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Why MMA Is Becoming More Appealing Than Boxing, Purely from a Fan Perspective

Jonathan ShragerCorrespondent IJune 14, 2011

Why MMA Is Becoming More Appealing Than Boxing, Purely from a Fan Perspective

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    Like many fight fans, I fell in love with boxing fan from an early age, and became progressively intrigued by the scintillating lure of arguably the purest sport on earth, which involved two men enclosed in a ring vis-à-vis, with a view to ultimately disconnecting his adversary from consciousness, thereby determining the better individual combatant. Isn’t this, after all, the very essence of all sport, the veritable embodiment of competition?

    Then along came MMA and the UFC, which assured us that this is “as real as it gets”. Inspired by “Vale Tudo” tournaments in Brazil, the UFC and the sport of MMA have roots in the ancient Olympic combat sport of Pankration in 648 BC”. Indeed, the UFC showcased fighters of multiple disciplines in order to identify the most effective martial art in a real fight. Could anyone dispute that this was the purest form of existing combat, replicating true-to-life NHB combat scenarios? (ok, aside from the fact that most belligerent men in bars don’t wear spandex nuthuggers).

    I believe that my route into MMA fandom is a rather conventional one, paralleled by a vast number of my contemporaries that pertain to the “MMA Community”. Of course there are those for whom boxing and MMA will forever prove mutually exclusive, to be adjudged in isolation, with those people liable to perceive my endeavour to compare and contrast the sports as sacrilege.

    It is generally anti-MMA boxing fans that express such a grievance since this cohort invariably constitutes combat sports’ version of a “snob”, whist conversely MMA fans tend to simultaneously display an admiration for its pugilistic predecessor. This is neatly epitomised by spearheads of both sports, Bob Arum, Bert Sugar, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta. Bob and Bert openly confess their distaste for the sport of MMA (though they harbour a respect for the majestic marketing of the UFC), whilst Dana and Lorenzo are self-professed boxing enthusiasts (Dana in fact instructed boxing before encountering MMA) who believe that both sports may coexist harmoniously.

    For others boxing and MMA may be inextricably linked, falling under the bracket of “combat sports”. Many, like myself, will have been introduced to/encountered one sport through the other, having been enticed into MMA as a natural progression to an initial appreciation of boxing or vice-versa.

              I would now like to return to the initial title and enumerate the multiple elements which have contributed to cultivating a sport in MMA that in my humble opinion is better to, and for, the fans than boxing. And, just to qualify this assertion, I am not contesting which sport is better per se (as this is wholly/holy subjective), nor am I arguing which sport is more popular (After all, the 16,412 fans that packed Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena for Pacquiao vs Mosley is nearly 1,600 more enthusiasts than the UFC has ever drawn to the same venue), but rather which is better to and for the fans, hence purely from an objective fan perspective.

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1. More Diverse and Dynamic Action for the Spectators to Enjoy and Evaluate

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    It is undisputable that “the sweet science” remains the combat sport of choice for the purists, and boxing’s “beautiful brutality” (an oxymoron frequently attached when describing the noble art of pugilism) will forever be upheld by traditionalists as the superior art form. The boxing/MMA dichotomy is liable to continue, with boxing exponents contending that their sport represents the noble art versus the instant gratification afforded by MMA for the younger ADHD generation.

    However, as confirmed previously, the discussion herein is not which sport is better, but rather which offers more to the fans. It proves difficult to refute the truism that boxing is comparatively one-dimensional as a spectator sport. A boxing match may be decided by a mere handful of manoeuvres. Conversely, MMA is a self-proclaimed multi-faceted activity in which fights may be concluded in a veritable myriad of fashions. This always leaves an element of uncertainty/surprise as to the prospective denouement of any fight. Elite competitors must endeavour to become a master of all trades (it no longer suffices to merely be a Jack of all trades or a master of one). My intention here is not to decry boxing, but instead to underscore the diversity of MMA. After all, it is precisely this versatility which relentlessly draws us to the sport and provides innumerable subsequent talking points.

2. Generally More Accessible and Affable Frontmen

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    By rendering themselves readily available to all media sources, the UFC fighters and brass alike have become a PR/media dream, serving to dispel the bulk of pre-jaundiced misconceptions previously harboured by the mainstream towards these purported “human cock-fighters” (as John McCain would have us believe).

    Indeed, you will be hard pushed to identify another global sport in which followers are permitted such an insight into its competing personalities. This is best epitomised by Dana, the frontman of the entire operation, who proactively and consciously represents the sport at all available junctures. Dana constantly uploads video blogs which chronicle his quotidian activities, particularly leading up to and during major events. When was the last time Don King, or Oscar de la Hoya granted the fans such backstage access into their dealings?

