“The slow death of boxing” needs to be reversed


“MMA may overtake boxing as the most mainstream combat sport in the eyes of future generations”

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Image by IBA Boxing

By Euan Clague

The UFC Fight Night event on 23 July broke the O2 record for the highest grossing single sporting event, topping off a string of successful endeavours by the company in the UK over the last year. No more do we only associate British MMA with its pioneer and biggest legend Michael Bisping. On the contrary, fans have several British fighters at the top of their respective divisions to root for and support.

Yet as this popularity continues to surge, not only in the country but across the world, it raises an important question: Is the sport that was banned from New York State and often branded “Human Cockfighting” now the ruler of the world of combat sports? Whilst it is hard for a decade-long surge in popularity to compete with the storied history of the ‘sweet science’ that is boxing, there are prevalent problems that concern officials and fans alike.

Britain currently has three active boxing world champions and collectively, they cannot boast of even a third of the amount of social media followers amassed by Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett- a British fighter who has only fought three times for the UFC and does not yet have ranked status. Whilst it is obvious that social media is an unreliable metric to evaluate a sports popularity and appeal, it does act as a useful indicator of each sport’s ability to successfully enter the mainstream psyche. It is clear that the popularity of MMA is caused as much by self-destructive decisions taken in the world of boxing as it is by the business acumen of Dana White and other MMA business titans.

Once known for its ability to regularly pit the best fighters in the world against each other, legendary nights such as the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manila are significantly scarcer for boxing fans today. The creation of the four belt era in 2004 has undoubtedly created issues, placing hurdle after hurdle in the form of mandatory challengers and scheduling conflicts. This era has over-saturated the world of elite boxing and reduced the significance of the term ‘World Champion’. Where there were once eight weight classes with one world champion a piece, we now have 17 weight divisions with one championship on offer per sanctioning body.

The history of boxing is littered with legends, often undisputed champions, whose legendary status is confirmed by their ability to prove their superiority over the other great fighters of their day. Ali had Frazier, Lewis had Holyfield and Tyson had Spinks. Yet the fractured and complicated relationship that currently exists between these sanctioning bodies keeps these legendary fights in a hypothetical realm.

Even if us fans are blessed with these legendary fights, they are often made well after their capacity to enthral the masses was at its highest. Boxing fans resent the fact that they have to constantly ask ‘what if?' Who would have won if Tyson Fury actually fought Anthony Joshua? What if Mayweather fought Pacquiao in his prime? The shift in the sport’s priority from appeasing the fans to engaging in pointless bureaucracy can only be described as robbery. Fans can only engage in ‘what ifs’ for so long before they grow resentful.

In this regard, MMA reigns supreme, through its structural superiority and its ability to operate separate from the politics that have plagued the sport of boxing. Since the vast majority of elite fighters are technically employed by a single company, the sport can enforce comprehensive and uniform ranking systems that maintain a monopoly on matchmaking, consistently ensuring that the best fight the best (often more than once) before fans see a single world class unification bout in boxing.

Furthermore, the boom in the UFC can be attributed to its efforts to publicise fighter personalities and rivalries to a degree that is far beyond those who pull the strings in the world of boxing. A new class of MMA fighters, spearheaded by figures such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, catapulted the sport into the hearts and minds of sports fans around the world, casuals and committed athletes a like. At the time of writing, nine of the biggest 15 pay-per-view events in combat sports history are UFC events, all but one of which have taken place in the last ten years.

Whilst boxing’s mainstream appeal is synonymous with world championship title fights, the dramatisation of a fighter’s life has created an important distinction between the two sports. No longer is a ‘big fight’ just about winning a world title. Indeed, four of the five highest grossing pay-per-view UFC events were not headlined by title fights. The cult of personality constructed around certain MMA fighters makes fans eager to see them compete, regardless of their ranking status.

This is not a scathing review of boxing, but rather a plea from a fan to restore the sport to what it once was. Boxing still maintains a lead in regards to average viewership and public appeal, as its long and storied history ensures it caters to all generations. Yet without a significant structural overhaul and modernisation of the game, it isn’t unfathomable to suggest that MMA may overtake boxing as the mainstream combat sport in the eyes of future generations.

Whether that is a bad thing or a good thing depends on who you ask. “The slow death of boxing” is something that we must try and change, to preserve and nurture an extremely significant pillar in the world of sport.