Boxing and mixed martial arts have waged a verbal civil war the last few years.
Their edgy sound bites, chest-thumping proclamations and flawed forecasts of one another’s demise produce interesting theater. A new act emerges once each enjoys a resounding success, like boxing’s Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez blockbuster at the MGM in Las Vegas in mid-September. It shattered existing records by commanding a $20 million live-gate sale—in one day. The event also notched a record of nearly $150 million in pay-per-view sales and signaled the second-highest all-time buy of approximately 2.2 million. It was the richest fight ever, appropriate for Mayweather’s moniker of “Money.”
A-ha, cried the boxing contingent. Take that, MMA.
It was only the latest sentiment expressed in this sibling rivalry, which, while heated, simply ranks as debate.
It may prompt a chuckle to the public that Mayweather says MMA fighters only work for 12 minutes and wear tattoos on their heads. Or that UFC President Dana White says Mayweather should be happy Las Vegas favors money over justice, referring to perceived leniency over domestic assault charges Mayweather once faced. It did raise an eyebrow when MMA commentator Joe Rogan told boxing promoter Lou DiBella that the “Sweet Science” would be swallowed up by his sport about five years ago. Or that DiBella, like customs officials in areas where MMA once had been banned, labeled it as cockfighting.
On it has gone. Several websites joined the discussion, forecasting MMA’s overtaking of boxing. And they were wrong.
The rivalry is misplaced, outdated and perhaps heading for a new realm. The heads of both factions may eventually realize their need to cooperate. Even Mayweather has hinted at promoting MMA fighters.
Big picture: It’s s not boxing versus MMA. It’s boxing and MMA, as combat sports, battling the likes of football, baseball, NASCAR and soccer on the world entertainment stage. Boxing and MMA can leverage the strength of each other to coax fans under the combat-sport umbrella, for their mutual benefit.
Similar Yet Different
MMA is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, as the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) swallowed its competitors and pockets around $100 million a year from the Fox Sports Network. The 20-year-old company has made remarkable strides, and offers innovations like female superstars, a regular network show and successful regular pay-per-view events.
The UFC made history when Ronda Rousey became its first-ever female headliner in a pay-per-view event this year. Fellow stars Miesha Tate and Gina Carano also bolster the organization. Tate and Rousey even have a reality series on Fox, leading to their own showdown in December at UFC 168. Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre, meanwhile, remain two of UFC’s biggest draws.
MMA is young, quick and hip. Merging varied disciplines like Muy Thai, kickboxing, karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo, it is the perfect mixed bag. A competitor must play to the strengths of his/her discipline. This fast-paced event, featuring short fights, appeals to an internet-savvy, instant-gratification audience.
On the flip side, MMA unfolds primarily on the ground. Its subtleties, even decisive moves, can be visually obscured.
UFC is young compared to boxing, which has centuries of tradition. Boxing’s modern evolution dates to the 16th century (although the Greeks allowed it as an Olympic sport as early as 687 BC) and the Marquess of Queensberry rules governing its conduct were created in London in 1867.
Boxing is the haven of the bare-knuckled John L. Sullivan, Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman (before the grill), Sugar Ray Robinson, Mayweather and Oscar DeLaHoya. It graces the world stage, has competitors from over 100 countries and creates its own brand of electricity. Yes, its demographic is older and the sport does not market itself collectively—the promoters resemble sharks swimming in unpatrolled waters—but boxing is the original combat king.
The Mayweather-Alvarez bout also showed that boxing is not a dinosaur. There was an all-access show involving the lives of both fighters, a press tour and free previews on networks like CBS and Showtime. The event also had the ideal backdrop of a veteran American superstar facing a young, wildly popular Mexican opponent.
Bag the boxing-MMA rift. The world can embrace both the stick-and-move and the ground-and-pound, body shots and knee strikes. It can remember the UFC and the WBC, the Sweet Science and the Rage in the Cage. One thing that will not happen in the boxing-MMA discussion? A submission.
Both sports are remarkably intertwined.
