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What’s MMA Doing That Boxing Ain’t?

July 16, 2010

So everybody knows boxing sucks and cagefighting is the hot sauce, right?  Okay, maybe you don’t feel that way, but odds are that, well, you probably don’t care either way.  On the remote chance that you do, Dana White talked to The Scott Van Pelt Show today on the radio, and, in a real shockinG turn of events, the only interesting part of the interview occurred when Ryen Russillo asked Dana about boxing, since, you know, cats who aren’t MMA fans are for some reason physically incapable of discussing, or even asking questions about, mixed martial arts (see this podcast with Bill Simmons, or don’t, because it’s evidence of the point I just made).  Long story short: Dana doesn’t see Mayweather/Pacquiao happening.

The conversation then naturally developed into your standard, “Why is boxing getting less popular while MMA is getting more popular?”  White’s answer:

“Once everything went to a pay model, boxing stopped giving you good fights for free. As soon as that ended, your market starts to shrink when you’re only on pay-per-view,” White said. “Before this Mayweather/Pacquiao fight happens, let’s say a miracle happens and they get this thing done [tonight], the fight will probably be done sometime in November, right?

“I’ll have done 10 fights. I’ll have done 10 fights and maybe out of the 10 fights, four of them will be on free TV by the time that fight happens. That’s the difference.”

That may be true.  Obviously Dana is more knowledgeable about what draws in viewers than I, given that’s it’s his job and all, but I don’t think it’s a simple as, “There are more fights and more of them are free”.  There’s free boxing on ESPN every Friday — not all with obscure boxers, either; Zab Judah is on right now — and I’m not sure anybody watches that.  By comparison, the UFC on Versus events occur once every few months and usually have some on-the-rise fighters with sparse resumes as well as some washed-up guys.  None of those are high-profile fights, so it’s not like we’re getting a Mayweather/Mosley or a Lesnar/Carwin for free once a month.

All of which is to say that there’s not as big of a dearth in boxing as Dana suggests relative to cagefighting.  To the degree that there’s a lack of good boxing relative to good cagefighting, that probably depends on your definition of “good”, which probably depends on what you like.  I like cagefighting, so I’m intrigued by a Jon Jones/Brandon Vera fight.  If you don’t like MMA, then you’re not going to be interested in that fight even if it is free, just like I found the Zab Judah fight boring — I find boxing boring in general, so I’m basically ambivalent unless the very best in the world are involved.

As for the notion that there are more big fights in MMA than boxing, Dana expounded on that point in the interview:

White claims there is far too much red tape involved in arranging a blockbuster PPV match-up in boxing. Although the financial numbers being thrown at the sport’s elite are utterly ridiculous, for one reason or another, the scraps never seem to come to fruition.

“The best example is, ‘How long have fight fans wanted to see Mayweather versus Pacquiao?’” White rhetorically asked. “Forever. That’s the fight everyone wants to see. That’s the fight I want to see and it’s just not happening. These guys are being offered crazy amounts of money and the fight just can’t be made.

“There’s no doubt about it. Our sport is more appealing to younger viewers.”

Dana has a wealth of experience in the “Big fight that the promoters just can’t get together department”, as the Fedor in the Octagon fights that White couldn’t get together were to some degree as depressing for MMA fans as the Mayweather/Pacquiao situation is for everyone else — although certainly not on the same level — until Fedor went AWOL and everybody lost interest (and by “went AWOL”, I mean “lost to a UFC washout”).  Dana’s right, though: boxing’s inability to make that fight happen is threatening the long-term popularity of the sport.  The difference is not that MMA can get those fights together and boxing can’t, it’s that MMA was never going to be threatened by Fedor’s reluctance to join the UFC.

If Fedor had retired after beating Fabricio Werdum and Alistair Overeem, there still would have been plenty of people willing to pay $44.95 to see B.J. Penn fight anybody, GSP fight anybody, Anderson fight anybody, Rampage fight anybody he doesn’t like, Shogun/Rashad, or Lesnar fight anybody.  If Mayweather doesn’t fight Pacquiao, then I don’t know that somebody like me would ever pay to see a PPV boxing match again.  That’s not to say that MMA events are drawing a lot of casual fans, but it is to say that MMA benefits from having a diverse group of extremely gifted fighters that MMA fans, casual or otherwise, really want to see.  That means it has more PPV events, as Dana said, and they don’t have to rely on Epically Big Events that involve insane amounts of money to keep people interested.  There just aren’t that many boxers that people care to watch anymore.  The UFC, on the other hand, has already had six compelling events just this year: 111 (GSP/Hardy), 112 (Anderson/Maia and Penn/Edgar), 113 (Machida/Shogun), 114 (Rampage/Rashad), 115 (Liddell/Franklin, which was definitely helped by The Ultimate Fighter), and 116 (Lesnar/Carwin).

Cagefighting probably benefits here from being dominated by a single promotion with a president who has a lot more control over getting fights together than the fighters’ managers do.  The only fighter who was generally considered to be better than any UFC champion in Strikeforce or DREAM was Fedor, and that was prior to his loss to a UFC washout.  Strikeforce Middleweight champion Jake Shields just signed with the UFC and dropped to welterweight.  Basically, Strikeforce is bush league, DREAM is the equivalent of Japanese baseball, and if you want to be considered among the best in the world, then you have to be in the UFC.  That makes it a lot easier for big fights to happen because Dana White essentially has absolute power over what happens in the Octagon.  If he wants you to fight a guy, then you’re fighting him.  He’s already stated that friendship is no obstacle to making fights happen.  That all but ensures that the fights than fans want to see happen will happen, which is why easily unsatisfied younger people are bigger MMA fans than boxing fans.

Bottom line: MMA has a larger quantity of interesting fighters and a better capability at getting big fights together.  I’m not sure free fights have anything to do with it.  But if boxing wants to get more popular, those are the things it needs to have: more than just two fighters that people want to see and the ability to make those fights happen.  I don’t particularly care if boxing pulls it off, since, again, I think it’s boring when cats can’t attack each other with every tool they have, but then again, I’m not your average guy.  My prediction?  Too pessimistic for words.

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