If you happen to be old enough, you might remember a time when boxing ruled the sports world. If you happen to be younger, there is no way you can fathom that a sport like boxing was not only bigger than MMA, but the biggest sport in the country. And while there are numerous and far too many reasons for boxing’s demise (corruption, PPV rates, lack of talent, etc.), it might actually be what the UFC is doing that has boxing on the back-burners.
Say what you will about the UFC, but the fact of the matter is they know how to market their product. While boxing was on a fast downturn in the mid-’90s, sans the few huge fights per year, MMA was not even considered a legitimate sport.
Banned in major markets like New York, MMA only had Pay-Per-Views to present its product to the masses. All of that changed, though, when the UFC turned the reigns over to ex-boxing promoter Dana White.
After putting stricter rules within the sport to make it more “appropriate”, White got a deal done with Spike TV for a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). The reality show turned out to be a stroke of genius. Tapping into reality TV popularity — and a bit of luck –the infamous Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight UFC’s first TUF finale changed their standing among the masses.
Boxing tried the reality approach after UFC had their success. The Contender and The Next Great Champ were both rushed into production, and in all honesty, put less than average talent out there for a national audience to see. While both programs tried to show the gritty grind of the boxing world, they left out the most important parts, the actual matches.
Neither program would show full bouts, but instead opted for them to be aired in a clip formula. So whatever emotional investment you might have made into a fourth-tier boxer, was relegated to five minutes of actual showtime.
It lacked UFC’s commitment to the sport itself and seemed more worried about getting the casual sports person to watch, even if that meant they were essentially spitting the boxing fan in the face to attempt to lure the casual fan in with poorly (scripted) drama.
The UFC also has another HUGE advantage over boxing. They have a singular governing body.
In boxing a fighter has the opportunity to duck fights, be choosy and really never fight the top talent in their own weight class. This is due to the fact that there is about six million different “belts” in each division, with each governed by its own “Governing Body”. This is why fights like the much publicized, but pretty much fictional, Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather take too long to happen or even come to fruition.
Really, because the way the sport is structured, a boxer has more to lose in a big fight than to gain. One guy can have a very lucrative career by fighting club fighters and building an impressive record, but if he were to lose, all their hard work would be gone just that quickly.
The UFC has found ways to combat this. The most obvious is that they choose the fights. While the fighters themselves might have a say in who they fight next, ultimately it’s up to Dana White and the boys to book events. Also, after losses, the UFC doesn’t banish talent to Bumble Town, USA. They usually give the fighter another fight or two to prove themselves, making the fighter less wary of taking on big fights.
Finally, there is the simple, old marketing strategy.
Free fights are the best way to get your product out there. Hell, free anything is the best way to get people to — at the very least –look at your product. This is where the UFC outshines boxing in every way. UFC, while not every week, will throw out some free televised bouts. Whether it be on FOX or a FOX station, they go out of their way to book a card in which you know some of the fighters.
The trick they do there, though, is that they might put out a “name” fighter who is out of his prime, to basically put over a younger prospect and start making him a “name” fighter. Before the fight, they will talk-up the more widely known fighter and his accomplishments, only to then show a video package getting to know the young prospect. Then, naturally, young prospect kid will win more often than not. That way when the new, younger prospect starts getting put on the PPV lineups, it will make you more inclined to buy.
See new young talented fighter, become emotionally invested in new young talented fighter, must see new young talented fighter fight.
The UFC has gone out of their way to develop brands for each fighter as well as make you become emotionally invested in them. Free boxing on TV, well it’s essentially ESPN’s Friday Night Fights and a bunch of local sports channels putting on sub-par matchups. In theory, they try to do the same thing. But only in the worst sort of theory.
Boxing promoters will have an up and comer headline the show in a matchup he is supposed to win. The problem is that most of the guys they have headline don’t actually amount to anything. If they do, it still might take a few years (not months) from their ESPN debut to make an impact, which is far too long of a time for any fan to remember.
That’s not the fault of boxing, but really the nature of the sport. Boxers take longer to peak than MMA guys. Unfortunately for them, we are a right now generation, and boxers take time to develop in every facet of becoming a star.
There are plenty of more reasons why UFC is more popular than boxing.
One of the bigger reasons being MMA having quicker fights that might result in more knockouts. The structure of both sports and the evolution of people wanting more violence, quicker (attention span, friends) makes the UFC a better option to feed your violence appetite. Which is an entirely different column, for an entirely different time, by someone far smarter than I (but not as good looking).
Alas, if boxing is to make a comeback, or even stay semi-relevant in a fashion that is more than just the one big fight a year, they need to take some pointers from the UFC. The biggest of which is the governing body. Boxing needs one, just one, but currently has approximately eleventy-billion.
And this is where a picture-box network needs to step in. ESPN has been much maligned as of late. Skip Baylessing the nation has done wonders in hurting the world-wide leader’s credibility. Yet, they are still the most watched, read and listened to sports network in the country. If, that’s a big if, ESPN wanted to save boxing (and even turn a solid profit), they could.
The problem is that it would take time and initial financial losses. Oh, and probably lots of confusion over structure, rules and regulations.
But to simplify it, all ESPN would have to do is sanction their own belts, sign a bevy of fighters to their promotion and force their product down our respective throats. Certainly they wouldn’t be able to get the huge names now, except that doesn’t matter, all the big names are passed their prime and/or will be out of the sport relatively soon.
ESPN can then market these young fighters and make us care about them. Showcasing young guys on a weekly basis, like they already do on FNF, while even showing highlights during SportCenter (The one knockout they do a month doesn’t count as a highlight). Heck, even try a better attempt at a reality show featuring the fighters or make documentaries about all the top fighters in ESPN’s stable of fighters.
For reasons of logistics and getting fighters to give up their PPV money, ESPN would have to sign their prizefighters to a pretty substantial contract. A yearly salary wouldn’t be enough. The mothership would have to give out bonuses for wins, television appearances and the like. But free-TV is not only their only option. ESPN can still go the UFC route and broadcast PPVs — and if they were smart, at a much lower rate than they do now.
Boxing needs to get eyeballs to the TV set, like now. Fighters who even casual sports fans know are close to being gone from the sport. There’s no obvious heir-apparent to the boxing throne for promoters to throw their hats on, with the possible exception of one or two guys, but that that would still leave the sport with just the one big fight a year pace they are at now.
Whatever your take is on boxing’s relevance in the sporting world is, it’s yours and yours alone. If you’re an MMA guy, you certainly don’t care about boxing’s well-being, but let me tell you this, a great boxing match is better than a great MMA fight by a landslide. So, yeah, boxing can still really matter because the sport can still be really fun to consume.
Sadly, I along with 34 other people, might be the only ones left caring. And, man, I love boxing, but MMA (the UFC) makes it hard not to care about them so much more.
So, boxing, how about you learn a little bit from the UFC, eh?