’s a saying: “Invest in loss.” It means several things, but in essence, you need to work harder on the things you aren’t good at than on the ones you like/excel at. I found this to be true on a personal level but also with my students and clients. It’s one of that best ways to keep on making progress.

  2. All very good points Wim and I’m in agreement with you on the examples you’ve listed. I would however like to point out that in one sport that is not fun to watch, that has also in one way advanced since the 1960’s in the way you suggested but also digresses mostly because of promoters trying to get the sport to catch on – is point karate matches.

    in the 1960’s you had the likes of Bill Wallace and Joe Lewis dominating tournaments with their flatfooted style of kumite. And as you have noted sparring has come a long way since those early days now that competitors move around and uses some strategy.

    But point karate has always had a problem (as Tae Kwon Do has also had) it is not fun to watch. One had had Bill Wallace writing for Black Magazine telling people that groin shots detracted from tournaments. It kept competitors from throwing exciting and flashy (my words) high leg kicks. Eventually most agreed with Bill Wallace and tournaments started eliminating the groin as a target and even started awarding more points for leg and head leg kicks.

    I would argue that in this way point karate had gone backwards from simulating a real fight because someone getting kicked in the groin and subsequently punched in the face would beat anyone trying a high kick in a real fight (odds are anyway).

    So this is at least one sport that the opposite is also true.

    Great article Wim!

    • I agree John. I believe evolution is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it is always a positive thing. The “downed opponent” rule in MMA is another such example.

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