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The MMA Cage vs The Boxing Ring: Why The Future Of The Sport Hinges On This Debate

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The UFC drew big headlines recently with the epic battle between Mark Hunt and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in Brisbane, Australia. The fight, one of the best in UFC heavyweight history, rekindled discussion about the safety and legitimacy of MMA and the UFC as a mainstream sport in Australia.

Although the Brisbane show was widely successful, the UFC’s style of MMA — inside a cage known as an Octagon — is still banned in Victoria and Western Australia because officials there don’t allow cages. The UFC is engaged in a similar debate in New York, where MMA, cage or not, is banned altogether.

The bans in Australia and New York have sparked conversation about whether the UFC should consider moving from a cage to a traditional ring used in boxing and the former PRIDE Fighting Championship. Tom Wright, the UFC’s managing director of Australia, said in the Hunt vs. Silva post-fight press conference that the ring was unsafe and the UFC would not be moving from its Octagon.

But should the UFC consider varying its stance?

Although it’s not as marketable, a traditional boxing ring has many benefits over a cage.

From a fan perspective, it’s a lot easier to see the action at a live event looking through the ropes than looking through a cage fence. Fight promoters who have not built an empire on the phrase the “Octagon,” know that the fan experience live is better when all the fans in the building can see the action.

The biggest reason a ring might be worth considering, however, is the association and connotation that comes with the world “cage.” Like it or not, some people are never going to get over the fact that men and women are fighting inside a “cage,” which leads to criticism that the sport is “human cockfighting.”

The idea of fighting in a cage is so outlandish that historically it was only reserved for professional wrestling, where stars such as Ric Flair battled “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes in bloody steel cage matches in the old NWA in the 1970s. The cage was supposed to be a weapon for the wrestlers to use, where they would grind each others’ faces into the cage and come up bleeding. Today, the WWE hosts an entire PPV called “Hell in the Cell,” built on the idea that the matches take place inside a “steel cage.”

Does the UFC want that same kind of image for its product when it is trying to get sanctioned in New York and other key markets across the world? Perception is everything, and unfortunately some people perceive people fighting inside a “cage” to be barbaric. The UFC, of course, doesn’t use the word “cage,” opting instead for its marketed euphemism, “Octagon.”

In an interview on Nick Diaz TV, UFC fighter and former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz said this about the cage:

“I like the idea of a ring. I think it’s a little more important. I think it’s better for the fans, for everybody, so everybody could see. Everybody can see from every angle and everything. It’s just four ropes, skinny ropes with cables and plastic over them. You see better in there. You feel better in there. It’s a ring, like a boxing ring.  . . . Every since I have been doing this I feel like people kind of look down on you for fighting in the cage, like you are a prostitute or a stripper. In the UFC, I think they kind of look down on you (the fighters) a little bit.

On the other hand, the UFC’s Tom Wright points out some equally relevant facts about the ring vs. cage debate. The cage keeps the fighters inside the fighting area. In a ring, it’s possible for fighters to fall in between the ropes, or under the ropes, and spill out onto the ringside commentators. You also don’t want a fighter pulling back for a punch and getting his arm caught on a rope, or worse, his neck tangled in a cable.

These facts, however, have always been true in boxing, and there haven’t been problems in that sport. PRIDE, whose history has been romanticized as the glory days of true fighting, used a ring, as do most Japanese MMA promotions. It worked for them, until the UFC purchased the company and its video library, which has become a profitable revenue stream for the UFC’s cable entities.

Cages are also different than rings in that they allow fighters to push off of the barriers with their legs to get leverage to get out of a hold, or to rest against them if a fighter is on top of them or pressuring them. MMA fighters do use the cages, but some other purists also, including Diaz, believe that the cage shouldn’t be there as physical crutch for fighters to lean on to kill time, and that the real martial art would be for the fighters to figure out how to escape the hold, rather than buying time or resting against the cage.

It’s not likely that the UFC will move from a cage to a ring, instead it will most likely push for the elimination of the word “cage” for the friendlier “Octagon.” Still, boxing,which dates its history back to the 16th century, takes place inside a ring, and it’s allowed in New York. No one calls Floyd Mayweather Jr.  “a human cockfighter.”

MMA may be the ultimate combat sport, and true test of skill and talent, but perception is everything. Perhaps it’s time for the UFC to examine if the Octagon is really worth it.

  • Walter D. Camacho

    As far as I read your article, the cage seems to be much more practical and safe than the ring. Those purist who cannot get over the fact of a cage because it is a “cage” are idiotic in my opinion. Likely they also like to “ignore” or pretend may other things do not happen. The cage is obviously safer, albeit using it to waste time can be a pity… Then again, that could be easily changed if the promotion forbid the use of cage walls to rest like it does grabbing them. I see an obvious improvement on the cage. Boxing is a stand-up, hands only sport. It does not require as much movement as grappling or even kicking is involved, you’re not as likely to lose balance.

  • Bluesdealer

    I know story was written a while ago, but I’ve always preferred the ring.

    1. More exciting fights and less running or stalling. The ring is better for technical fighting, both for grapplers AND strikers. Strikers can stalk and corner opponents while grapplers don’t have to worry about fence-grabbers or wall-n-stall. If the action gets too tangled, fighters will be reset in the center where only skill matters, not a foreign object.

    2. It’s safer. Ropes are more forgiving that cages. A fighter can lean on them and still evade strikes with head movement. This also means grounded kicks could be legalized in America (FINALLY), which leads to more exciting fights (see point 1).

    3. Visibility. I’ve attended many MMA events promoted by Strikeforce, Bellator, and UFC. One constant is that, while the environment is exciting, I had to constantly watch the jumbotron to get a good view of the action, even though my seats were close. Even in television, the camera angles are better with a ring. Look at the angles you see in boxing, K-1, and Pride. SO much better than UFC!

    4. Presentation. Let’s be honest… everyone hates McCain for his “human cockfighting” BS, but the cage was intended to imply just that aesthetic. The original UFC promoters dreamed up the idea to sell PPVs with an absurd, outlandish idea from Hollywood movies. They even considered having alligators in a moat around the cage!!! Rings are more professional and imply more respect for the fighters.

    5. Pride proved it. Everything about Pride was exciting and they were ahead of the UFC in almost every aspect of MMA (although notable exceptions include the omission of elbows). They didn’t go out of business because the product was bad, but rather because they didn’t think globally and only focused on Japan. The fights were soooo good, and a contributing factor was the ring and the rules. Bring it back!!!