The biggest stars in the sport of boxing loom large only at the box office. Floyd Mayweather Junior is a tiny man. Paired with the WWE's Big Show at WrestleMania a few years ago, he looked like somebody's kid brother, like Booker T had lost track of his oldest son, who proceeded to sneak down into the ring.
Manny Pacquiao is almost three inches shorter than the average American male. He weighs nearly fifty pounds less than a typical American man, a shocking 19 pounds less the typical American woman. Yet, fans don't seem to hold his munchin-esque size against him, worshiping him like a deity in his home country and paying millions to watch him fight here.
Boxing is a little man's sport. But the same trend hasn't taken hold in the world of mixed martial arts. Smaller fighters have traditionally been a bust in the Octagon, with only B.J. Penn and Urijah Faber standing out in the UFC's 18-year history.
Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson, despite fighting for a UFC title, will not headline UFC 152. They aren't even in the second biggest fight of the night. The perception is that the UFC simply can't sell the public on 125-pound men.
Why aren't they buying into the smaller weight classes? In boxing, fans have embraced diminutive fighters, making Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao kings of their sport. UFC fans have had the same opportunity with Edgar, but have made the choice to save their bucks for scraps with bigger men, and presumably in their minds, bigger stakes.
I'm not sure why that is. It seems there is a divide between how fans view their respective sports. In boxing, fans identify with artistry. When you order a big boxing show, you expect to settle in for a night of action. The story inside the ring builds as the night goes on, with commentators like HBO's Jim Lampley doing their best to make even the most boring fight seem like a Homerian epic.
In mixed martial arts, fans have been trained to expect the opposite. The violence is quick, arriving like a bolt of lightning and evaporating just as quickly. As a kid, I remember how furious my dad's friends were when Mike Tyson's fight with Michael Spinks ended so quickly. They wanted more than a brutal knockout. In MMA, the quick KO will suffice for most fans, thank you very much.
Recent research by the essential folks at Fight Metric and Fightnomics shows that facts back up my theory that fans want, and will pay for, fight-ending violence. The bigger guys, the ones that move pay per views and ratings, are also statistically better finishers:
The conclusion: Size matters. Stoppages increase steadily by weight class; but while striking finish rates correlate strongly with increasing weight, submissions have a weaker, negative correlation. Keep in mind that bantamweights and featherweights have a short history in the UFC so far, so expect some possible smoothing out of those division trends over the next year.
Big men equal big knockouts. And that, it seems, more than any other factor, establishes the light heavyweight and heavyweight classes at the top of the UFC pecking order. It doesn't just seem like the big boys provide that satisfying jolt of pure violence, that "V" we all crave as MMA fans—they actually do and the numbers back it up.