Boxing’s problem child
By Adam Godfrey: Boxing has a problem child, and one who is likely to bite and kick harder the bigger it gets. What was once an oft-patronised, baby-faced distraction is now a snotty nosed, smelly teenager, intent on depriving the Bank of Mum and Dad of every penny it can.
I am of course referring not so much to Mixed Martial Arts in general, but one of its offshoots in particular, which is slowly, gradually infecting the fight fan’s consciousness. If Boxing is still considered a niche sport, then MMA and the UFC must be considered even more so. But is it growing in popularity in a way that could be considered a threat to Boxing? What would the threat even entail if it does exist?
The ‘Noble Art’ is arguably in as precarious a position as it has been in recent memory. Like them or loathe them, the undeniable PPV draws that were Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have retired, and there are but a few candidates to take over as the face of the sport. Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez is at the front of the queue, with Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin snapping at his heels. Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder bring some excitement to the Heavyweight division and have the potential to appeal to the casual observer (as a heel, in Fury’s case), but until they begin to face each other, we do not know the heights they might reach. Every fight fan will have a list of fighters they think will be ‘the next big thing’, but there may yet be a prolonged lull experienced by Boxing, and if there is any entity that could take advantage of a void in the world of combat sports, it is the UFC.
If there is a single aspect of the UFC that garners frequent envious glances from Boxing fans it is the insistence that the best fight the best, and at a time when the respective fighters are at the peak of their powers. Being contracted to the UFC brand over and above promoters or managers, fighters fight whom they are told to rather than choose to, with nowhere to run or hide. The six/seven years that were required to ‘marinate’ the Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquaio bout was obscene enough for most Boxing fans; to those who follow the UFC, it would be an unthinkable timescale. If you were to search for a UFC match-up that is most comparable to the desirability and prestige of ‘The Fight of the Century’, it was the ‘long awaited’ UFC 194 battle between Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo. The inverted commas around ‘long awaited’ are important. Originally booked for UFC 189 in July 2015, the fight was postponed after Aldo suffered a rib injury. The two then met in December 2015 at UFC 194 instead. The contest helped generate record gates and revenue for the UFC, despite only ‘marinating’ for around nine months. They say there are seven dog years to every human year. It often feels that Boxing and UFC exist in divergent chronological planes too. Matches are mooted, made, promoted and take place at a rate of knots that puts Boxing to shame. Kell Brook would not have made defenses against Jo Jo Dan, Frankie Gavin and Kevin Bizier since becoming IBF Champion if Boxing existed in the same time continuum as the UFC, and instead would have fought Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia and Amir Khan in that time. Saul Alvarez would have fought GGG in May 2016. And Floyd Mayweather would have fought an opponent who had the slightest chance in hell of beating him for his farewell bout, rather than taking on an uninspiring, overmatched opponent like Andre Berto, against whom he was nailed on to beat. It is blindingly obvious that the various parties involved in Boxing, from the sanctioning bodies to the TV stations that show the fights, contribute to one almighty, convoluted mess. In the maelstrom of conflicting interest and wads of cash it is virtually impossible to lay the blame for Boxing’s lack of urgency on the doorstep of just one group of stakeholders. Even the fans themselves are complicit for willingly shelling out ludicrous sums of money to watch ridiculous weight mismatches. Is the UFC model one that Boxing could adopt? No. Boxing is too far down the road upon which it currently stumbles. It has been suggested that unifying Boxing’s sanctioning bodies into one would address the issue of multiple World Champions in each weight class, which would help clear the way for the biggest fights to take place. Unfortunately this is highly unlikely to occur any time soon, as each body is a business in its own right. The logistics of merging two competitors is demanding enough; the idea of incorporating the four major bodies (the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO) into one makes this writer feel unsteady on his chair, such would be the complexity involved.
The ‘Super Six’ Super Middleweight Tournament of 2009-2011 could be a template used to assist the unification of titles in the future. However even this is not a foolproof system. Injuries to Andre Dirrell and Jermaine Taylor scuppered tournament bouts versus Andre Ward and Carl Froch respectively, and should either of the latter pair have lost their non tournament fights then their belts could conceivably have left the competition, rendering unification impossible at that time. Nevertheless, with a few tweaks, more Super Six-esque tournaments could be utilized by the powers-that-be to give Boxing a much-needed shot in the arm.
