One of the biggest fights the sporting world has seen was the so-called “Money Fight” between boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr and MMA champion Conor McGregor. The fight went to the 10th round, with Mayweather emerging victorious via technical knockout (TKO). It recorded the second-highest pay-per-view buy rate in history, selling 4.3 million. It’s safe to say that it was a massive financial success.
But was it a critical success too?
The lead-up to the fight had pundits torn. Some said the entertainment value devolved to cringe-worthiness. Podcast host, lawyer and sports analyst Exavier Pope called the event a racially-charged spectacle that had nothing to do with any of the sports represented by the participants. In a somewhat opposite vein, the New Yorker admitted that despite expecting a fiasco, it was a “good fight.”
At the end of it all, was the fight a showcase of athletic prowess, or was it just one brand trying to exert supremacy over the other?
History of Boxing
Boxing as a sport has been around for a very long time. There’s evidence of the sport being practiced in Egypt around 3000BC. Boxing was a competition sport in the ancient Olympics circa 7th century BC.
From soft leather thongs used to bind boxers’ hands to the metal-studded gloves of Rome to its current leather iteration, boxing has evolved a lot since ancient times. Its popularity can be attributed to low production costs. After World War II, television programming was filled with boxing spectacles. This gave rise to the golden age of boxing around the 1960s-70s, when such iconic figures like Muhammad Ali captured the attention of the public and effectively changed the image of the African-American athlete.
Unfortunately, boxing’s popularity has been in steady decline for decades now. Especially because there hasn’t quite been a boxer of Ali’s stature to seize our collective attention since. And now, mixed martial arts (MMA) is looking to hammer the final nail in boxing’s proverbial coffin.
History of MMA
Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, can also claim a somewhat ancient history. A combination of wrestling, boxing and street fighting was practiced in ancient Greece around 648BC. The sport, called pankration, faded into obscurity until it reemerged in the 20th century in Brazil in the form of vale tudo.
The sport was mixed with jiu jitsu and was made famous by Carlos and Helio Gracie. The Gracie family brought it to the United States in the 1990s where it has since exploded in popularity.
The premier promoter for MMA is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), currently led by Dana White. Under White’s management, the UFC has become a worldwide billion-dollar enterprise. Ironically, the next most powerful man in sports’ first love was actually boxing.
MMA is Knocking Boxing Out
Regardless of how the MMA community in general (and Dana White, in particular) really feel about boxing, popular opinion says boxing is on the way down. And MMA is hastening its demise due to the following reasons.
1) MMA is more well-rounded.
The search for the most dominant martial art has been going on for hundreds of years. How did MMA address this problem? It simply combined all the martial arts in one sport. It’s actually quite genius. Where boxing is primarily a striking game, MMA allows striking and grappling and wrestling and more.
2) MMA is much more entertaining.
Combat sport has always appealed to the more primal urge of man. Fighting is exciting. Compare boxing and MMA:
Boxing – full-contact head and body punches between two competitors equipped with protective gloves over a predetermined time
MMA – full-contact combat sport where any martial art can be used to defeat an opponent, equipped only with open-fingered gloves.
With the wide variety of moves available in MMA – stand-up, ground and pound, submissions, even a Superman punch! – anything can happen and does happen in the MMA octagon (or even outside, actually).
There’s also the issue of actual fight cards. Of late, high-level fight cards in professional boxing are becoming rare and inconsistent. In comparison, MMA is consistently delivering multiple stacked cards like UFC 202 or Bellator 165.
3) MMA has more interesting athletes.
Boxing personalities used to dominate popular sports. But the time of Ali and Mike Tyson are long gone. The last exciting boxer is arguably Mayweather, and he has retired (for the third time in 2017).
MMA, meanwhile, gave the world the inimitable McGregor. It also helped athletes such as Ronda Rousey and Georges St-Pierre crossover to the Hollywood stage. And these all happened in just the last decade.
4) It has relatively simple rules.
