Will MMA Ever Eclipse Boxing?

Over seven years ago, as mixed martial arts promotion Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was inching its way towards mainstream acceptability, commentator Joe Rogan and boxing promoter Lou DiBella were part of a recurring debate on ESPN concerning mixed martial arts and boxing. The question: is MMA better than and/or superseded the sport of boxing?

Of course, Rogan passionately defended his sport against DiBella, who dismissively characterized MMA as “human cockfighting.” Rogan also warned that boxing was a being “swallowed up,” whose potential was limited to only a few superstars at the time with no development of any future talent.

Lou DiBella was only one of dozens voices to denounce the UFC as being a “brutal” and “savage” sport with a limited shelf-life. In fact, ESPN commentators Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, and Skip Bayless were some of UFC’s loudest critics. Only a decade earlier, Arizona Senator John McCain led a successful campaign to take professional mixed martial arts off of pay-per-view, until it could be regulated by the states. The numerous voices of discontent, in both political arenas and media coverage, set the prevailing narrative that cast mixed-martial arts and boxing into opposition with one another.

Years later, as 2016 gets underway, fans and commentators still believe that both combat sports are in conflict, vying for dominance over America’s top pugilist entertainment. The year 2015 saw both sports change for better and worse.

Boxing had its most lucrative prizefighter, Floyd Mayweather, retire undefeated at 49-0 (matching famed heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano’s record) in a rather uneventful match against Andre Berto. At the same time, his much-hyped “Better Late than Never” fight against Manny Pacquiao brought in over $410 million in revenue while also being the most purchased pay-per-view event of all time.

At the same time, many commentators still decry the institutional corruption in boxing (particularly in figures such as Bob Arum and Al Haymon) as well as weak undercards in main event fights. While 2015 did invite some promise in the return of Premier Boxing Champions on NBC, thus an opportunity to expose the public to budding potential superstars, the lawsuits by Top Rank promoter Bob Arum Golden Boy’s CEO Oscar De La Hoya set back the events. As such, the continual lack of network television exposure and ongoing allegations of corruption are definitely factors in America’s growing disinterest in the sport.

On the other hand, mixed martial arts has risen in popularity on network television and saw its PPV buys soar after dismal rates in 2014. Fox broadcasted numerous events that drew in respectable ratings (though still below primetime ratings of over sports) and last season of The Ultimate Fighter drew some of the biggest ratings in its 22-season history. Ronda Rousey solidified her stature within popular culture by savagely knocking out her opponents in record time, before her upset knockout by the hands of Holly Holm. Current Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor ascended on his own with his trash-talking WWE-like persona all while destroying fighters such as Chad Mendes in 2 rounds and then-Featherweight champion Jose Aldo in 13 seconds time. All the while, the nearly unstoppable Jon Jones, who started the year by defeating the current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, was suspended for most of 2015 after being charged with a hit-and-run accident. While this undoubtedly hurt the PPV buy-ins for UFC 197 (in which he was supposed to fight Anthony Johnson), the UFC still managed to do well last year in both PPV’s and primetime.

Now, the oft-asked question remains: has mixed martial arts surpassed boxing as America’s favorite combat sport?

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 21: (R-L) Alexander 'The Mauler' Gustafsson punches Jon 'Bones' Jones in their UFC light heavyweight championship bout at the Air Canada Center on September 21, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jon Jones; Alexander Gustafsson HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 19: (R-L) Daniel Cormier punches Roy 'Big Country' Nelson in their UFC heavyweight bout at the Toyota Center on October 19, 2013 in Houston, Texas. Daniel Cormier won by split decision. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Figure 2: Jon Jones vs Daniel Cormier for UFC Lightweight Title. Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The first answer to the question of pugilistic superiority is no;

MMA has not surpassed boxing in terms of popularity and PPV buys yet. With 1.6 million PPV buys, UFC 100 is the most purchased event in mixed martial arts history. That was almost 7 years ago and no event since has come close. On the other hand, boxing has had several matches with PPV buys far above 1.6 million. Even with all the charges of corruption and growing concerns with concussions, boxing has not lost a sizable chunk of subscribers. While it is important to note that UFC has more profitable PPV matches above 500,000 buys than boxing did in 2015, they also had plenty of busts within that same year that failed to reach 200,000 buys. So far, UFC’s biggest box office attractions are limited to three superstars: Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Jon Jones. On the other hand, boxing reestablish itself in primetime television on NBC for 2016, and market more American superstars in the heavyweight division, they would ensure a more profitable future than UFC.

For UFC and mixed martial arts to make its ascent to boxing during its heyday, it has to gain more talented and marketable superstars. Ronda Rousey became a social media legend with her ferocious knockouts, trash-talking, and beauty. She also had a role in Furious 7, which grossed over $1.5 billion. However, since mixed martial arts is still in its relative infancy, it does not possess the cache of history that boxing enjoys. Boxing still lives off the legacy of past greats such as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. These larger than life superstars were focal points of American popular culture much like athletes such as Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth were in their sports. In addition, the box office and critical acclaim of fictional boxing movies such as Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, and Creed only add to the sport’s elevation in American consciousness as these films grant the public even more icons. As great as MMA legends such as Chuck “the Iceman” Lidell and Anderson Silva were, they did not enjoy the same near-apotheosis that most athletes in other sports enjoy even during their heyday. Simply put, MMA has to get older.


Figure 3: Ronda Rousey at Entourage Premiere. Cred Fox Sports. 

The second answer to the question of pugilist dominance is one that dismisses the question: it should not matter what sport is better.

One can enjoy boxing and mixed martial arts at the same time. While they do not need to be in eternal opposition, the way corporate America is set up is that they are competing for audiences. So far, boxing still has the edge, although millennials will determine the future of both sports probably sooner than later.

Any boxing fan across all ages should be worried about the seeming void of superstar talent that threatens the quality and marketability of the sport within 2016. The same can be said about mixed martial arts fans, despite some stellar performances last year. However, MMA is a growing sport still trying to establish its platform in pop culture whereas boxing is fighting the unknown.

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