It was the fight of 2017, but it was roundly regarded as a gimmick.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor. The undefeated king of boxing against the biggest star from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, known as UFC. It was all hype. McGregor didn’t belong in a boxing ring with Mayweather, a boxing purists who has mastered his craft. McGregor had some boxing in his past, but this was like LeBron James playing one-on-one against an intramural star.
This was spectacle at its peak. It was a joke aimed at raking in piles of cash. But it was also a sign of a major transition happening.
The truth is boxing couldn’t deliver Mayweather a colossal fight. He is the biggest name in the sport but he didn’t have a foe. He was Muhammed Ali with no Joe Frazier. Marvin Hagler without Tommy “Hitman” Hearns to create a classic with. There was no fighter there to send him into retirement like Evander Holyfield did Mike Tyson.
So Mayweather had to turn to the hot new sport, mixed martial arts (MMA). He had to turn to a burgeoning audience to get his one last payday, more than $300 million, and captivate the masses. Without a doubt, McGregor needed Mayweather to get in front of a larger audience. McGregor’s largest payday as $3 million in MMA. He pulled in $100 million by stepping into Mayweather’s ring.
But boxing has never needed another sport. And by going to grab the biggest name in another sport, boxing signaled its declining influence. It also pulled MMA into the mainstream and just might have expedited the takeover.
Boxing is the sport that helped the U.S. get through the Great Depression, grapple with racism, see the Vietnam War through a different lens, and even helped turn Las Vegas into a metropolis.
Mixed martial arts is thriving, consuming some of the void left by boxing’s declining magnitude in America. It is doing so by catering to Millennials. With web-friendly content, and a format that meshes with how young people consume entertainment, the sport has soared into the mainstream with no noticeable limit in sight.
In several areas where boxing fails — sensationalism, marketing, structure and integrity to name a few— mixed martial arts is executing. As a result, one of the country’s favorite pastimes is quickly becoming past its time. Boxing has become sports’ version of a grandfather fighting a life-threatening disease, and even those who love him most have to start preparing for life after he’s gone.
Boxing is the sport that helped the U.S. get through the Great Depression, grapple with racism, see the Vietnam War through a different lens, and even helped turn Las Vegas into a metropolis. Having it demoted in the American psyche, like horse racing was, will undoubtedly have some kind of cost.
As modern as it is, no one knows if mixed martial arts can have the impact boxing did. In other areas where the modern and sensational has replaced the traditional, something was lost even if the gains were worth the sacrifice.
But this is happening anyway. Save for something epic coming to revive boxing, it is losing to the newest combat sport. Follow the views, follow the dollars, follow the momentum — it all points to a massive climate change in the fight world.
“Boxing is a very limited form of fighting,” UFC analyst Joe Rogan said in an October 2015 ESPN article. “It's kind of a silly agreement, to say we hate each other, we’re going to fight and duke it out man-to-man, but we’re only going to use our hands. That's it. What ultimate fighting is, is the actual sport of fighting. It encompasses all aspects of fighting -- ground game, kicking, punching, elbows, submissions, all the above. That's why it's much more exciting. That's why it's a much more dynamic sport. What boxing is, is one aspect of mixed martial arts.”
Mixed martial arts is exactly what it sounds like. It is the combining of many different forms of martial arts with fighting. Showcasing disciplines such as boxing, kick-boxing, jiu-jitsu and wrestling, it's a sport where two men or two women step inside a cage and pit their knowledge of various styles and competitive will against the other to see who is more dominant.
In 2001, the UFC was purchased by Zuffa -- a company consisting of Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta and Dana White -- for $2 million, according to Forbes.
Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC began a domination of the MMA industry. It legitimized the UFC, making it more a sport than a barbaric clash many then assumed it to be. With Dana White serving as president and face of the UFC the entire time, the change created steady viewership and generated constant revenue for the company. On the flip side, boxing is more likely to generate most of its massive viewership and revenue in a year from a fight or two.
