It’s a debate raging on social media – which is better, boxing or mixed martial arts? Top events in both sports regularly reach millions of views, while the popular perception is that MMA has a younger fanbase.
So what are the pros and cons of each? Boxing may have the history, but will MMA win the future?
Seeking definitive answers, BBC Sport sat down with Liverpool light middleweight Jack ‘the Pilgrim’ McGann, a fighter better placed than almost anyone to comment.
Currently undefeated in eight as a professional boxer, McGann was once an MMA fighter. He chained eleven victories in 16 fights between 2012 and 2017, before changing code.
“I like both sports,” says the 29-year-old. “But they are as different as day and night.
“Boxing is more damaging, in my opinion. I’ve had a lot of MMA fights where both fighters have come out at the end without a scratch. If you wrestle most of the time, that’s it.
“In MMA, you also get lulls in fights, where you’re pressed against the cage or one fighter has the other’s back but can’t submit them, and you take a little break.
“That doesn’t happen in boxing. So although the rounds are shorter [MMA uses five-minute rounds]it’s more intense.”
Russian horror shows inspire change in boxing
McGann’s childhood meant he was always destined to end up in MMA. His father, Anthony McGann was the owner and founder of the legendary Wolfslair Gymnasium in Widnes.
His storied past includes a champion roll call that includes the UK’s first UFC champion Michael Bisping and fellow legends Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Cheick Kongo.
While still skinny in elementary school, McGann trained at his dad’s gym, alongside guys who became icons.
Sometimes fighters even slept at his house, while preparing for contests. McGann casually recalls Jackson moving in for an extended period.
So what would make a person groomed for MMA almost from birth, who then built a solid winning record, leave it for boxing in their mid-twenties?
Others, like Conor McGregor, may have opted for one-off events, but haven’t completely changed careers. Too many internet tribalists, the move could almost be considered a defection.
“I love combat sports in general, but it’s always been the hitting side of MMA that has come most naturally to me. The kicks, the knees and of course the punches,” McGann said.
“In the cage, I was a stand-up fighter and if the fight went to the ground, my tactic was to find a way to get back to my feet as soon as possible.”
But that doesn’t mean it was easy to switch. When McGann switched to boxing, at age 24, he had no prior experience outside of fighting in the gym.
“I had competed in kickboxing, jujitsu, all that stuff. I even had a stint in Thailand when I was 19, just to train and fight Muay Thai for four months, which made me happy. gave a new perspective on things. But boxing? Nothing,” he says.
This meant that to qualify for his professional boxing licence, McGann had to box four rounds with former world title challenger Martin Murray behind closed doors in front of officials from the British Boxing Board of Control.
He was successful, and Murray later became his coach.
However, the abrupt career change still raised eyebrows, not least because McGann had once been considered a rising star in MMA.
He has recorded seven straight wins since his debut under coach Aaron Wilkinson before suffering a points loss to Marc Diakiese.
Diakiese now competes in the UFC, the goal of many MMA fighters.
“Of course the UFC was also my goal,” McGann recalls, but explains how a tough journey got him into boxing.
“After the Diakiese loss, in 2015, I was picked up by the Fight Nights Global organization and fought in Russia.
“It was huge shows, big arenas, but I suffered a really bad decision loss at home to a Russian kid in my fourth fight there.
“Then in my last fight with them, they had me standing on a platform as I left, with lasers going off around me, but the platform collapsed.
“I fell and injured my leg, went ahead and fought anyway, and lost. I found out later that I had chipped the bone in my tibia.
“So that meant I had two losses on the rebound and I had doubts about the set-up. From there I started weighing my options. That’s what led to boxing. “
Policy, scholarships and principles
Now preparing for his ninth professional boxing contest, McGann reflects on the demands of his new and old disciplines.
“You have to fight for something other than money,” he stresses, explaining why he is running as an ambassador for the animal rights charity “Power of One”, a commitment that stems from his time in Thailand, where he witnessed animal abuse.
“But money still matters. When I changed it was like a breath of fresh air.
“But there’s so much politics in boxing with all the organizations, promoters and broadcasters. In MMA, the best fight the best because they’re all in the UFC. It’s simple.
“In boxing that doesn’t happen, which upsets the fans but means the boxers are in a stronger bargaining position.
“If one promoter doesn’t have the right deal, you move on to another. That’s why better boxers make more money.
“For the fans, the four-ounce gloves and the rules of MMA mean you get more knockouts, which they find exciting. So I guess you could say that structurally MMA is better for the fans, but boxing is better for the fighters.”
Despite this contrast, McGann doesn’t want or expect to see a future in which one sport dominates the other.
“I hope both will prosper,” he says. “Boxing is great for me now, but my dream is to win a world title and then maybe fight in the UFC.
“I would still really like to do that.”