When we are younger, many of us are made to believe that dancing and fighting occupy distinct opposing poles. For a number of legendary boxers and martial artists, dancing – be it ballroom or ballet – was proven to be a crucial contributing factor to their success as elite fighters.
For example, a man many hold up as the greatest boxer of all time – Sugar Ray Robinson – attributed his background in dancing as integral to his success. Robinson dominated boxing’s welterweight and middleweight divisions at a time when the sport was at its peak. Blessed with extraordinary talent and an-all round game which encompassed peerless speed, defense, power, and footwork, Robinson is synonymous with greatness to purists around the world.
So just how far does the relationship between dancing and fighting go? While the link between dance and combat sports is hardly a new finding, there are many athletes who simply ignore its benefits. The most obvious connection between dancing and combat is perhaps Capoeira, which was created by Angolan slaves brought to Brazil all the way back in the 1500’s.
Capoeira’s effectiveness lies in the steady flow of movement a practitioner (capoeirista) demonstrates in both attack and defense. This unpredictability makes reading the next move -or anticipating an angle of attack – difficult to anticipate, from an opponent’s perspective. As an art form, Capoeira is as closely related to dancing as any other combat sport. It is also relatively unknown to many average fans of ‘fighting sports’.
While there are a number of fighters in mixed martial arts (MMA) who will have trained in Capoeira, its effectiveness in a fight is questionable. When we look at any of the world’s premier MMA promotions – from the UFC to ONE Championship – it is hard to recall the consistent and successive use of capoeira. With mixed martial arts, the name will pretty much explain why. As the world of modern-day mixed martial arts continues to evolve, it is essential that a fighter holds proficiency in striking (such as boxing and Muay Thai), and grappling (wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, sambo, etc.). Factor in conditioning and the tank to go three to five 5-minute rounds and you can see how capoeira alone is not nearly enough.
It is far from useless, however.
Former dominant UFC middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, is ranked as a yellow cord in the sport, which is two steps down from the highest ranking attainable. “The Spider” is a living legend of MMA, who traditionally demonstrated exceptional movement inside the Octagon which many (including Silva himself) linked to his background in capoeira. It was the Brazilian’s experience in dancing – both ballet and tap – which he truly believes was integral to his success as a fighter, however.
In an interview in 2014 with The Trip Silva explained how dancing can greatly improve the footwork and overall style of a fighter, and how there should not be any shame in incorporating it into training:
“I have been a dancer. Not anymore,” he said.
“Man, what a phase. At first I didn’t like it, no. It was punishment. No friend of mine did it. Me doing ballet? Hello? It wasn’t very cool. My friends would all go like, ‘ah, little girl, little lady.’ And add that to my high-pitched voice—I was bullied a lot.
But I started to like ballet. And my aunt also put me in tap-dancing lessons. I’m thankful to her because it helped me a lot in fighting. Evander Holyfield practiced ballet. It’s got nothing to do with that, you know. If you want to do ballet, you do ballet.”
Like Silva, boxing’s former undisputed heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield trained in ballet, as did a whole host of other fighters. Mexican lightweight/welterweight legend Juan Manuel Marquez and former World Series of Fighting middleweight champion and current UFC contender David Branch were also huge advocates of ballet.
The number of benefits of ballet training makes it considerably beneficial to any fighter looking to improve key aspects of their game. While this form of training would be less suited to heavyweight power punchers less known for their movement, those who do frequently train in ballet can avail of:
- Increased flexibility
- The aiding of balance
- Assistance in movement
- The strengthening of posture
- Help with fluidity in stretching and reach
Besides ballet, most forms of dancing can greatly contribute to any fighter’s skillsets. Still not convinced?
What do Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Vasyl Lomachenko have in common, aside from being considered to have been (or in Lomachenko’s case, to be) elite boxers? The answer is that they all have a background in dancing.
For Robinson, he is widely regarded as the greatest fighter to have ever graced the squared circle. Having dominated the highly-competitive welterweight division as a taller man than most of his opponents, it was his incredible hand speed, foot speed, and movement, despite being the bigger man, which stands out. In fact, it was the template which Ali and another “Sugar,” Ray Leonard, built their style off.
To better understand just how significant Robinson’s dancing was to his movement, we can take a look at his fight with Bobby Dykes in 1950. The bout is the perfect example of how the legendary boxer could transfer strength from his legs and hips, despite being on the back-foot, due to the fluidity, strength, and type of balance and muscle memory we would only generally see with elite dancers.
One of Robinson’s greatest assets was his ability to quickly attack from defense. With his head generally away from the center line, he would draw mistakes from fighters who failed to connect with a right hand. “Sugar” kept his right hand fixed to his glove, circling behind his jab in a clockwise fashion (as Muhammad Ali would later adopt). While this was unusual due to the dangers it would present against an orthodox fighter, Robinson’s incredible footwork (like Ali) made it possible.
As he glided and slid in and out, his footwork was always fluent and composed, despite being unpredictable. His back foot was always in the right place, meaning that he could generate power in an instant, whether in hunting or retreating. In the fight with Dykes, Robinson demonstrates his stellar dance-like movement, knocking his opponent down with a right hand off a left hook.
His footwork, as was usually the case with Robinson, made this possible. What was behind his footwork, much like Anderson Silva, Muhammad Ali, Vasyl Lomachenko and a number of other fighting legends, was dancing.