The Pugilist: The Sweet Science of Bruising | Comparing Nick Diaz and Daniel Mendoza
Cageside Guest Columnist John S. Nash brings us yet another fascinating article from his archives. This time we explore some comparisons between MMA fighter Nick Diaz's unusual boxing style, with those of 19th century bare-knuckle legend, Daniel Mendoza.
There seems to be some confusion amongst fans as to how one should regard Nick Diaz's "boxing".
For many, it seems incongruent to label him the best boxer in MMA, when so little of what he's done in the cage can be qualified as "good" boxing. i.e., Leaning too far forward in his stance - while leading with his face; keeping his hands far out in front of him - where they can't be used to protect the head; feet planted - instead of light on the toes; and, very little movement of his head. None of these would be what you would expect to see in an elite boxer.
Yet, the results speak for themselves; with his most recent display of prowess coming at the expense of the previously labeled "best boxer in MMA", BJ Penn. How can Nick Diaz be the exemplifier of the "sweet science" when everything he does runs counter to what entails "good" boxing?
The answer lies with the fact everything he does, is exactly what "good" boxing calls for.
The only reason we fans fail to acknowledge this, is that we have narrowly focused on the sport as fought under the Marques of Queensbury rules, ignoring the lessons left to us by those who competed during the earlier reigns of London Prizefighting, and Broughton's rules.
Fortunately, a few of those early competitors were thoughtful enough to write down what entailed good boxing, all for the "sweet science of bruising".
Most likely, you have never heard of Daniel Mendoza, which is of no surprise, since his last public match took place in 1820. Nevertheless, if ever there was a kindred spirit to Diaz, it was him.
A descendant of Spanish Marronos, Mendoza was the father of scientific boxing, whose successes helped elevate the position of Jews in 18th and 19th century English society. Moreover, much like Diaz, he seemed incapable of understanding finances. Additionally, he was notoriously quick-tempered, with a propensity to fight whenever he felt slighted in the least. Famously, he had gotten into three altercations while on his way to being a spectator at a match just because:
- Someone's cart had cut him off in the street.
- He felt cheated by a shopkeeper.
- He didn't like how a man was looking at him.
Of far more significance, is the fact he was also an amazing boxer, the best of his era. Mendoza was the 16th man to ever hold the English (World's) heavyweight championship (possessing the title from 1792-1795), and the only middleweight to ever accomplish that feat.
The rule-set that Mendoza fought under during his time, was the one devised by Jack Broughton in 1743, (the very first codified set of rules in the history of the sport), which were fittingly named, Broughton's rules.
They were very simple, numbering seven in total, dealing with such things as the size of the ring, the holding of the purse, and the choosing of umpires. Of the seven, only the last had anything to do with what tactics were allowed during competition:
VII. That no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist: a man on his knees to be reckoned down.
To elaborate, the only thing banned was the hitting of a downed opponent, or any wrestling below the waist. Everything else - hair pulling, grappling above the waist, wrestling or tripping your opponent to the ground, and of course, striking with the bare fists - was allowed.
In addition, since no gloves or hand wrappings were used, throwing with all one's might or aiming blows to the head was naturally discouraged, lest you break your hand. In fact, striking ability often rated below wrestling ability, with regards to importance in gaining a victory. As seen depicted within our three examples below (referenced as 'left', 'center', and 'right'):
[Images above, via Famous Fights: Past and Present, boxing newspaper, press run: circa 1901 to 1904; Text below, via the 1855 compilation Fights for the Championship; and Celebrated Prize Battles (abridged title)]
Left: "The Fight between Hammer Lane and Owen Swift", (1834), "Finally, in the 104th round, straining every fibre to the utmost, he fearlessly rushed to the climax, made one last daring attempt to turn the tide in his favour, but nature was exhausted, he was thrown heavily, and all was over." [Image via Famous Fights: Past and Present, No. 52]
Center: "Third Fight Between Bendigo and Caunt, for £200 a Side", (1845), "After some sparring, Caunt, who took a dislike to Bendigo's system of popping and shifting, went in right and left, and at once closing, seized his man as if in a vice, holding him on the ropes 'til nearly strangled, amidst cries of ‘shame'. After a violent struggle by Bendigo to get away, he was at last thrown -- Caunt heavily on him." [Image via Famous Fights: Past and Present, No. 39]
Right: "Fight Between Tom Cribb and Bob Gregson", (1808), "Cribb, to the surprise of all, seemed strongest on setting-to, he contrived to put in two feeble hits and closed; in wrestling, he had the good fortune to throw his antagonist, who fell with such uncommon force, he could not come to time." [Image via Famous Fight: Past and Present, No. 53]
"Throws to the ground" were something akin to the "body blows" of their day, where damage would accrue over time, with the goal being to eventually wear down your opponent from hard falls to the Earth time and time again.
