by Paul Magno
In every other country where both sports exist, boxing and MMA live together in peace. A big show for one sport doesn’t mean that the end is near for the other. But, in the United States, this is not the case.
UFC President Dana White, when he first got involved with the company, adopted the slash and burn method of promotion in building his brand. He would establish his company as the antidote to all of boxing’s ills and, in the process, sell the UFC version of mixed martial arts as better, badder, and more extreme.
White’s strategy paid off and he would soon become a cult hero for the testosterone-heavy fist-pumpers of the sporting world.
Of course, it immediately alienated loyal boxing fans and those who run away from high octane marketing campaigns rather than embrace them. But this mattered little. White and the UFC brain trust, consisting of majority owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, weren’t after the older demographic and weren’t trying to appeal to boxing loyalists. They were after the kids and young adults, mostly the white suburban males, who have plenty of disposable income, are highly internet literate, enjoy copious amounts of free time, and want to see “some dude get cracked in the mother fuckin’ face.”
Boxing had lost this key demographic for years before the UFC came along and was no longer appealing to this most vocal and cash-rich category of fan. The reasons for boxing losing them are many, but none have to do with any of the usual UFC talking points.
The boxing power brokers had willingly removed themselves from free, network TV and put themselves on premium cable. Unlike the UFC kids, who were brought up with the idea that they’d have to pay for product, boxing fans were not accustomed to the complete privatization of the sport. The move away from free TV cost boxing a good chunk of its audience and ensured that fewer new fans would be developed over the long haul. The hardcore fans were still loyal, but for casual fans, it was harder to see world class boxing.
Meanwhile, White and his crew were developing a real combat sport counter culture with its own mantras and talking points, most of which were directed at burying boxing as dead, dying, or just plane lame.
To this day, stick a microphone in White’s face long enough and some disparaging remark about boxing is bound to come out. So good is White at selling himself that he even manages to get front page attention with commentary made about boxing main events– the equivalent of MLB commissioner, Bud Selig being sought after for his analysis of the Super Bowl.
Now, well into its second decade in existence, the UFC is an established entity and White doesn’t have to go on the offensive against the sport he always claims to love. He still occasionally goes for the jugular, but now his legion of true believers carries out the piranha attacks, using the same talking points White had established years prior.
Here are the two biggest talking points from the UFC crew and a look at whether they hold any water at all.
Boxing is Dead (UFC Rules!)
There are lots of variations on this one.. Boxing is Dead, Boxing is Dying, The UFC is Killing Boxing…
None are really true, but what does the truth have to do with good, solid marketing, anyway?
Assuming we disregard the massive growth of the sport in Eastern Europe and its supreme good health in Latin America, Asia, Canada, and Western Europe, it would still be hard to make a case for the death of boxing.
The American scene has fallen out of favor with the mainstream sports world and the sport is no longer on the forefront of the nation’s collective unconscious, but this has been a trend that began long before anyone knew anything about mixed martial arts.
Non-fans and antagonists like to point fingers at any number of boxing’s problems and say, “See? That’s why boxing is dying!”
There are plenty of real and pressing issues with boxing, but none are driving fans away. Most of boxing’s current problems have existed, in one form or another, since the very beginning. Fight fans know this and have come to expect a dose of insanity with their fisticuffs. There are very few people walking away because Fighter A isn’t fighting Fighter B or because Fighter B got screwed by the judges.
More likely, fans aren’t being exposed to Fighters A, B, or C and feel no pressing need to see any of them.
When true boxing events are made featuring fighters they know and care about, fans respond with massive support. Hence, the all-time pay-per-view Top 10 consists, almost exclusively, of boxing events and the Top 3 PPV buy rates of 2011 were also boxing cards.
Actually, if one were inclined to flip the script a bit, a case could be made for a UFC in decline.
UFC pay-per-view buy rates declined from 2010 to 2011, with 2012 seemingly headed in the same downward trajectory. For the last million seller, one would have to go back to UFC 121 in 2010. For a company that had experienced steady growth from 2005 to 2010, the negative trend can’t be overlooked.