The other area that Boxing must be seen to be urgently addressing if it wants to maintain the distance between itself and the UFC is potential corruption, especially with regards to the ringside scoring of fights. The Khan v Alvarez fight in particular, which was predictably ended in the most crushing manner, was ridiculously scored by the ringside judges in favor of Alvarez up to the point that it finished. Quite how any well meaning, unbiased professional scorer could have given any but the fifth and possibly fourth rounds to Alvarez is mind-boggling, such was the success of Khan’s game plan up to that point. Khan, clearly, in my opinion, won each round up until the fifth, yet was down on two of the scorecards and just one round ahead on the other. It is beyond my experience and knowledge to explain how this could be, but something is very clearly amiss. If, and it is a very big ‘if’, Khan had managed to stick to the plan, avoid getting walloped and boxed the second half of the fight as he had the first, he quite conceivably would have lost the fight anyway. Would Boxing have found itself in genuine, potentially legal trouble had Khan not been dropped, but defeated? It most certainly could have. Both Khan and Boxing fans alike would have been up in arms, and rightly so. The fact that Khan was indeed dropped shouldn’t actually make any difference. The cards were inexplicably scored, and should be explained and investigated regardless of whether they were ultimately needed or not. Accusations that, as the supposed successor to Mayweather/Pacquiao’s PPV throne, Canelo was given an unwarranted points win would abound. Boxing avoided opening a potentially embarrassing can of worms, but only just.
Scoring in the UFC is more complex. Fewer but longer lasting rounds, myriad clashes of style and technique to consider and the more tumultuous ebb and flow of the contest all contribute to making the winner of a bout relatively subjective. On the surface this appears to make being a UFC judge inherently more dangerous, but upon consideration it is actually a considerable advantage. Decisions can be contentious and debatable without being controversial in a manner that is less likely in Boxing. And, as Dana White would say, ‘Don’t let it go to the scorecards’; UFC frequently complies. While scoring a Boxing match can’t be said to be completely objective, it is usually obvious who has dominated the fight, especially over twelve (albeit shorter) rounds, as opposed to three or five rounds in the UFC. Genuinely close fights are a blessing to both the fan and the scorers and often ignite interesting, constructive debate. But when a fighter loses, or would have lost, despite being clearly ahead, Boxing must up its game and investigate properly, harshly sanctioning those who nefariously affect Boxing with ulterior motives and barring them from officiating.
Where Boxing will always have the upper hand is the legacy that surrounds the sport. This is unequivocal and irreversible. The business of Boxing may have changed over time, but its history will forever remain intact. It is unlikely the UFC will ever see the likes of the Rumble in the Jungle, for example, or be blessed with fighters of world wide fame or notoriety like Mohammad Ali or Mike Tyson respectively. The recent rumors surrounding a contest between Boxing’s Floyd Mayweather and UFC’s Conor McGregor, and the amounts of money that have been mooted for each fighter, illuminate the prestige that Boxing retains over all other combat sports. While a purse of $100 million for Mayweather and a mere $7 million for McGregor are clearly fantastical, the disparity between purses should the fight actually occur would nevertheless be huge in Mayweather’s favor. Both are far and away the biggest names in their own sports, yet match the two up and there is simply no contest. Even in retirement Mayweather, as the long time face of Boxing whether you or I like it or not, reigns supreme. This is a reflection of the reverence that Boxing holds and the gulf that exists between the two sports. At present it would be difficult to argue that UFC has, or is likely to have in the near future, any say on the fortunes of Boxing’s finances.
If Boxing is colloquially referred to as both ‘The Sweet Science’ and ‘The Noble Art’, the UFC could perhaps be termed ‘The Bitter, Ignoble Battering of a Downed Opponent’. Whether the UFC is actually inherently more violent than Boxing is an open question, but what is certain is that there is a perception, at least, that it is. And perception is important. Certainly many Boxing fans are put off MMA by the regularity that fighters are struck when they are either on the floor or even already out cold. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism as such, it is however a valid reason to favor the Sweet Science over it’s considerably meaner offspring, if that is your want. This is a conundrum for the UFC. To outlaw the striking of a downed opponent would rip the spirit from the fight, as the need to make absolutely sure your opponent does not arise to continue the challenge is of great paramount, and is part of the reason fans of MMA are drawn to it in the first place. Conversely, this means that MMA and the UFC is unlikely to ever enter the mainstream. Until the day that MMA becomes an Olympic sport, it will remain niche.
The UFC will, for the short and medium term at least, linger in Boxing’s colossal shadow. But rather than see UFC as a rival, Boxing may need to adopt some of its philosophies and strategies to bring the fans the product that they both deserve and, importantly, are willing to pay for. Continue to tread water and pull the wool over the paying fans eyes, however, and Boxing could soon be looking over its shoulder with an expression of nervousness rather than disdain.
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