"Another trick which has been used very successfully by some boxers when contesting under London prize ring rules is, when wrestling with an opponent, to make it a point to fall heavily on top of him, crushing the wind out of him as much as possible."
- "Boxing and How to Train", Richard K. Fox Publishing Co. (1913)
Since Mr. Mendoza was often much smaller than his opponents, and excelled in the technical striking department, he developed a stance that not only allowed him to attack, but also assisted him in negating his opponents attempt's to grapple and throw him.
Here is his description of how one should stand, which he labeled his second principle in "Mendoza's Treatise, With His Six Lessons" taken from The Modern Art of Boxing (1789).
"...the position of the body, which should be an inclining posture, or diagonal line, so as to place the pit of the stomach out of your adversary's reach. The upper part of your arm must stop or parry the round blow at the head; the fore-arm, the blows at the face of stomach; and the elbows, those at the ribs: both knees must be bent, the left leg advanced, and the arms directly before your throat or chin."
This illustration of Mendoza facing off against his former trainer Richard Humphries, below, should give us an idea of what he is trying to convey in the text above.
Mendoza is depicted here on the right, in his recommended stance. Although, fighters would often lean further forward than shown here, as if "into the wind". Note how his hands are shown far in front, knees bent.
By leaning forward and keeping his hands extended, Mendoza made it difficult for any opponent to get him to the ground. His legs were too far back from his opponent to trip or kick, and if they attempted to rush in he was already braced to meet their charge, his hands extended to push back and keep them away from his body, his forward leaning posture therefore to assist in countering their mass.
From this position, he could also launch a wide variety of offensive maneuvers. He could strike with either hand (his first principle was equilibrium of the body, the ability to operate with either the right or left side) with the preferred targets being the face, stomach, and side.
In addition, if one wanted to be less than gentlemanly, they could sneak in an elbow for good measure. The outstretched hands made it simple to seize an opponent who entered into range, after which he could trip, throw, or fib (fibbing was the art of putting the opponent in a headlock and then punching away).
Here, you can see an example of initiating the clinch from standing, via Ed James' 1878 manual, Boxing and Wrestling.
[Yes, this illustration is from the boxing, not the wrestling, portion of the book.]
Now, let us examine a gif of Nick Diaz in action against BJ Penn and see if we can't find a resemblance:
While the resemblance is there, there is also one obvious difference between the two - the position of their hands. Mendoza's palms are turned inwards, towards him, while his knuckles are facing his opponent.
Meanwhile, Diaz either keeps his hands open, with palms directed at Penn, or facing the ground when squeezed into a fist. The reason behind this difference is determined by one simple item - gloves.
In his 1910 self-defense manual, Defense dans la Rue, Jean-Joseph Renaud explained the difference gloves made when boxing:
The inconvenience of punches is that in giving them, one risks injuring one’s hands. The hand is a grasping organ, made for holding and not for hitting. As a general rule, the metacarpal bones are too delicate to withstand the force that a very vigorous extension of the arm produces.
Ah! If a fighting glove of 3 or 4 ounces protects the hand, then it's a different story; not only does one not injure oneself in striking, but the "knock out" becomes rather more easy to deliver!
For example, with bare fists it's difficult to put an opponent out of action by striking the angle of the neck, the jaw and the ear, though with a glove one clearly fills this angle, and it's not even necessary to hit very hard.
When one realizes the ease with which a fist could be broken, without a glove or hand-wrappings to protect it, the positioning of the hands by Mendoza, and other bare-knuckle fighters, begins to make a lot more sense.
Either by striking with a straight punch with the knuckles pointed down, or the fist perpendicular to the ground, they could guarantee their knuckles lined up with their wrist, lessening the chances of injury. It was easier to deliver such a punch if the fist started in that position.