When it comes to the UFC, a trend has emerged over the last few years– As opposed to any other sport, the company seems to actually lose ground the more potential fans become exposed to it.
The UFC’s three events on Fox show this trend as UFC on Fox 1 drew 5.675 million viewers, followed by an 18% decline in viewership for UFC on Fox 2 (4.661 million) and then a 57% drop for the recent UFC on Fox 3 (2.418 million).
The company tried to spin the poor numbers by pointing to everything from The Avengers movie opening to the Mayweather-Cotto PPV on the same day to the Cinco de Mayo holiday. All are reasonable excuses for a decline, but not for an apparent mass exodus and a last place finish among network shows in its time slot.
The poor showing was also evident in their lead-in show on Fuel TV, which drew a mere 86,000 viewers (down 30% from their Fuel TV average of 122,750) and has also seen a drop in viewership for each of the three “prelims” show.
Overall, the UFC’s case for TV dominance is not convincing.
FX, which began airing UFC programming as part of the company’s mega-deal with Fox, has posted a tepid average of 1.08 million viewers per show since the deal, despite being available in 99 million households in the U.S.
Fuel TV, available in 36 million households, has done even lower numbers than their bigger broadcast partners in the Fox company. Averaging just around 122,750 viewers for their first-run prelims, the network also airs a UFC Tonight magazine show that has posted an average viewership of about 40,000.
By comparison, boxing on HBO drew an average of 1.42 million viewers per show in 2011 and, most recently, registered 1.5 million viewers for Bernard Hopkins vs. Chad Dawson II.
So, in the world of combat sports on TV, HBO Boxing consistently posts higher numbers than any cable UFC show– and does it with just 29 million HBO subscribers.
ESPN2′s Friday Night Fights attracted an average of 543,000 viewers per show in 2011, also significantly higher than any of the UFC’s second-tier programming and a 9% increase over 2010′s numbers.
Throw in shows from Spanish-language channels like Telefutura, Telemundo, Azteca America, and Fox Latino and boxing’s numbers grow even larger.
The UFC has more hours of TV programming per week, but none of the shows match the high-end boxing shows and, on average, do poorer numbers than their boxing counterparts.
Even at its worst, the UFC still delivers its target demographic group of men, 18-34, but in head to head comparisons, it falls behind the overall numbers posted by boxing shows.
On PPV, boxing stars Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather trump anyone on the UFC roster, routinely posting buy rates well in excess of 1 million, with the recent Mayweather-Cotto event selling about 1.5 million.
In the UFC, as stated earlier, the last million seller was UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Velasquez in 2010. Jones-Evans in UFC 145 sold about 700,000, but other than that, 2012 has registered an average buy rate of about 333,000.
It should also be noted that, unlike HBO, which is bound by Time Warner to release accurate sales figures, The UFC is a privately-held company under no obligation to release this info. So, all UFC buy rate info is based on estimates from industry insiders and information leaked through the tight-lipped UFC inner circle. It could very well be that all of these PPV numbers are inflated for the sake of public relations.
There is no doubt that the UFC has done a wonderful job marketing itself. Merchandising, combined with a very vocal and internet-savvy fan base, has created the impression that the UFC is a tidal wave of toughness, washing the sport of boxing into the sea. But the numbers don’t bear this out.
The UFC was able to land a major deal with Fox and that’s something boxing hasn’t been able to do, but given the recent numbers and the overall downward trend, one has to wonder whether Fox bought the sizzle before seeing the steak.
Despite the ratings dips, the UFC is still doing well, but it’s closer to treading water than “killing” boxing.
In The UFC the Best Fight the Best
This is usually the second salvo fired at boxing fans as proof of UFC superiority.
It may be true, but let’s back it up a bit and put things in their proper perspective.
There are no official rankings in the UFC. So, “The Best” is a very relative term, entirely decided by the members of the company’s management team.