What also contributes to the ever-growing crowd of the UFC is the availability of its fighters. They have taken advantage of the brand-building opportunities on social media and interact with the MMA community frequently. It created a much more approachable and authentic vibe with the stars -- unlike boxing’s biggest names, who are largely untouchable and so obviously controlled by promoters.
The end result: In July 2017, Zuffa sold the UFC for $4 billion. WME-IMG’s purchase of the promotion was the most expensive transaction for an organization in sports history.
According to reports, WME-IMG plans to expand expects the company to be worth $7 billion by 2019 with their television deal coming up.
Contrary to popular belief, boxing’s numbers haven’t been so great in the last decade. Boxing became top heavy with very few all-around stars. Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have been its top draws. These two mega stars carried the sport on their backs, averaging over 900,000 pay-per-view (ppv) buys per fight. But boxing is struggling to find draws to take their place.
Mayweather said he was retiring after the McGregor fight and Pacquiao’s last few fights have revealed he isn’t nearly the fighter he once was.
PPV sales drop tremendously when they haven’t fought. The next biggest star in boxing is Canelo Alvarez. According to Golden Boy Promotions, Alvarez averages 600,000 ppv buys when he has headlined events. In 2016, when Pacquiao fought once and Mayweather was notably absent, boxing averaged 235,000 viewers for six events with only one reaching the 600,000 ppv buys. That was the lowest year of numbers in the sport’s history.
For the UFC, 2016 was its greatest year ever with 12 major events averaging 600,000 ppv buys and five events reaching the coveted million buys level. UFC’s viewership is trending upwards.
Boxing? Not so much.
One of the main advantages MMA has over boxing is organizational. The UFC is the dominant league and face of the sport, in the same way the NBA is for basketball.
There are other leagues. Bellator MMA and ONE Fighting Championship are the two largest organizations outside of the UFC and they house some of the best and most-talented fighters in the world. Invicta Fighting Championship is an all women’s organization and promotes a lot of the top women in the world.
But the best of MMA is found in the UFC. This is the promotion to which everyone aspires. There are 11 weight divisions in the UFC: eight for the men and three for the women. Being the UFC champion means more than any other promotion; fighters are viewed as kings of the world in their weight class.
Boxing is made up of more than 20 organizations worldwide. No single one is dominant.
The four major organizations in boxing are the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Organization (WBO) and the International Boxing Federation (IBF). All of these organizations have 17 weight divisions, meaning 17 champions. Some have more than one champion in the same division. In boxing, you’re never exactly sure who the best fighter is in a given division. Because of various tactics by promoters, and the multiple organizations, the best fighters rarely face each other.
In many ways, UFC has modeled a lot of aspects after boxing. Weight classes. Televised weigh-ins. Choreographed, and contentious, promotions. Relying on the pay-per-view model for revenue instead of selling television rights as other pro sports.
But while copying the proven successful tactics of boxing, UFC president Dana White, a self-professed lover of boxing, has managed to capitalize on boxing’s shortcomings and failures. And boxing’s refusal, or inability, to evolve, because it is handcuffed to its rich tradition, gives White a seemingly endless window to take advantage.
On top of that, boxing continues to shoot itself in the foot.
Everything in the sport is money driven, and not in a positive way.
Fights are routinely put off for way too long. It took Mayweather and Pacquiao years to finally fight each other. Both were past their prime when they did. Even though the event was still a massive success monetarily, it didn’t produce the epic fight many hoped for and was a bad look for boxing.
Bogus decisions in top-level fights have also led to the purity and credibility of the sport being tarnished. It is hard not to presume corruption is rampant based on some of the fight outcomes. It has gotten so bad, boxing purists are angry.
In 2017, boxing’s answer to the Mayweather-McGregor spectacle, Canelo Alvarez faced Gennady Golovkin. It was a high-profile championship fight, one of the best matchups in years. Yet, it was tarnished by the judges. It was clear to most who watched the fight that Golovkin won. But it was ruled a draw. The worst part: One judge gave concluded Alvarez had won the fight handily, which by all accounts is a gross betrayal of how the fight went down.
