On September 14 of this year, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will be taking on rising star Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. It’s a bout that will probably set the record for pay-per-view buys for combative sports in 2013.
While the sport of MMA has usually garnered more total PPV buys in a calendar year than the sport of boxing, the biggest promotion in MMA, the UFC, still has yet to put on a card that eclipses boxing’s biggest shows.
The biggest PPV success the sport of MMA has enjoyed was UFC 100, which attracted anywhere from 1.5 to 1.75 million PPV buys—a number that was shockingly high and proof positive that the UFC had officially arrived as a legitimate contender for the hearts and pocket books of fight fans.
But, UFC 100 didn’t beat the best of boxing’s biggest PPV success, which was Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr., which pulled in a whopping 2.4 to 2.5 million buys back in 2007.
For years, the sport of boxing has outdone the UFC in cards that broke the 1 million mark. In 2012, boxing put up the only cards that truly exceeded the 1 million mark. UFC 148, the rematch between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, pulled in around 925,000 to 1 million views even.
So, why is boxing able to beat MMA when it comes to promoting the biggest cards?
Here are the three main reasons why.
Since the 1920’s, boxing has been pulling in huge crowds, back in the days when radio was the next best thing to being there.
In 1923, Jack Dempsey defeated Luis Angel Firpo via KO in the second round in front of 80,000 people at the Polo Grounds in New York.
This is but one of many examples of boxing pulling in huge crowds.
Another example is when Julio Cesar Chavez gave Greg Haugen a serious beating in front of 130,000 fans in the Aztec Stadium in 1993.
Boxing has long been called “your father’s sport” for good reason. Men like Don King, Bob Arum and many others have been able to promote huge events before the idea of pay-per-view caught on in part because boxing has always been a proven commodity.
It’s a sport that a grandfather can share with his grandson, where both generations can speak the same language.
MMA is very much a new sport trying to entrench itself in the hearts of the current generation and all those going forward, but it is lacking the historical bond with many older fight fans who know boxing and hold it dear as the only true combative sport.
Boxing may be heading for a decline right now, but it is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last.
Boxing fans will always be boxing fans, like countless generations before them, and that is something promoters know they can bank on.
As long as there has been money to be made from two men fighting, there have been promoters who knew how to work all the angles.
Men like Don King and Bob Arum, the two top men in boxing promotion, have long known how to get the big names and build their rise and reign into solid gold.
Instead, they slowly build up a fighter, allowing fans to watch their rise and, in turn, allowing fighters to develop a massive fanbase. The boxers and their promoters might not always agree, but they keep their differences quiet for the most part, coming out to the media as a united front, in full support of the fighter.
When a big name fighter suffers a loss, he still enjoys the full weight of the promotional machine for his next few tune-up fights, reestablishing his name and appeal to the masses. Fans love a winner, and those comeback fights provide the victories needed to achieve that end.
Boxing promoters know that building big fights mean catering to the big names; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
One of the great things about the UFC is the fans get to see the fights that matter, but a fighter lives and dies by their last performance. As Dana White has said many times, there are no easy fights in the UFC.
In addition, King and Arum know how to build an event by pulling all of these aspects together and their influence and connections have long attracted some of the biggest names in the sport.
It’s a partnership that has seen some of the most lucrative events made into reality: if anyone thinks “The Rumble in the Jungle” was as simple as calling up the powers that be in Zaire and pitching the angle of bringing money into their country, they are sadly mistaken.
It takes guile, connections, salesmanship, daring and experience to be a great boxing promoter, and men like King and Arum have it.
Now, King seems to be making a quiet exit from the sport, leaving Arum as the top name in promotion, with Golden Boy not far behind.
Thus far, the sport of MMA has yet to find a true media darling that can flash a smile or use his gift for gab to impassion (or inflame) the hearts of millions.
Boxing has had so many of these rare species of men that one would think there is an instruction manual somewhere.
Men like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather have been such massive stars that they attract the minds and money of fans who don’t normally watch boxing.
They have that mythical “it” quality that MMA has yet to mine.
Chael Sonnen has the gift of gab, but he’s never won a UFC title.
Anderson Silva is beautiful to watch, but he doesn’t seem passionate about what he’s doing unless he’s fighting in Brazil.
Georges St-Pierre is a beloved figure in Canada, but in America he has yet to really break out as a superstar, possibly because he sounds somewhat robotic and uninspired when he speaks to the press.
Jon Jones is an incredible fighter who is still very young and fighting in the prime of his career, but many see him as an actor trying to find the right role.
In fact, most MMA fighters of note seem to take their sport (and the possibility of losing in the big fights) so seriously that they keep their optimism and personality under lock-and-key. They do their talking in the cage, where it matters most.
While this is exactly as it should be, they have no other means by which to attract the masses.
Boxing has never seemed to have this problem, although it could be a situation they soon have to contend with. Mayweather and Pacquiao are at the tail end of their careers; after they retire, who fills the void?
Of course, with the sport of MMA finding its way onto cable television, things may indeed change.
As more and more fight fans are exposed to the sport, quiet men like Cain Velasquez will gather more and more fans.
Boxing was first built on live performances, then radio and then free television. MMA has a similar track record. First is was the live crowds, then the internet, then PPV and now onto free (somewhat) television.
In ten years from now, if things continue to progress as they are now, MMA will indeed find their superstars and it will be a watershed moment for the sport.
But they will still need to promote said fighters as the stars of the show, instead of the event itself. In the end, such promotions like the UFC are really only venues where fighters display their skills. If a superstar emerges, he or she will only transcend the limitations of their predecessors by living out their dreams and by proxy seeming larger than life.
And no one looks larger than life when they are treated like just another employee, expected to say: “How high?” when Dana White says: “Jump.”
If they can’t get that kind of treatment in the UFC, then they will be more than happy to look elsewhere when the time comes.