Fights are made with marketing in mind and then hard-sold to the fan base. Stars are created, not necessarily by public demand, but by management design. Sure, the fans are getting the “best vs. the best,” but don’t think for a moment that strings aren’t being pulled behind the scenes to sell the biggest figure as the best fighter.
The perfect case in point is the WWE’s Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar lost his UFC debut to Frank Mir in February of 2008 and then, just nine months and two fight later, suddenly found himself beating Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight title. If the UFC die-hards’ mantra is to be believed, Lesnar must’ve become the “best” during those nine months between his debut loss and his title challenge. Whatever the case, Lesnar would go on to become the company’s figurehead and top draw in his two-defense reign as heavyweight champ. His rapid, two-year trek from retired pro-wrestler to UFC figurehead showed what the company is really about– Marketing.
Lesnar was the “best” because he had been designated as the best by those looking to sell pay-per-views. The rest of the UFC matchmaking structure, whether they cop to it or not, falls right behind that logic.
But, as anyone who knows matchmaking can attest to, the biggest fight isn’t always the best fight
In the face of boxing’s big-fight stifling promotional politics, it’s certainly tempting to demand a more populist bent to the matchmaking. But that’s not how a sport is run. If baseball were run with the same mindset, only the Yankees and Dodgers would be in the World Series.
If boxing were to adopt the UFC model, we very well could see Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, but we could just as likely see, down the road, Kimbo Slice vs. Bobby Lashley for the world heavyweight title. There’s a reason sports aren’t run with only marketing in mind. There’s a reason rankings and standings exist.
It’s no mystery why White has been dragging his feet for years when it comes to establishing official rankings– and it’s the same reason that most of boxing’s power brokers are also slow to endorse real, unbiased and binding rankings. Once you take the game away from the hustler, the easy money flies out the window.
Also, before endorsing the “best vs. best” mantra, one should remember that White has never shown a willingness to make fights outside of his in-house control. So, in that aspect, there’s really not much difference between Dana White and a guy like Bob Arum. Except, in White’s case, he essentially owns the sport in the U.S: and can buy out any competition.
All in all, the UFC, working with just a handful of viable fighters and in almost full control of every well-known, U.S. based MMA competitor, can dictate each and every term to its fighters. They can also rig the game so that their matchmaking goes hand in hand with their marketing.
This is something boxing couldn’t do, even if it were healthy to do so. The UFC website lists just 355 fighters in eight divisions and only a small percentage of these are viable, main stage fighters. In boxing’s heavyweight division, alone, there are 1,125 rankable fighters, spread out over dozens of countries and all with different managerial/promotional ties (some with no ties at all).
Comparing the UFC and boxing in terms of matchmaking ability is like trying to compare the business structure of a neighborhood 7-11 with the entire Walmart corporation. The UFC has, maybe, a dozen viable fighters in each weight class who would have no one to fight if they didn’t fight each other.
If that’s the definition of “best vs. best,” then this is a very relative term. So relative that it actually means very little.
What the UFC has accomplished is a major feat. They’ve essentially built an entire sport within the American market and have managed to become a major economic force. But is it really a sport or just a sporting exhibition wonderfully marketed to the right demographic group? Ethically, there’s also a major concern about just how little the fighters are benefiting from their own hard work, but that’s a topic for another day.
The hype machine created by Dana White and his people has generated several myths around their product and its place in the sporting world. And, just like the actual sport, there’s significantly more sizzle than steak.
The UFC is not so dominant that it’s making boxing irrelevant and it’s definitely not killing boxing. As a matter of fact, recent trends show that UFC management should be more focused on where their own product is headed and how they may need to adapt to an increasingly sophisticated fan base.
Boxing’s only real enemy is itself and you will read many articles about its various missteps in the pages of The Boxing Tribune. It surely doesn’t need fabricated enemies taking potshots at it, armed to the teeth with misleading and often erroneous talking points from Dana White.
- Walking in the Shadows of Tyrants: A UFC Model for Boxing?
- Golden Boy Cleans House at The Ring Magazine: Cause for Concern?