“The landscape of the sport is set up to be corrupted, there’s no separation of church and state,” Teddy Atlas, a former boxer and trainer turned famous boxing commentator and respected voice, said in a 2017 ESPN interview with Stephen A. Smith. “There is no separation. When you have that kind of closeness between people making money and the people administrating the sport, there’s a landscape for corruption.”
Even without all that, MMA has a competitive advantage because it was born of modern times. Boxing, dubbed the sweet science and a sport embraced by intellectuals for its strategy, has had a rough time transitioning into modernity. The UFC, on the other hand, is the offspring of the Millennial age.
White has tailored the whole business to capitalizing on the next generation. It has successfully grabbed the attention of the most
targeted demographic by catering to its behaviors.
MMA is more sensational.
Something in the makeup attracts humans to violence. Fighting is in us, which is why it has been around as long as humans have.
One of the UFCs themes is gladiators fighting. They used to use a gladiator in the intro video to shows.
Although it's not a fight to the death, it can be pretty close. The fact that somebody is beating somebody into submission, or unconsciousness, caters to that carnality. While boxing gravitates towards the beauty of fighting, the UFC taps into the savagery.
Also, in MMA there are a variety of ways to win a fight: knockout, submission or decision. In boxing, there is only by knockout or by decision — and the latter is often unfulfilling. The gloves in UFC are smaller (four ounces in weight) while boxing has a variety of glove sizes. The smaller gloves lead to harder and more punishing punches. Add in the ability to use elbows, knees and kicks, the possibility of a knockout are much higher in MMA than in boxing.
And for Millennials raised on video games and graphic movies, the tolerance for violence is increased.
Fighters have to be at the top of their game or risk getting knocked out at any given moment. More unpredictability plus little room for error, plus the chance for a big finish, is proving to be an addictive formula.
“Fighting takes courage. Toughness. Tenacity. It is an ancient, violent story. And in the end we get a triumph, and a human tragedy; only one fighter wins a fight,” said Joe O’Connor, in a 2015 article on the National Post.
It’s a story humans; crave everyone loves a triumphant story. The purity of it makes the sport so beautiful.
MMA is less complicated.
For one, fights are shorter. As opposed to boxing matches, which are 12 three-minute rounds for their main events, the UFC implores five three-minute rounds for main events.
This adds more meaning to each round, creates a faster pace that makes viewing more intense, and accounts for the shorter attention spans of today’s viewers.
MMA is more personable.
Boxing has failed to develop top stars to generate viewers. With the retirement of Floyd Mayweather, the biggest draw in boxing, the sport could be in a world of trouble, as the sport needs a face and didn’t prepare one even though Mayweather is 40.
Andre Ward, who has the characteristics and likability of a star, could have carried the sport if boxing played its cards right. But he retired without a major fight to make him a household name.
The UFC has shown an ability to create stars. One example is Jon Jones, a fighter people got to watch rise up the ranks one by one.
The UFC gave him guys who were supposed to be tests, and he dominated them all until he finally became champion and a huge star. Conor McGregor is another perfect example; the UFC took a little known, brash talker and fed him the toughest challenges they had until he reached the top of the mountain. Ronda Rousey was promoted as the most unbeatable champion in the sport; inadvertently Holly Holm beat her and another star was born.
Getting to see these fighters rise up the ranks and deal with challenge after challenge has always been the UFC’s mantra, something that boxing chooses to shy away from, and that's what puts them ahead and legitimizes them to fans.
A huge part of that is because the UFC gives fans the fights they want to see when they want them. Boxing waited years for Mayweather-Pacquiao as the fighters dodged each other with hardline requests. They were past their prime by the time they met. In contrast, the UFC always pits the best against the best. Always making champions fight the number one contender, UFC makes sure that you always get the best possible fights. There are no easy fights. Politics doesn’t get in the way of what the fans want.
MMA has taken boxing down, but boxing most likely will never fall into obscurity because of how long it’s been around. For now, MMA is the new king in town.