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Has Mixed Martial Arts already KO'd Boxing?

By Robert Rousseau,
These days if you turn on regular cable television you may just come across mixed martial arts (MMA) events on Fox Sports Net (the International Fight League and PRIDE Fighting Championships have both aired live events there).

On February 10th, upstart mixed martial arts organization Elite XC came to the world via Showtime. Further, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has been on Spike Television for awhile now and appears to be negotiating a deal to air live events on HBO. In other words, MMA seems to be breaking in everywhere that sports television can air.

Then there's boxing.

Whereas MMA is bringing a relatively uniform product to the masses and getting a positive response, boxing is attempting different marketing strategies and trying to change, acknowledging that their product has begun to fall off the public radar. Confirming this, ElectricArtists-an Australian organization-attempted to bring an event called Superfighter to the world in December of 2006. Superfighter was supposed to feature heavyweight fighters competing in shortened bouts in an elimination style tournament. If it sounds a lot like those initial UFC tournaments and current PRIDE Grand Prix style events, that's because it was supposed to. Unfortunately, the event failed to happen.

Then there was, The Contender; a reality boxing show that aired on NBC. Unfortunately, the show failed on regular television, and was cancelled after the first series. Later, ESPN picked it up. However, its initial failure just seems to reinforce the facts about boxing.

It's on the decline.

Even boxing's staple for decades-pay per view (PPV)-has been failing them in the battle to stay on top as the world's combat sport of choice. According to Zuffa LLC- the company that owns the UFC- UFC 66: Liddell vs. Ortiz II on December 30, 2006, netted 1.2 million PPV buys. At $39.95 per purchase that adds up to 47.94 million. In the same year, the highest grossing boxing event-Ricardo Mayorga versus Oscar De La Hoya-drew only 925,000 PPV purchases. Coming with a price tag of $49.95 per buy, this event totaled 46.2 million in revenue.

In other words, mixed martial arts (MMA) is beginning to win the PPV battle as well. Not surprising, as anyone who had been watching could have seen this coming. Back in 2002, UFC 40 netted 150,000 PPV buys; twelve events later, UFC 52 took in 280,000 buys; then nine shows from there, UFC 61 drew 775,000 purchases.

All of that said, the Mayorga- De La Hoya live gate still beat UFC 66's by over two million dollars. However, the UFC 66 live gate totals were the best in their history, indicating that even those numbers are on the rise. Further, the United States isn't the only MMA market in the world. The PRIDE Fighting Championships (which historically have taken place in Japan but may not in the years to come as the owner of the UFC have now purchased the organization) have long possessed the best live gate numbers of all MMA organizations. Serving as an example, a past co-promotion between PRIDE and K-1 in Japan drew over 90,000 spectators, dwarfing anything that America has seen recently in live boxing or MMA attendance figures.

Taken together, even famed boxing promoter and former Chief Inspector for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Commission, Gary Shaw, has decided to get in on the MMA action while it's hot with Elite XC. When asked what brought them into the MMA fold, Elite XC's President of Live Events was quite blunt.

"The demographic brought us there. It's up and coming; it's doing great at the gate; it's doing wonderful on pay per view. This sport is growing by leaps and bounds."

So the facts are clear; boxing is being KO'd by mixed martial arts. But this leads to a question. How did this all happen?

The downfall of boxing

Was MMA the only culprit in boxing's decline? Hardly.

Boxing's problems started well before MMA had truly arrived. Rising PPV prices, events lacking a quality under card, and poor judge's decisions-such as when Julio Cesar Chavez got pummeled by Pernell Whitaker in 1993, only to gain a draw-all had a lasting negative impact on the sport.

As Shaw adds, "the promoters and networks (in boxing) are hurting themselves." Said another way, the entire sport got themselves into this mess, perhaps because they were overconfident in their knowledge that there wasn't another athletic endeavor out there that pitted man on man in quite the same fearsome way.

But then MMA entered the scene. And with the sanctioning of mixed martial arts events in America, the fighting landscape changed.

Why MMA is doing so well

MMA is capitalizing on boxing's shortcomings- As was alluded to previously, PRIDE and UFC pay per views are usually cheaper (coming in at $39.95), and their events tend to have several fights worth watching on them. For example, PRIDE: Final Conflict Absolute on September 10, 2006, showcased six top five fighters in their respective weight classes (Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Josh Barnett, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua, and Ricardo Arona). This isn't a rarity, either. UFC 59 had four former world champions on its card in Evan Tanner, Tito Ortiz, Tim Sylvia (the current UFC Heavyweight Champion) and Andrei Arlovski. In addition, the event boasted TUF 1 Champion, Forrest Griffin, and future UFC Lightweight Champion, Sean Sherk. Speaking of TUF 1. . .

The UFC and reality television - The Ultimate Fighter Reality Television Show (TUF) first served to bring MMA to the masses via cable television (Spike TV). Thus far, TUF shows have done remarkably well. Reinforcing this, according to the first two TUF finales brought in more viewers in the 18-24 year old demographic than any other show on television the night they aired.

As Ray Hui, editor of (one of the most influential mixed martial arts websites on the net) sets it down, "the company (the UFC) was able to build up characters that fans could follow through the Ultimate Fighter TV show."

The stretching demographic - Though the MMA demographic is often reported to include 18-24 males, there is an increasing body of evidence to support that it's broader than that.

"You see a lot of guys with girlfriends; you see a lot of girls with girls on a girls' night out," Shaw says.

What seems certain is that MMA's demographic stretches well beyond boxing's reach. "If I told you to go find a boxing gym," Shaw says, "you'd have to drive number one to an urban area, and (still) you're lucky if you find a gym. If I tell you to find a mixed martial arts studio, there are studios in every class of every neighborhood. From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to kickboxing to striking to mixed martial arts gyms, they run the gamut economically all the way up the ladder."

A good societal match - When asked why people today seem to love MMA, Shaw admits some uncertainty. Still, he has a theory.

"This era, this generation, grew up with much faster stuff. The internet is faster; the video games are faster- it's a whole different thing." In fact, Shaw likens MMA to something nearly everybody is interested in today. "It's almost like a video game," he connects. "You know, where you have, like a Mortal Combat. (In) boxing, you can have to sit there for a boring fight; you've got to sit there for twelve rounds, and they go back and forth and nothing happens. The fight can't stop; it's got to keep going. Here (in MMA) you can have someone submit and it adds another dimension."

Hui agrees. "MMA is a fun sport to watch and the different ways a fighter can win brings a new level of excitement for the fans."

MMA is the truth - Remember when Mike Tyson said he was "the baddest man on the planet?" Most people believed him. However, Tyson was wrong. Hui notes the following when asked how an elite boxer would do in an MMA ring against the consensus best heavyweight fighter in the world, PRIDE Heavyweight Champion, Fedor Emelianenko.

"If the professional boxer had no MMA training, he would lose because Fedor would be able to utilize his Sambo background to take the boxer down and finish him on the ground. Any solid MMA artist would be able to defeat a professional boxer if the boxer sticks to his 'striker's mentality'."

In sum, MMA's popularity is booming. On the flip side, boxing is losing ground quickly. Though "the sweet science," seems to have gotten themselves into this mess on their own, MMA isn't shying away from throwing the knockout punch (or submission) at them. Unless something changes soon, MMA will be the sport that draws the numbers heavyweight boxing championship bouts used to.

Depending on which group of fans you talk to, that could be a good or bad thing.

Robert Rousseau is a freelance writer that has been published in a variety of MMA, football, travel, and trade journalism markets. Along with this, check out his new blog on college football recruiting at

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