- Paul Magno’s Monday Rant (11/1/10)
- Brock Lesnar Humiliation Makes Case for Boxing Superiority
About the Author: Paul has been in and around the sport of boxing for more than thirty years. You can read his work on Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, or on his own website, The Boxing Tribune. In the past, he has done work for Inside Fights, The Queensberry Rules and Eastside Boxing. Paul currently resides in Michoacan, Mexico, where he has worked as a licensed boxing official as well as co-trainer at Ruben Olivares’ gym.
Stick to what you know there pal….Dana has actually pretty much always stuck up for boxing and is a life long fan. He’s only pointed out the problems in the sport that you go on and on about in your cute little “Rants”. Also a comment section is generally used to make…wait for it…comments about the article in question. Sorry Alexkebert didn’t like your article but that is his right.
I don’t care who likes or doesn’t like my article…but there IS a strict policy against trolling and flaming the section with several pointless posts at a time. Obviously, you missed all of his posts that were deleted….As for your point, I’ve never seen White “stick up” for boxing. I’ve only seen well-timed attacks that just happen to coincide with some event that he’s promoting…The talking point is that he’s a “life long” fan, but he sure can’t wait to bury boxing whenever he wants to sell his own company…I mean, really, the first several years over at the UFC consisted of non-stop attacks from him and his pet dog, Joe Rogan…all while they were claiming to be such fans…I have no stake in a boxing vs. MMA feud. As a matter of fact, I think the arguments are silly and I do have respect for MMA as a sport…However, there’s no denying that White and Company came out swinging and, in doing so, turned off many loyal, long-term combat sport fans who would’ve otherwise given the UFC a try…The UFC didn’t need these guys back then, but they’re going to find that these sophisticated older fans are key to developing a loyal base rather than just hoping to build the next “superstar.”
I would respectfully disagree that you have no stake in boxing vs. MMA, as you run a boxing website and have, on several occasions, taken digs at the UFC in your pieces. Calling Joe Rogan a “pet dog” for example, or actually questioning whether MMA is really even a sport or a “sporting exhibition”. Your article is full of flaws. Obviously on a worldwide level boxing is more prevalent than MMA but could that possibly be due to the fact that boxing has been around longer? I don’t know, maybe? In the UFC the best do fight the best and the fans often times have a direct impact on matchups through social media campaigns. Did you seriously bring up the lack of official ratings in the UFC? I guess we can discard all of your articles about the corrupt sanctioning bodies, huh? Boxing is full of top guys ducking one another in search of easy paydays and the “rankings” that go along with this farce are ridiculous and you know it.
Really? How would I benefit or be harmed in any way by what the UFC does? No, my only stake is in telling the truth…and putting some of these tired old talking points into perspective…Like I said in the article, no other country has this us vs. them mentality in combat sports…and that’s directly White’s doing…As far as “best vs. best,” the UFC is running the same game as the WBC, WBA, or any of those awful organizations– they’ve eliminated any sporting aspect and arbitrarily make bouts according to their own bottom line…The only differences being that the UFC has cornered the market on American MMA and they sell their machinations a lot better than their boxing brethren…Best vs. Best is so damn bogus in the UFC’s case when they only work with a handful of fighters and never do business outside of their own company’s grasp…Dana White IS Bob Arum, he just got lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of the sport…And, no, the UFC brand of MMA is NOT a sport…Sports, at the very least, have the appearance of a structure and narrative…The UFC is just marketing wrapped around the work of athletes…The UFC is to MMA what the Home Run Derby is to baseball…Obviously, you buy into the hype and don’t choose to look at things with a critical eye and that’s your choice. Whatever floats your boat. But please cut the BS that just because I’m critical, I don’t “understand” or don’t know what I’m talking about … Please … I understand the sport well enough to comment casually, but I definitely know the business end as White & co. aren’t doing anything that any boxing hustler hasn’t done decades ago….They even screw around and con their fighters in the exact same way…
Wow….ok just saw this response and i don’t honestly know what to say. To claim that the UFC, which is by far the biggest MMA organization in the world, is comparable to the Home Run Derby is ridiculous. The best MMA fighters in the world are either in the UFC or want to be. You have officially lost a long-time reader, but I’m sure you don’t care. Have fun writing your misinformed, biased manifestos from your hole in Mexico. Please drink the water.
