— On Saturday at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will exchange punches with Juan Manuel Marquez. On the same evening at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Rich Franklin will exchange punches, kicks, body slams, sneers and sundry other examples of impoliteness with Vitor Belfort.
Which will stand tallest by the end of these competing shows of force, boxing’s most recent neon moment, or the Ultimate Fighting Championship's latest blitz of blood? The answer to that will be as blurry as a loser’s vision after a brutal battering. Yet it raises the larger issue:
Which direction are these sports going in?
One of the key indicators of any fight of any kind is pay-per-view buys, and the UFC organization, for instance, releases its results with all the transparency of a redacted CIA report. The biggest boxing pay-per-view haul ever took place in 2007, when the Oscar De La Hoya-Mayweather Jr. bout racked up 2.4 million buys, worth over $135 million domestically. No mixed martial arts bout is believed to have come anywhere close to that; estimates vary, but the Chuck Liddell-Tito Ortiz fight in 2006 was believed to have raked in just over one million buys.
There are other ways of sizing up the respective health of boxing and MMA. Boxing still does boffo business with mega-fights, but there seems to be fewer of those in recent years, especially in the heavyweight division. MMA’s business is less reliant on blockbusters and more on the steady spending of a passionate fan base.
“Boxing has three huge fights a year,” noted Darren Rovell, sports business analyst for CNBC. “MMA, with the frequency factor, can do more than that.”
So how is boxing doing? And is it being threatened by the bloodletting from MMA?
Perhaps the perfect voice to size up the two belongs to New Jersey-based promoter Gary Shaw, who has worked mostly in boxing but has also dabbled in MMA. He said there are clear-cut differences in the sports that create lots of separation but also allow for overlap.
“First, MMA is a culture. Boxing is not,” Shaw said. “If you go to an MMA weigh-in, everybody is wearing the culture, whether it’s Affliction or some other brand of clothing. If you go to a boxing weigh-in, nobody is wearing that other than their own sweat suits or street clothes. There is zero culture.
“At a boxing match, nobody comes until the main event. If you go to an MMA event, everybody is there from the first match. Wins and losses don’t make a difference in MMA. Wins and losses mean everything in boxing.”
That said, Shaw said boxing is thriving and will thrive, as long as there are periodic major events of interest.
“If you do Mayweather and (Manny) Pacquiao, and when you did Pacquiao and (Ricky) Hatton, fights of that magnitude, all the stars come out. Some of the biggest stars are seated in rows 10, 11, 12, which shows you how many big stars come out to fights. At an MMA event, they don’t get that kind of turnout.”
But when going toe-to-toe, “In my estimation, MMA is kicking our ass,” Shaw said.
Of course, it all depends on who you talk to.
“I do believe boxing is on the rise now,” said Dan Goossen, a Los Angeles-based promoter who has been involved in the sweet science since the early ‘80s, handling pugs such as Michael Nunn, brothers Gabe and Rafael Ruelas, and now John Molina Jr.
“Our fellow promoters have finally gotten the message from the fans that you’ve got to present the best fights that can be made. That’s all anybody wants.”
Goossen said boxing had slumped for many years because it saturated the marketplace with less-than-scintillating cards. “The old regime had that attitude,” he said. “They felt they could get away with it, and did for many years. It did erode the fan base. I don’t think we needed another sport to threaten our own industry. We were doing a good enough job of it ourselves.
“What MMA did was help us realize that fans won’t tolerate anything but the best matchups. I think that’s when a lot of old-time promoters came to the realization that it’s best for everyone — fighters, the networks, fans — if I put my guy against your guy.”
Mark Taffet, senior vice president of sports operations and pay-per-view for HBO, has been with the network in a PPV capacity since the early ‘90s and said boxing has been on an upward trend for the past three or four years, despite any encroachment that may be happening with MMA.
“We believe there’s a resurgence of the sport that is measured not just by pay-per-view buys and revenues, but by the attendance figures at the fights,” Taffet said. “There are sellouts in cities all across the country in 2009. We had a resurgence in sponsor interest in the last year. A number of companies have expressed interest in being involved with their products.
“And we’ve seen promoters putting aside their separate interests and consistently putting together the best fights month after month. That tells us that the sport is very healthy and the fan base is loyal and strong.”
Taffet also said he sees little real competition between boxing and MMA. “There is minimal overlap in pay-per-view buys,” he said. “The sports are not competitive at all. They’re complementary. They coexist really well.”
That assertion may be put to the test on Sept. 19. UFC 103 had the date, but the promoters of the Mayweather-Marquez bout decided they wanted it, too. Let the PPV madness begin.
It’s also worth noting that, although the crossover may be minimal, there are still those in the two camps fixing for a fight.
“These guys think this is some kind of a war and we’re trying to destroy boxing,” UFC president Dana White said at a recent question-and-answer session with fans in Philadelphia. “I don’t hate boxing, but these guys keep trying to go head-to-head with us and doing stupid s---.”
Mayweather has been repeatedly critical of MMA, stoking the fire. At a recent press conference to promote his fight, Mayweather said, “It takes true skills to be in the sport of boxing. Mixed martial arts is for beer drinkers. Boxing is for everybody. You can’t take my shoes off and my shirt off and throw me in a cage. You do that with animals. You don’t do that with humans.
“I don’t know any fighter in MMA who has generated a total revenue in two fights … of $250 million. They’re not even on my level. … MMA stole boxing’s whole blueprint and tried to run with it.”
Mayweather pointed out another aspect of the two sports that may continue to keep them separate.
“In boxing we know who’s dominating," he said, "Black fighters and Hispanic fighters are dominating in this sport. This is not a racial statement, but there’s no white fighter in boxing that’s dominating, so they had to go to something else and start something new.”
Richard Schaefer is CEO of Oscar De La Hoya’s company, Golden Boy Promotions. He may not agree with Mayweather’s contention that MMA was created to give white fighters a place to flourish, but he does recognize the difference in audiences, and the potential for growth in both sports because of it.
“The demographic is a bit more nationalistic on the boxing side,” he said. “There is American versus Mexican. There is Mexican versus Puerto Rican. Boxing has a rich and deep history in those demographics.”
Shaw agrees. “(MMA) attracts ethnically a different group. And it attracts maybe 80 to 90 percent more women. More women are going to MMA than to boxing. More white crowds are going to MMA than Hispanic or African-American. MMA also has a younger demo.” There is also growing MMA exposure on television, including shows on Spike, Showtime, Versus and even CBS.
Another vital ingredient MMA has going for it, in the opinion of Scott Coker, CEO of Strikeforce, are roots in the martial arts. That may seem obvious, but for years youngsters who learned martial arts did so in the classical sense. Now the sport’s appeal has been widened somewhat, and students today may become the octagon denizens of tomorrow.
“When I look at martial arts schools today, a lot of them are teaching mixed martial arts,” said Coker, a former martial arts teacher. “It’s been integrated into the grass roots of traditional martial arts as a basic defense system. Students are accepting it, parents are accepting it as part of the training curriculum.”
Coker took a more diplomatic outlook toward the future of the two sports than perhaps some of his more combative colleagues.
“I believe the big boxing fights right now have proven they draw a bigger audience than MMA, just based on the numbers they achieve,” he said. “But I think there’s room for both.
“I’m a fan of both. I think there is room for both parties. I will watch one and TiVo the other.”