Boxing went from not having weight classes to having 17 different ones by 2017. Each weight class can have more than one champion. For example, the WBA has a Super Champion, a Regular Champion and an Interim Champion all in a single weight division. These champions do not compete against each other at all, although once in a while, we’ll be treated to a unification bout.
In addition to the many different weight classes, there are also a couple of organizations that govern the sport. Hence, we have the WBA (World Boxing Association), WBC (World Boxing Council), WBO (World Boxing Organization) and IBF (International Boxing Federation) crowns. And they don’t always all agree on the limits of the weight classes. All 4 have the right to sanction their respective fighters. However, on top of that, they’re also under the watchful eye of the State or National Athletic Commission.
MMA, on the other hand, has a clearer division of weight classes. The Unified Rules of MMA set the guidelines down. It was widely adopted by MMA promotions across the world. Promotions such as UFC or Bellator hand world title belts from their respective organizations, but only UFC world titles are regarded as “Undisputed.” Weight classes do not have multiple undisputed title holders either. If a title holder is not able to defend his belt for more than 6 months, an interim champion is created for the weight class.
Because MMA is more entertaining (both in and out the octagon) and easier to understand, the sporting audience has transferred its allegiance en masse. Now boxing is looking at the twilight of its long illustrious fighting reign.
But will it really die, and stay dead?
It Will Take a More Established Sport to Permanently Kill Boxing
Much has been said about boxing dying out. Maybe it’s true. Boxing viewership has steadily been going down. A 2006 poll had boxing barely making it into the top 10 favorite sports to watch in America.
Regardless of poll results though, it’s highly unlikely that the slow death is due to the rise of MMA. These are the reasons why MMA is a non-factor when it comes to boxing.
1) Boxing and MMA are not even in the same ballpark.
Comparing the two is like doing a comparison of chess and backgammon. Or badminton to tennis. Just because they both use rackets does not mean they are the same. They’re totally different disciplines. Just like boxing and MMA are two different sports using different skill sets and with different rules.
Except for the stand-up, boxing and MMA do not have much in common. Techniques like grappling and choke holds are illegal in boxing but not in MMA. Actually, almost all the MMA moves will likely result in disqualification if done inside the boxing ring.
If these two sports are not the same, how fair is it to judge them the same way?
2) MMA actually increased the interest in boxing.
One of the best base martial arts to have if you’re a mixed martial artist is boxing. It’s a great way to build your striking game. The champ champ McGregor has a lethal left hand. ONE Championship’s Martin Nguyen won championships through well-timed right-hand counterpunches. Boxing is also a great way to train one’s reflexes, power and endurance.
So contrary to opinion, MMA is not killing boxing. Instead, it’s giving a whole new generation of athletes a reason to try the sport.
3) They don’t even share the same fans.
There may be an overlap. Some fans may follow both boxing and MMA. However, for the most part, they have their separate, hard-core fan bases. This is quite evident especially in pay per view (PPV) numbers.
Boxing owns the top 26 PPV events versus 15 in MMA. UFC 229, the best PPV event for UFC in terms of buy rate, sold 2.4 million. Boxing has eclipsed this record 4 times in the last 2 decades and has more than 25 events with over 1 million buys over the same time period.
It’s safe to assume that not only do they not have the same fans, boxing aficionados are also more willing to spend for their chosen sport.
4) Boxing is actually more popular than MMA.
Because MMA is a bit like the new kid on the block, it’s easy to assume that everyone wants a piece of the shiny new toy. But on the contrary, boxing has steadily been getting higher ratings and attracts more in the 18-49-year-old demographic compared to UFC.
If we’re being perfectly honest, boxing hurts itself more than MMA does. The lack of a central organization, the inaccessibility of fights relegated to cable TV and PPV, the many varying rules and champions, the lack of actual popular champions – all these hurt boxing in a way MMA just can’t.
Despite all that though, at least 28% of Americans still identify as boxing fans. Only 25% say the same of MMA.
So, did MMA kill boxing? From our vantage, it certainly looks like boxing is still alive and kicking. But will MMA succeed eventually? Is there really room for just one king in combat sports? Let us know what you think in the comments.