It doesn’t matter if the best MMA fighters are in the UFC if the UFC doesn’t choose to run itself like a real sport with a legitimate infrastructure…When Dana White and company choose to run their business with more transparency than, say, the WBC, then they can be considered a “real”
sport. Until then, the UFC is just a series of sporting exhibitions featuring legitimate athletes (like the Homerun Derby)…Speaking of drinking the water, I’ll send you some so you can keep drinking that Kool-Aid…P.S. I’ll try to get over losing a “long-time” reader who, obviously, doesn’t have much use for boxing, my work, my ultimate goals in this business, or my ultimate goals as someone who speaks his mind for a living. I understand that in your UFC world everything is happy and “extreme” and aimed at whipping the fans into a false frenzy, but I don’t get anything for pretending that fake bull shit is real…I’m just amused that there are guys like you out there who will NOT see the truth and, when questioned, will fall back on the talking points you’ve been fed…That’s precisely how cults are formed…I have to give White credit, he’s done a great job of brainwashing some…even presented with facts, the true believers refuse to hear them…wow…enjoy being a mindless dupe. Well, I guess you’ll never read this because you’re never coming back…So long forever…
Paul, you must get some good drugs down there. I’ve been watching boxing since I was very young and only recently began watching UFC/MMA. I’ve also read your stuff for some time now. I think for the most part you are fighting the good fight and calling out the bullshit that is ruining a sport I love. You don’t know me and your reaction to me questioning you is juvenile and over-the-top. Apparently anyone who enjoys the UFC is a brainwashed member of the Dana cult. Believe it or not I enjoy both SPORTS a great deal, and simply wish that boxing could take a cue from the UFC and be more fan friendly/accessible.
It never ceases to amaze me how someone can leave snide, insulting comments to an article and then get offended when someone answers them in kind…I guess I could do like other sites and close comments or just hand-pick the positive stuff…I’m not saying that if you enjoy the UFC you are brainwashed. However, when everything coming out of your mouth is a marketing point and/or slogan for the company, then, yeah, you’ve been brainwashed…I agree that boxing can stand to fix a lot of stuff up, but going the route of the UFC and completely giving up any pretense of being an actual sport is not the answer…And if MLB decided to skip the regular season and hype a “World Series” featuring hand-picked teams every two months…Then, they would also cease to be a sport…MMA is a sport…What the UFC does is a sporting exhibition…Big difference.
Newsflash Paulie baseball is a sport….the MLB is the biggest organization where said sport is played. Thus the UFC is to mixed martial arts what MLB is to baseball.
So Cotto and Bradley won some sort of tournament (or regular season) to get the right to face Mayweather and Pac? I must’ve missed that. You agree then that by your logic boxing is also merely a sporting exhibition, correct?
The biggest BS tactic is to point for other bad behavior to justify yours…Yeah, Manny-Bradley is BS matchmaking and pretty much the same garbage as what the UFC does…So, by bringing that up, then you must, deep down inside, realize that the UFC is a farce…so, why not just embrace it and admit it? Anyway, the UFC is ALL like that. There’s not even the pretend semblance of sport….At least boxing does have some structure, however messed up it is, and it isn’t completely made up by the seat of one guy’s pants and only based on what can be sold…Wanna know why boxing IS a sport and the UFC version of MMA isn’t? Because they have Kimbo Slice fighting some hobo at a 200 seat club whereas the UFC gave him a shortcut close to the top…Also, there’s the James Toney farce, Brock Lesnar, etc…As bad as boxing is, they still won’t shit on the sport the way the UFC has…Maybe that day will soon come, but it hasn’t come to that yet….Bad decisions and shoddy matchmaking are infinitely more tolerable than just making a mockery of these athletes and THEN not paying them properly to boot…
You wrote this earlier which seems to indicate that you are completely full of shit….”As far as “best vs. best,” the UFC is running the same game as the WBC, WBA, or any of those awful organizations– they’ve eliminated any sporting aspect and arbitrarily make bouts according to their own bottom line…The only differences being that the UFC has cornered the market on American MMA and they sell their machinations a lot better than their boxing brethren.”…..So you’re mad that the UFC does it better?