• UFC Chairman and CEO, and Station Casinos co-founder, Lorenzo Fertitta was… drum roll please… a Nevada boxing commissioner. So was UFC administrator Marc Ratner. As boxing officials, they implemented safety measures to sanitize and save mixed martial arts from being banned by groups opposing its brutality.
Commission rules became standard, opposition died and Fertitta saw enough potential to buy the UFC for $2 million. He took Ratner and childhood friend Dana White with him. That turn-of-the-millennium buy now resembles a steal.
• One of MMA’s most notable broadcast voices was that of Mauro Ranallo, now the fine blow-by-blow announcer for Showtime boxing.
• The same CompuBox company that provides punch numbers for boxing produces CompuStrike stats for MMA.
• Boxing’s most well-known ring announcer is Michael Buffer, whose brother and agent Bruce Buffer calls MMA cards.
And the Showtime network, enjoying the roll of its life by wresting Mayweather and Canelo from HBO, also had a regular MMA package until recently. Stephen Espinoza, its executive vice president and general manager of sports and event programming, even defines the boxing-MMA crossover.
He orchestrated Mayweather’s historic six-fight package of approximately $200 million and once structured deals for none other than MMA superstar Carano.
“I have never seen boxing and MMA as direct competition,” Espinzoa says. “I don’t think the growth of one cannibalizes the other. Those who disagree and who may think, for example, that MMA will overtake boxing are using an argument that is mainly a remnant of the UFC’s initial marketing plan. That plan was clearly to criticize boxing and spread the message that boxing was on the way down and MMA on the way up. The marketing message had no grounding in reality. The success of Mayweather-Alvarez was a clear reminder to pundits who had not been paying attention that boxing isn’t going anywhere.”
Showtime is on hiatus from MMA after airing its last Strikeforce event this year. Espinoza considers Showtime a future MMA player, but believes there is no shortage of it on television, and is in no rush to participate.
Fox made MMA a franchise property, investing approximately $150 million to be the home of both UFC and Bellator, the distant second-place outfit of MMA. Bellator just closed a deal with Fox Latin America.
While that scenario unfolds, Showtime runs on “Money.” Mayweather has waged two events in his eye-opening deal, which should run through 2015.
This becomes an area in which boxing and MMA diverge. UFC, the dominant company inside MMA, absorbed its competitors like WEC, Pride, Strikeforce and WFA. It promotes the UFC brand rather than the fighters, making them relatively interchangeable. This keeps the power base in their lap and causes some resentment among the athletes.
Boxing is different. Fighters in big events have their own promotion companies. They command a substantial slice of the revenue they generate. Showtime thus accepted risk with the Mayweather deal. It boldly dangled six extraordinarily high-level paydays to him in advance—requiring well more than a million pay-per-view buys to break even in most of the events—but “Money” has helped them prosper thus far.
“What’s become clear now, even to the skeptics and naysayers, is that Floyd is that singular, once-in-a-generation athlete,” Espinoza asserts. “We have a Tiger Woods, a Wayne Gretzky, or a Michael Jordan, someone so highly regarded that every time he performs, it automatically becomes an event. The show is Mayweather and his skill level and his dominance.
“Mayweather is one of the greatest boxers of all time. There was a vocal minority that disputed that before the Canelo fight, but that isn’t true now. The numbers bear out that he is still growing in popularity.
“We did the sport proud with that event (Alvarez) and attracted so many casual fans who might only watch one or two events a year. It far exceeded our expectations.”
Casual and serious fans take note: Mayweather says he wants to fight again May 3.
While Mayweather and Showtime soar, Espinoza believes boxing and MMA can help one another. He thinks MMA can teach boxing a lesson about in-arena entertainment. MMA’s loud, pulsating music and dancing girls have found their way to more boxing venues.
Espinoza also credits Ranallo with bringing MMA fans into boxing. Ranallo, who recently celebrated one year at the helm, spent the previous decade calling MMA showcases throughout the world, particularly in Japan. Ranallo considers the sports similar only in their combat vein. They are different, he maintains, and need not be fighting for the same entertainment pie slice.
“I have always been a big fan of all combat sports,” he says. “Boxing was a big part of my life. As it turned out, MMA gave me my first break. When UFC took off, I was blown away by the negativity of both sides.
