Twenty years ago, even less, if you had said that boxing was in danger of being, or perhaps even was, no longer the most popular fight sport on earth, then you’d have been asked what you were smoking. Today, however, that is the reality. The sweet science is under direct attack from a two-pronged assault, one of which is happening in its own camp. What is even more galling for boxing fans is that everything is of its own making.
The Rise of the UFC
The success story of the UFC is little short of phenomenal. What was considered by many to be a joke, or a one-off circus, has gone on to become a multi-billion dollar business regularly bringing in PPV figures north of 1,000,000.
A lot of the success is down to very good marketing, innovative use of social media, and the fact that the sport basically started with a blank page and was not weighed down by a massive infrastructure made up of thousands upon thousands of people with no defined role all with their hands either held out or stuffed in the pie. The UFC were also providing what people wanted. That last reason is the simplest, but it is also the most significant, and it shows exactly where boxing has let itself down. But more of that shortly.
It’s interesting to note that the rise of the UFC – and other MMA franchises, let’s not pretend they are the only show in town – is at the minute mainly concentrated in the US, where the relatively new combat sport has stepped into traditional boxing heartlands. That the UFC has risen in the US, where the demise of boxing has been most keenly felt, is no coincidence.
What is exciting for UFC fans (and worrying for boxing fans) is that MMA’s popularity is also on the rise in places like Europe and the UK. The number of champions and genuine contenders coming from those countries is increasing, and this will create a virtuous circle in the sport.
To date, there have been 26 million PPV shows put on in the US with at least a one million attendance. Six of those have been for boxing fights, and only one of those – Canelo vs Chavez Jr. in May 2017 – has taken place in the last ten years. Floyd Mayweather features in all four of the top four boxing fights. He also features in the second highest grossing fight of all time, when he faced Conor McGregor.
The Rise of the Show Fight
McGregor has made himself one of the richest, most famous and controversial sportsmen on the planet, and sits alongside some of the world’s most eccentric sportsmen that have ever lived. He also started the trend for the other assault on boxing, the celebrity or show fight. His fight with Mayweather may well have gone the way almost everyone with a working knowledge of fight sports predicted, but it still held a certain fascination. You cannot say the same for some of the show fights that have happened since, or that are currently been lined up.
Unfortunately, anyone with a large following on YouTube now seems to think they can call someone out on social media and get a headline fight. Other, once legendary boxers are stepping back into the ring and are in danger of ruining their reputation for the sake of some quick bucks.
Problems of Boxing’s own Making
The frustrating thing is that all of this is boxing’s own making. The UFC, and even these show fights, are fulfilling a need. People want to see the best fight the best. The huge advantage the UFC has over boxing is that, almost always, the best fighters fight the best in their division, and increasingly they fight the best out of it.
The ridiculous back and forth between boxing’s then two heavyweight belt holders – Joshua and Fury – was perhaps the last straw for many fight fans. It is certainly not the first time two of the best fighters in the division have avoided each other, and it won’t be the last, but this time it was in such a high-profile way, and at a time when the sport – the world – needed one big event to get behind. It was also at a time when there were plenty of people, albeit in different codes, very happy to step up and fill the void.
Boxing has only itself to blame.