When Kimbo got in the UFC he had to face real competition right away unlike his boxing career which has consisted of beating up clowns. Also if you want to get prickish about it…Kimbo had four fights in EliteXC (a smaller MMA organization) and had to go through the Ultimate Fighter reality show/tourney before getting in the big show = UFC.
In the UFC fighters win fights and work their way toward a title shot. Same as boxing. You know, for someone who has no stake in this UFC vs. boxing argument (which again I love both and think it’s a stupid argument) you seem to really be worked up about this. Name any of the major fights that were/are lined up for this year in boxing and give me one of them that wasn’t made because of some arbitrary decision (based on marketability) by either HBO/Showtime or Top Rank/Golden Boy.
Good objective analysis Paul. I feel like I’m one of the few who likes both boxing and MMA, but I can’t argue with the numbers you posted, and I didn’t realize espn fnf does that well in the ratings.
I slightly disagree with your best don’t fight the best argument…….though I was sickened to see Brock get a title shot so quickly, he was a former NCAA division 1 champ, so at least he had a legitimate mastery of a martial art besides the wwf fame. Fedor also comes to mind, but when he fought in Japan he fought a lot of subpar fighters.
I don’t know if it’s because of the monopolistic control the UFC has over the sport or the fact that most casual sport fans know the UFC but not MMA, but for the most part, most of the top fighters fight in the UFC.
The business model of the UFC, in my opinion, is good for the fans but bad for the fighters.
Thanks…Personally, I have no issue with MMA. I do have an issue with the way UFC chose to market itself. It was a dumb move for the long term health of the sport, IMO, as well as an insulting one for those who have been long-time boxing fans…The problem is that those young fans they cultivated have become increasingly sophisticated and are now starting to scrutinize the UFC in terms of a REAL sport–and it’s falling short….The company can pretty much say anything they want when it comes to “best vs. best” because they’ve cornered the market in the US. So, when they own the whole game and are really only dealing with a handful of fighters, anyway, that best vs. best term lacks real bite….Even if it were possible to use that business model in boxing, that’s not the way to build for the long-term health of a sport because everything will be based on the selling power of the specific fighters rather than the sport, itself. It seems fabricated, artificial, stakes too much importance on creating “the next big thing” rather than just letting the narrative of the sport sell itself…Just my take, though, and I’ve been known to be wrong…
Manny Pacquiao is one of the very few boxers who have kept boxing competitive with the UFC in these times.
Paul Magno hates Manny Pacquiao.
Paul Magno is also an amateur journist. He actually prints curse words in his articles.
You are second rate Paulie.
Amateur? I get paid! And I only print “curse words” when they’re appropriate, fuck head…
The guys at Examiner get paid too Paulie. And now look, here you are cursing at people in your comments section. Like I said, you’re an amateur and you just proved it. Have fun at the Burger King kids club 🙂
Hey Alex…yet, here you are commenting on my article, you little stalker….I don’t have to take your insults without answering back. I don’t go to your work and insult you while you’re serving the french fries, why do you think it’s fine to come to my gig and hurl insults at me? And the difference between Examiner guys and me is that they live off of penny clicks, so they have to pander to retards like you…I’m my own man and I’m free to speak my mind…Do yourself a favor and stick to the second grade reading level of professional ass kissers like your Examiner.com buddies…
You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just a sniveling loser who could never do anything meaningful in life, so I have to stalk working writers in their comment sections. I’m so depressed! Sorry.
No, it’s my fault, Alex…I fed the troll.
Brooklyn Sewer Rat
STFU, and stick to the issue. Hate is for ESB and BoxingobScene