Protecting their hands was also why most fighters limited themselves to straights and jabs to the head, staying away from hooks and overhands which could easily shatter against a hard skull. Hooks to the body were a different matter, with many fighters preferring to strike here than to the more risky head.
The luxury of gloves means Diaz's options aren't quite so limited (although he hasn't abandoned targeting the body either). Diaz's methods for evading his opponent's attacks also mirror the advice given by Mendoza:
"Parry the blows of your adversary's right hand with your left, and those of his left hand with your right."
Since trying to cover up without the benefits of boxing mitts is a much more difficult proposition, Mendoza suggested a strategy I'm familiar with from my days of studying Krav Maga:
With hands extended, the defender parries the blows as they come towards him, deflecting before they reach the body. A good example of Diaz using this technique, redirecting his opponent's strikes by slapping them away, was in his fight against Scott Smith, (starting at the 4:13 mark in the first round) when he bats away a combo.
The other benefit the outstretched arms provide, is that inevitably, anyone trying to strike you will be forced to throw from further away, beyond the defensive arms. The majority of these punches end up being channeled between the arms, making it easier to follow incoming blows. This also gives you another option to defend against the incoming fist:
"It is always better to avoid a blow by throwing the head and body back, at the same time covering the pit of the stomach, than to attempt to parry it."
(Click the gif below to see this demonstrated by Diaz.)
Jean-Joseph Renaud also detailed another common technique used by bare-knuckle prizefighters, which Mendoza doesn't touch upon:
"One of their principle tactics consisted, instead of parrying or slipping, of receiving the blow on the bony part of the face, by which means their opponent would break his hands."
Both Penn and KJ Noons (the only two fighters to go the distance with Diaz in his last 11 fights), broke their hands during their contests.
The other great similarity between Diaz and his 19th century prizefighting predecessors can be found within his movements. Since being thrown to the ground was of paramount concern, fighters could not use the same amount of bobbing, weaving, and dancing we've become accustomed to.
Instead, they had to make sure they remained balanced, so as not to give their opponent the opportunity to put them on their backside. This desire to always remain on solid-footing spilled over into how one advanced on their opponent. Here is how Mendoza recommended a person to advance:
Advancing, is practised by placing the right foot forward at the same distance from your left, as your left is from your right in the first attitude; you then throw your left foot forward so as to resume your original position, and thus keep gaining on your antagonist as he recedes.
What Mendoza is describing is often termed "square gating", or when strikes are thrown, as "shift punching". The technique was one which involved shifting the rear foot forward, while simultaneously delivering a punch on the same side as the advancing leg, adding the boxer's mass to his strikes.
An example of shift punching is provided by Bill Lang, and can be seen in the video below (starting at the 1:06 mark):
(Ironically, his victim, Bob Fitzsimmons, was famed for his deadly "Fitzsimmons shift", with which he defeated Jim Corbett.) The benefit of wearing gloves is revealed by the number of times Lang throws angled blows at Fitzsimmon's head.
Here, in the midst of this gif of highlights from the Diaz vs. KJ Noons II fight...
We get an overhead shot showing Diaz demonstrating some textbook "shift punching". In concurrence with each step, he throws a punch, alternating between the left and right. The lumbering steps mask several benefits offered by the technique: it allows Diaz to advance and attack, step for step as his opponent retreats, adding his momentum and weight to each strike, and all in a controlled manner.
Perhaps the characteristic that Diaz and Mendoza have most in common is killer instinct:
"If he gives way, or is staggered by a severe blow, you should not be anxious to recover your guard and stand on the defensive, as this will only be giving him time to recollect himself, but take advantage of his momentary confusion and follow up the blow."
I can think of no better way Diaz exemplifies the spirit of Daniel Mendoza than this.
Of course, any implication that Diaz's fighting is based exclusively on 19th century prizefighting techniques, or that Nick Diaz and his coach, Richard Perez, have intentionally set about to mine and recycle the methods used by past pugilists, is not intended.
Intentional or accidental, it is interesting how in trying to adapt boxing to the cage, we find a re-emergence of many of the same tried and true methods of the past.
It leads one to wonder what more there is to learn from these past masters of an "extinct" sport...