Nobody likes losing but probably none more so than fighters. Defending belts, capturing titles, and long winning streaks is what every fighter’s ego demands. Whether they’re in Muay Thai, Boxing, or MMA, each sport approaches losses, victories, and records in its own unique way.
In recent years, there’s been a fetishisation in Boxing of maintaining that illusive perfect record. Promoters are quick to promote bouts between two undefeated fighters. It’s inevitable that someone’s O must go, which makes for an exciting promotional tool but anyone who looks can see its negative effects on the sport.
Fighters are extremely careful about being matched up, as even a single loss could derail their entire career. Management teams and fighters steer as clear as possible of challenging fights that could help the fighter grow if it means taking a loss.
The risk versus reward factor is the crucial variable in the equation. Fans only need look at how fighters at the top of their division dance around each other’s orbits without seriously trying to get in the ring with each other.
Floyd Mayweather is the poster child and the logical conclusion to this trend. He didn’t start it but he definitely benefited immensely from it. Imagine if he’d fought Manny Pacquiao in 2009, 2012, and 2015? Or if he’d fought Oscar De La Hoya or Miguel Cotto multiple times, he wouldn’t have stayed undefeated. But there was always some hype around having an undefeated record.
Julio Cesar Chavez won his first 87 fights. This was followed by a controversial draw with Pernell Whitaker, which Whitaker really won, before his first career loss to Frankie Randall put his record at an amazing 89-1-1. Joe Calzaghe, the popular Welsh boxer, retired undefeated at 46-0.
Syd Vanderpool, a former pro boxer in the 90’s and early 2000s, remarked,
“Back in the early 90’s, when I was starting out, it was common thinking that in order to get to fight for a world title you had to be undefeated. I was devastated when I was 5-0 and lost my first fight. Things started to change and 6 years later I was 28-1 when I was called for the opportunity to fight Bernard Hopkins for the world middleweight crown.”
Looking back, the most popular fighters of the early 80’s, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler all had losses on their records. And going back even farther than that, though there was Rocky Marciano— all of the most famous fighters had losses.
MMA is still in its infancy when compared to Muay Thai and Boxing but there’s a lot of interesting business dynamics going around. Every bout is hyped to the max as fighters don’t usually fight more than three times a year. With so much riding on each fight, there’s a lot of pressure to be in your best possible condition and win.
Currently undefeated MMA prospect Pat Pytlik who’s looking to make his way into the UFC also talked about the pressures of winning,
“In my sport, a lot like boxing, your record is your value. Losing can determine whether you get a big payday or getting a part time job or worse a full time just to survive. In combat sports, the big paydays don’t come for a long time and everyone that’s taking it seriously is delaying gratification and living a much more frugal lifestyle.”
Ronda Rousey, for example, was hyped far beyond her skill level demanded. After the first loss on her previously perfect record, she crumbled and suffered a second knockout loss soon after. Her case might be a little extreme but the pressure to win and not lose was so great that it broke her when she finally did lose. The good news is that at the moment she seems to be an outlier, the other popular MMA stars all have losses. The impetus is still on exciting action.
Muay Thai is definitely the outlier at the present moment in time. Throughout its history, wins and losses were considered par for the course. Fighters fought continuously then and still fight just as regularly now.
It’s not rare to bump into guys with 500 fights who still stay busy all year. In fact they fight so often that losing is only natural. There are no 0s not even at the highest level of the sport. Many of the fighters don’t remember how many fights they’ve had and often no real records are kept.
Gambling is Muay Thai’s lifeblood and toxin. The sport wouldn’t be what it is without the influence and ubiquity of gamblers who make up the majority of attendees at fights. Whether it’s out in the countryside, especially Isaan, or the major stadiums, the people on the sidelines are there to make a buck.
They influence the way fighters fight, the scoring, and who the eventual winner is. If there’s a severe mismatch, the gamblers may not even place a bet. They demand good matchups and fighters will often give less established or less experienced opponents a weight advantage to even the odds. A promotion with a number of high-level evenly matched bouts will attract the gamblers en masse.
There’s nothing like a sold out show at Rajadamnern with the gamblers screaming and crying out whenever the fighter they’ve bet on throws a shot. It’s an electric atmosphere and the fighters are urged to go above and beyond. There’s pressure to win but with fights so evenly matched, it’s understandable for fighters to lose.
In fact, a 5O-5O win/loss record at the stadium is enough to have a good long career there. 7O-3O is considered a good fighter, 8O-2O is a special fighter, and the 9O-1O fighters are truly one in a million elite. If you’re fighting at the stadium 9-12 times a year, with fights every month, against evenly matched opposition, losing and improving on those losses is just part of Muay Thai. What is valued is consistency and an inconsistent fighter is quickly forgotten.
The peculiarities of each sport dictate how fighters navigate their careers. Whether it’s Muay Thai, Boxing or MMA, great fighters who are actively fighting other top level calibre will pick up a loss. The obsession with undefeated records can damage both the sport and the fighter. It’s hard to fault fighters whose livelihood depends on following the established script but for the good of combat sports, the O must go.