Commentary

UFC success forced boxing to step up its game

Several years ago, it would have been hard to imagine MMA running level with boxing in terms of popularity. It's even harder to imagine that today, boxing is taking a page out of MMA's book to win back its fans -- but that's exactly what's happening.

Originally Published: January 22, 2008
By Royce Feour | ESPN.com

UFC 79 ArenaRic Fogel for ESPN.comWho would have thought that one day, boxing would be taking a page out of the cage's book?
Boxing and mixed martial arts went head-to-head on Jan. 19 with the Roy Jones-Felix Trinidad boxing card at Madison Square Garden in New York and UFC 80 in Newcastle, England.

Several years ago when the Ultimate Fighting Championship was first starting, the boxing establishment did little more than look down its nose at the fledging MMA sport.

In its early stages, it was hard to envisage mixed martial arts growing to the point where UFC would sell out major arenas and have the kind of pay-per-view sales numbers it's been having.

I covered boxing for 42 years in Las Vegas, including 37 years for the Las Vegas Review-Journal before retiring in 2004. I was ringside for thousands of fights, including the biggest names in boxing, because I worked in Las Vegas. But I never covered a UFC fight card.

Actually, I didn't know the sport and I didn't really care for it. That was mostly because I didn't understand it and did not know the nuances of mixed martial arts.

Since then I've attended two UFC cards in Las Vegas as a spectator and enjoyed the action. There is always something happening at a UFC card: The UFC makes great use of its video on giant screens to show interviews and highlights between fights. Gone are the sometimes lengthy "dead" times between fights where nothing is happening like in boxing.

I think the success of the UFC had an influence in forcing boxing to step up by promoting better fights and offering a more enjoyable fan experience, although the boxing promoters won't admit it.

Boxing enjoyed a revival of sorts in 2007 because the good fighters started fighting each other, something that wasn't happening, at least that often.

Did the UFC, with its tremendous rise in popularity and success, really have an impact on boxing and force boxing to raise its level of promotions with better fights?

[+] EnlargeSergei Liakhovich
AP Photo/Matt YorkAccording to Marc Ratner, the best thing that could have happened to boxing was to have people prematurely count it out.
Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of government and regulatory affairs, thinks mixed martial arts did just that.

"I firmly believe that the best thing to happen to boxing in the past year was the veiled threat with everybody saying that mixed martial arts was going to take boxing's place," he said. "Because of that veiled threat, boxing reacted and is putting on fights that the public wants to see."

Ratner mentioned the Shane Mosley-Miguel Cotto, Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor and Joe Calzaghe-Bernard Hopkins fights as examples of how, when boxing puts on fights the public wants to see, boxing is at its best. "

I am still a great boxing fan," Ratner emphasized.

Ratner was the face of the Nevada Athletic Commission for most of his 14 years as the executive director of the commission. Counting his previous years as inspector and chief inspector, Ratner spent 22 years working in boxing with the Nevada commission.

Ratner has been with the UFC for about 21 months. When he joined the fast-growing and already successful company owned by Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III and led by president Dana White, Ratner gave the UFC even more credibility, particularly with the mainstream press, much of which was still skeptical of coverage for mixed martial arts.

"There is plenty of room for both sports," Ratner said. "To me, it's like soccer and rugby. They are different sports. But you can love them both equally."

Mixed martial arts has been approved in 32 states, Ratner said, and he is working on getting it approved for four or five more, including New York and Massachusetts.

"The growth of mixed martial arts has been great," he said, "but the growth has not been at boxing's expense. There's plenty of boxing going on. Boxing had a fabulous year. It just proves that if you put the fighters together who the public wants to see, there is a vast audience."

The growth of mixed martial arts has been great but the growth has not been at boxing's expense. There's plenty of boxing going on. Boxing had a fabulous year. It just proves that if you put the fighters together who the public wants to see, there is a vast audience.

-- Marc Ratner, on the positive aspects of boxing

UFC cards typically sell out or have near sellouts. A Dec. 29 card at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas had a sellout crowd of 12,000 and a live of gate of $5 million.

But major boxing promoters say that the UFC -- by far the biggest and most successful of the mixed martial arts promoters -- hasn't impacted boxing that much.

"Boxing was impacted by MMA in one group and one group alone -- the young, male, Caucasian demographic," said Bob Arum, chairman of Top Rank. "They tended to go away from boxing and to mixed martial arts."

That was largely because, Arum said, the young white males looked at most of the UFC fighters and saw themselves.

"Boxing kept the older white males, the Hispanics and African-Americans," Arum said.

The veteran founder of Top Rank said boxing is now putting on more competitive fights because the public insists on it.

"Appearance fights would not sell on pay-per-view," Arum said.

The king of "appearance" fights, of course, was Roy Jones, who defeated Trinidad by unanimous decision on Saturday.

Arum said in order to have great pay-per-view sales, promoters have to offer more competitive fights.

"The record-setting financial success of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-De La Hoya fight in 2006 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas opened the eyes of promoters, managers and fighters to what a great boxing matchup could do," Arum said. "The tremendously successful Mayweather-De La Hoya fight was the catalyst that made boxing people realize that a lot of money could be made from matchups of the best and most marketable fighters."

He also added, "In my opinion, it had nothing to do with any perceived competition from mixed martial arts."

Promoter Don King also denied that MMA had influenced boxing to adapt.

"No," he said, "by no stretch of the imagination. Absolutely, categorically no."

King, in his best oratorical fashion, spoke of boxing's rich history back to the days of the "gladiators" but also praised the accomplishments of the UFC ownership.

"I marvel at what the Fertitta brothers and Dana White have done for doing the marketing in bringing it back from being castigated to being accepted. But certainly in no way has boxing adapted to them," King said.

The flamboyant promoter said the UFC captured the young fan base and had a definite "surge."

To the surprise of some, King said, "Certainly, I would promote MMA, but I would do it from a different perspective."

Eric Gomez, the matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, says he hears the same stories about MMA overtaking boxing.

Not so, he says.

"We had a record-setting year," Gomez said. "We can't buy [the MMA threat theory]. Boxing has so much more history."

Boxing is much more stable, Gomez said, and has an amateur base that MMA lacks.

"Boxing is not making a comeback, it's always been there," he said. "That's what we want. If the best fighters fight, the fans will come out."

Royce Feour was the boxing writer for 37 years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.