    Whilst polarising opinion amongst certain fans, fighters and media men, the preponderance would confess an admiration for the likable CEO. Whilst cynics might detect ulterior motives, he generally appears to look out for the best interests of the fighters and the sport as a whole. I shall conclude this point with the “humble” opinion of Sean McCorkle, “To all of you that ask me what Dana is like, he's pretty much exactly like you see him on his video logs. Definitely the coolest and most down to earth dude worth a couple hundred million bucks you'll ever meet”.

3. Generally More Accessible and Affable Fighters

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    Ariel Helwani, in one of the rare occasions that the high-profile MMA interviewer becomes the interviewee, revealed that it was the unparalleled accessibility and affability of professional MMA fighters which initially endeared him to the sport, especially in relation to the difficulty of gaining access to elite level pro-wrestlers. He fondly recalls contacting luminaries such as Chuck Liddell through MySpace.

    And it is not purely the possibilities of reaching the MMA superstars, but how receptive they are to being questioned and divulging information compared to their combat-sport counterparts; “I can’t say enough about how accessible and humble the fighters were to me”.

    As with Dana, the fighters themselves have seamlessly embraced social media, underlining the pioneering mindset of the company. Dana White even urged his employees to do so at the Annual Fighter Summits, incentivising positive appropriation of social networks and ensuring the fighters that this kind of interaction with the fans is the prime mode of building a brand that endures beyond the limited lifespan of an MMA career.

    By permitting the general public glimpses of their psyche, existence and daily routine through online mediums such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube video blogs, the fighters are thereby willingly breaking down previously-existing barriers between themselves and the fans. In fact, fans were granted the opportunity to chat with their favorite fighters throughout Memorial Day weekend by dialing them up on their Boost Mobile Fan Phones, an example of UFC transcending the call of duty to become accessible to fans.

    Subsequently, fighters appear infinitely more real, genuine, and appreciative through their virtual connection with the populace. This intimate connection with the fans is only likely to intensify as MMA continually permeates the mainstream (Randy Couture’s and Quinton Jackson’s film roles, plus JBJ’s/Brock Lesnar’s appearances on Leno/Fallon respectively illustrate that this process is very much underway).

4. More Vibrant Fanbase and Figureheads

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    Boxing is in dire need of rejuvenation (literally), as the sport begins to appear comparatively antiquated, especially when juxtaposed with the vibrancy of an organisation like the UFC. This is even reflected in the demographic of both sports’ fan bases, with MMA’s principal target audience (as frequently pinpointed by CEO Dana White) being the much-vaunted 18-35 year old male bracket, whilst boxing supporters seem to be growing old with the sport. It is logical that such a longstanding sport will appeal more greatly to the older generations, but what does it infer when the notion of quintessential boxing characters conjures up images of such anachronisms as the iconic Bert Sugar and the outspoken Bob Arum?

    Similarly, there is also a significant age chasm between those that spearhead their respective sports, with Arum more archaic than endearing, and finally acknowledging that his approach must be more forward-thinking. To a certain extent, such promoters have been impeding the progress of the sweet science.

    Also worth mentioning at this juncture is the quantity and quality of online material at the disposal of the internet browser which also distinguishes MMA, courtesy of the willingness of those connected to the sport to share information, yet another indication of MMA’s somewhat younger, more internet savvy audience.

5. More Dynamic Format

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    The recently-concocted “Prize Fighter” tournaments and the Super Six competition are certainly steps in the right direction for boxing. It is revealing that boxing now appears to be emulating successful and popular formats that originally underpinned the sport of MMA, in particular the Prize Fighter one-night knockout tournament structure. The deployment of ring-girls at weigh-ins is also a recent phenomenon in boxing, seemingly adapted from its mixed martial arts descendant. For some, such introductions, however subtle, will indicate a changing of the guard within the realm of combat sports.

6. More Exhilirating Live Shows

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    Having attended several top-level boxing and MMA events live, the experience tends to befit this age-related discrepancy. An MMA event is the more enthralling spectacle. The entire boxing experience can be comparatively underwhelming. Irrespective of the actual sport itself, boxing needs to take heed of pro-wrestling and MMA with respect to engendering that much-publicised “customer experience” (a mainstay of all marketing communications textbooks).

