How MMA Is Saving Boxing

Bernard Hopkins said it himself: "I will say thanks to the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) that boxing now has to step up and make…

By: Luke Thomas | 16 years ago
How MMA Is Saving Boxing
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Bernard Hopkins said it himself:

“I will say thanks to the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) that boxing now has to step up and make the matches that interest people,” he said.

“Boxing is back like the 1980s, with the (Marvin) Haglers and the (Sugar) Ray Leonards,” Hopkins said. “Now the talent is going head to head with other champions.”

This is slightly exaggerated if for no other reason than the marketplace is substantially more crowded. There isn’t a finite sum of what can be consumed, but boxing doesn’t have free reign either. What is going on now is categorically not the boxing of the 1980s.

That being said, the sport has made a very good account of itself recently. Tonight’s Cotto vs. Mosley follows on the heels of Calzaghe vs. Kessler, which follows on the heels of Taylor vs. Pavlik (to say noting of a year where Oscar De La Hoya fought Floyd Mayweather, Jr.). Despite the alphabet soup that is boxing’s regulatory bodies, boxing has finally began showcasing meaningful or exciting match-ups within close proximity to one another.

And as you may have already seen, this blog is going to be working with fellow SBNer Bad Left Hook. The partnership, while not obvious, is not unnatural. With boxing’s stagnation occurring alongside and in part due to MMA’s (or UFC’s?) ascendancy, the sport’s respective supporters took every measure possible to assert their sports’ superiority. But the fact is this adversarial squabbling is unnecessary and largely manufactured. A love for MMA is, on some level, a love of combat athletics. Ditto for boxing. Not every fan of MMA also loves all of combat athletics and vice versa for boxing. But there is no denying the overlap. After all, boxing is a skill set used in mixed martial arts. One need not eschew wrestling or jiu-jitsu for it’s lack of strikes just as one need not repudiate boxing for it’s lack of sprawls.

More importantly, sport specific acumen is still a talent to behold. A boxer’s hands are an amazing phenomenon not to be scorned, but to be appreciated, understood, and in the case of MMA, incorporated. To criticize Mayweather’s inability to triangle choke is to criticize Marcelo Garcia’s inability to throw fight-ending liver kicks. That their talents do not cover all combat sports is missing the forest for the trees.

Just how much of boxing’s recent improvement in match-making a product of MMA’s growth? Not as much as others might suggest, but there is a valuable lesson nonetheless:

Liddell, the UFC’s number one attraction, lost. A few months later, he’d lose again. For all of its great star-building machinery, mixed martial arts faced the same issues as boxing when a bankable champion bites the dust.

More significantly, the only mixed martial artist who might rival Liddell at the box office, Randy Couture, abruptly retired, and then entered into a very public feud with White about whether or not he’d been fairly paid.

That was always the UFC’s potential Achilles heel: when it evolved into a de facto monopoly, and the returns grew exponentially, the fighters themselves were naturally going to demand a bigger piece of the action. They weren’t organized, they didn’t fight very often, their careers were short, and the game was both painful and dangerous. Forget those bonuses for the best fight of the night: the guys putting their bodies on the line and selling all of those pay-per-view sign-ups were inevitably going to start biting the hand that fed them.

Meanwhile, the dying sport of boxing was refusing to expire just yet. Though De La Hoya-Mayweather didn’t do much for the casual fan, and the heavyweights continued to be a confusing mess (unless, that is, you were a resident of some part of the former Soviet Union, which right now accounts for all but one of the alphabet title holders. Boxing promoters used to pine for a Great White Hope. They’ve got plenty of those at the moment, but would much prefer an American of any hue) the lower weight classes produced a series of excellent fights.

Part of this argument involves the differences between boxing’s and MMA’s business models, but the overarching point remains, namely, “mixed martial arts faced the same issues as boxing when a bankable champion bites the dust.” Liddell has yet to bite the dust, but you see what the author is driving at. MMA cannot be expected to be all things to enthusiasts of combat athletics and when it’s stars lose some of their shine, fans will begin to look around to see what else is out there. When boxing’s match-making hits and the UFC tries to tell us Evans vs. Bisping is a seriously important bout, the ability to leave MMA (even if only for one evening) for boxing is no chore at all. MMA has not swallowed or replaced boxing; it’s actually helped a new generation of young men learn how to enjoy the art of pugilism – something boxing used to do.

Competition is the best way to bring out the best in competitors (how tautological), and while different sports, boxing and MMA are forcing each other to produce a product that can capture the attention and dollars of an overlapping fan base. And today, it seems, many MMA marks have their eyes on boxing’s stellar fights. Tomorrow that could change, but only if MMA realizes it’s not the only fight game in town.

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Luke Thomas
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