“What people don’t seem to understand is that there is a big enough demographic for both sports. And if you are a fan of one, I really think you should go out of your way to understand the other. You will really enjoy it.”
Ranallo truly does enjoy both. Although boxing now consumes much of his schedule, Ranallo narrates the audio book Caged: Memoirs of a Caged Fighting Poet, written by his friend Cameron Conaway, on his website, mauroranallo.com.
“Both sports really can learn much from each other,” he says. “What MMA can take from boxing is the idea that you have a history with it. You have to build stars and you have your rules and regulations, etc. Boxing set the blueprint for MMA.”
Although Mayweather glitters, the rest of boxing does not reap gold. Boxing’s leaders historically have carved their own niche rather than promote the overall sport. The financial model involves building and protecting fighters until they can obtain their payoff on pay-per-view. This affects the quality of many low-level network fights. A good number are perceived in advance as one-sided. Anything less than a major-network showcase is not easy to draw fans to. The matchmaking for MMA outshines boxing at this level.
Some of boxing’s biggest supporters acknowledge its problems. One of them is Bernie Dillon, a three-decade veteran of major Atlantic City attractions. He was prominently involved in Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks, the 1988 blockbuster that set a record for site fees—$12 million—paid by Donald Trump. A quarter of a century later, Dillon has brought boxing and MMA into his new property, the Revel. With mixed results.
“From a business standpoint, boxing is in a bad way right now,” he says. “It has become very difficult to sell tickets for many fights. It is also difficult to get publicity for your shows. There isn’t the same interest in the shows, from a fan standpoint but also from the writers. There is a lack of journalists reporting on the sport.”
“Boxing is so fragmented,” he adds. “The sport is not giving you a centralized focus on the fighter and the big events. In my opinion, UFC has not pushed boxing out of the way. Boxing has hurt itself.”
Dillon believes boxing can employ one successful MMA technique—address the younger market.
“UFC has gone heavily after its audience online,” Dillon says. “I give Dana White a lot of credit for that. Early on, he was a big proponent of communicating with his fan base through the internet. That has helped build a strong base for the UFC. Boxing should be looking heavily in that direction.”
Some evidence points to this scenario evolving. Promoters are making more phone conference quotes available online. And Main Events has a multi-year package with NBC to televise fights that have generally been more competitive than its counterparts. Boxing on free TV was mainly absent during the sport’s decline.
The sport suffers two other growth problems—the lack of an Olympic superstar for 20 years and no viable heavyweight since Mike Tyson for the last 10. As other sports became more lucrative, they have lured potential boxers away.
A Vote For Both
What about the future linkage of boxing and MMA? From a gaming perspective, that’s possible, according to Ken Condon, who brought both sports to Atlantic City properties.
As president of Bally’s Atlantic City, he obtained two-thirds of the lucrative Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward trilogy for Boardwalk Hall several years ago. A string of Gatti fights made the Hall the largest grossing venue of its kind in the world during that heyday.
Condon, now a consultant, also has delivered Bellator to Atlantic City. He sees a logical progression for customers of both sports.
“The MMA demographic tends to be younger than boxing, and the purchasing power of these fans is somewhat limited because of that,” Condon says. “Yet, if you look at it from the standpoint of interest in a sport, they are passionate about the MMA. From here, as they get older, they can grow within MMA. As they get older, their purchasing power can improve and now they can become high rollers. They can gravitate both to MMA and boxing. There really is no reason why someone cannot like both. They are different, yes, but they are also exciting.”
Condon witnessed one important nuance of the MMA gaming dynamic. An MMA event features prominent ground-fighting, which produces poor sight lines for people sitting a few rows back. They end up watching most of the action on the screen. This logistic could push MMA out of ballrooms and into larger venues with elevated seating.
Condon says the MMA leadership saw no conflict between itself and boxing.
“They knew we were large supporters of boxing and that was never any kind of problem,” he says. “We never got any vibes from the promoters that there was any kind of rivalry between themselves and boxing.”
It remains to be seen whether boxing and MMA will ever join forces, but one thing is clear.
Each has sufficient operating room.