Boxing on the ropes as MMA becomes the No 1 contender
Professional boxing is slipping into irrelevancy as fight fans embrace the violence of mixed martial arts, says Patrick McEllin
P rofessional boxing has fallen a long way in terms of popularity and relevance since its golden era of the '70s and '80s.
At the moment it resembles a punch drunk boxer, clinging to what he can, blinded to his own decline by the memories of his glory days and the faint hope of their return. Mixed martial arts may prove to be the opponent which finally retires boxing as a commercially successful professional sport.
A glance at the list of top-ten television pay-per-view buys in America for 2009 shows mixed martial arts is clearly in the ascendency. Six of the top-ten positions were taken by MMA, twice as many as boxing. Interestingly, the three boxing cards to make the top ten included either Floyd Mayweather Jr or Manny Paquiao while the MMA events had five different titles on the line held by five different fighters. When you consider that MMA has only come into mainstream consciousness in the western world in the last five years, its rapid ascendency is quite staggering.
But why is it increasing in popularity at such a rapid rate while boxing is slipping into irrelevancy in terms of popular mainstream sports? The merits of MMA and the public's increased ease with the violence involved in the sport have been huge factors in its rise to prominence. However, MMA has also been quick to take advantage of boxing's sorry state to fill a gap in the market.
The lack of credible American heavyweight boxers has hurt the sport badly. Heavyweight has traditionally been the sport's marquee division. Frazier, Foreman, Tyson, Ali and a host of others caught the American imagination and the rest of the western world followed that lead. Nowadays, however, the great American heavyweights are thin on the ground.
Traditionally, boxing was seen by the black underclass as means of escape from poverty. Forty years after the introduction of civil rights, athletic ability is still an African American's best hope; the only thing that has changed is the sporting avenue he will most likely pursue.
In the last 20 years, basketball and American football have become the more popular routes for black athletes as the monetary gains related to these sports increased tenfold. As the iconic boxing pundit Bert Sugar remarked about two well-known linebackers: "The best American heavyweights are named Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher because they're over 250 pounds, and they can make more money. That's what happened to the heavyweight division in America".
Record protecting is one of modern boxing's biggest problems and it is one which has been completely self-inflicted. It can be difficult to tell what level a boxer is really at or how legitimate his record is nowadays. Fighters can be protected by their promoters, taking on only cans and fighters far past their prime to build an impressive record on paper that can lead to more lucrative fights.
Ricky Hatton is a prime example of this. Hatton was undefeated in 40 fights coming into his bout with Mayweather in 2008. The day before the fight Hatton was 6/5 in some places to win, but he could have been 10/1 and still would not have been a good bet, such was the gulf in quality between the fighters, despite the fact their records would suggest otherwise.
Mixed martial arts does not have this problem because about 70 per cent of the top competition fight in one major organisation, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC organises fights, not the different managements, and the majority of the time it is only interested in setting up competitive fights rather than protecting reputations or records. Given that a pay-per-view event can cost up to $50, it is a far more attractive proposition to watch an MMA event where you can be almost guaranteed competitive fights between fighters at a relatively even level rather than a boxing event.
With mixed martial arts, and despite the fact that many of the fighters have huge profiles, the UFC itself is still the main draw and the fans know the organisation will put on the best card possible. With boxing, the big name is still the draw and these big names are getting thinner on the ground.
This has become especially relevant over the last 20 years as more and more boxers look to start off straight into pay per view without building up a profile first, which naturally makes them even harder to market. Again mixed martial arts doesn't have this problem because people will still buy the fight without knowing all the fighters because they trust the UFC to put on a good card.
Mixed martial arts struggled for years to be accepted into mainstream society. It was seen as a violent blood sport and even described as "human cockfighting". Ironically, its aesthetically violent nature has become one of its biggest advantages. With thinner gloves, use of elbows, knees and feet allowed, as well as striking on the ground, not too mention the fact that takedowns make many boxing defensive techniques redundant, it is far more violent than boxing.
With MMA it's fairly clear the majority of casual fans watch for the violence. When a fighter goes to the ground, the booing will begin quickly if his opponent does not quickly lay down a torrent of blows. The fighters may be in the middle of a tactical bout, attempting to gain position and posture through wrestling or working for submissions, but the fans just want too see them smash each other.
Boxing is on the canvas and it is questionable whether it can make a recovery. Its wounds are severe, some caused by outside influences, others self-inflicted.
It's doubtful whether it can ever come close to reaching the heights it once did. Mixed martial arts remains on the rise and the decline of boxing coupled with a change in attitude towards the violence involved means it will only continue growing.