    Essentially, the “Atmospherics” (in case you’re interested, marketing guru Philip Kotler, Marketing’s Dana White if you will, expounded upon the importance of “Atmospherics” back in 1985) must be rendered more electrifying; prime examples would be the employment of lighting, live theatricals, big-screen visuals including hype montages, and music at a UFC event, which all serve to intensify pre-bout anticipation, meticulously and diligently conceived to maximise the experiential pleasure for those in attendance. Attending a UFC is memorable, a deliberate ploy by Dana et al to beget that sought-after “buzz”, capturing an overtly theatrical element that undoubtedly enhances the soiree.

    The aforementioned respect harboured by promoters such as Arum towards to superior marketing and production levels of the UFC recently manifested itself in the recent Pacquiao-Mosley event, for which Arum himself admitted being directly influenced by the UFC. Finally, Arum’s promotion is looking to evolve and emulate avant-garde sports such as MMA, insisting that the Top Rank Boxing executive Todd duBoef enhanced the event with improved lighting, "Baba O'Riley"-esque video montages, live DJs, live musicians accompanying the boxers during their walkouts, and cylindrical video boards inspired by U2's historic 360° tour.

    Prior to this, it tended to be promotions within Europe that endeavoured to enhance the dramaturgy of a boxing occasion. On primetime nights in Germany, globally-recognised live rock bands have performed to lend that extra “je ne sais quoi” to the proceedings. Nevertheless, it has generally been the boxers, rather than the promotions themselves, that have been known to tap into such thespianism. However, since the days of Prince Nas, boxing has been largely devoid of any theatricals. Mayweather certainly harnessed the limelight through various means (being carried to the ring in a Sedan chair, being accompanied to the ring by a rapping 50Cent), but these showmen are aberrations within boxing and cannot carry a sport by themselves.

    It really isn’t rocket science. It is merely attending to the fundamentals. This was amplified by UFC 129, hosting its first stadium event in front of an enormous 55,000 plus in Canada, more reminiscent of the figures posted by erstwhile Pride events). It is verisimilar that this will act as a precursor for future spectacles on the level of a Superbowl/WWE Wrestlemania which customarily attract upwards of 90,000 people).

7. A Better All-Round Fan Experience

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    The UFC is a branding juggernaut and well-oiled PR machine, and through their superior branding, the organisation has further ingratiated itself to both existing and prospective fans. Whilst the Fan Expos cater to existing fans, the newly-developed Octagon Nation Tour will attract new MMA fans by visiting music and extreme sport festivals, thereby targeting congruent demographics.

    By holding regular Fan Expos, the UFC also opens up the organisation/the sport to the public domain, with fighters participating in candid Question&Answer sessions, and delivering seminars on specific facets of the sport. Fan Expos are the prime paradigms of events which both educate and entertain the fans. This, to the best of my knowledge, is virtually unheard of in boxing, if not completely uncharted territory. UFC’s monopoly on MMA undoubtedly facilitates the provision of such events, whilst contrariwise boxing’s absence of a single hegemonic entity acts as an obstacle. It also seems feasible that MMA neophytes can receive instruction from their sporting icons at their personal gyms. The cumulative effect leads to a much greater affinity with the fans, who feel that they can associate with the fighters.

    When the UFC is in town, it becomes more of an extended fan-driven festival than an isolated night of fights. Apart from the substantive fights, fans are treated to Fan Expos, seminars, Q&As, pre-fight press conferences, weigh-ins (the UFC even seems to maintain the energy and buzz throughout the entire weigh-ins spectacle, whereas in boxing the music ceases when the fighters hit the scales and the fans begin to leave immediately if the main event fighters hit the scales first), pre-fight parties hosted by fighters, Joe Rogan stand-up sets, post-fight pressers and fighter after parties. Online we can see Dana Vlogs, fighter Vlogs, Ariel interviews. All of the above serves to beget a buzz that is sadly lacking in boxing. The UFCs presence is palpably felt, and no more so than in Toronto for UFC 129 when Tom Wright oversaw the enactment of operation “Takeover Toronto”, with the pre-event shenanigans commencing an unprecedented 8 days prior to the fights. The UFC take things to the proverbial next level.

8. A Better Branded Product

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    Apart from this, the UFC’s monopoly enables a focus on CSR opportunities (its “Fight for the Troops” reinforces the munificence of the organisation.) and various unique branding coups. It is conceivable that every major metropolis will boast an avant-garde UFC gym complex in the near future. The action figurines, analogous to those mass-produced for pro-wrestling over decades past, also epitomises the UFCs willingness to emulate the theatre of wrestling and exploit a successful branding opportunity (in the same fashion as Dana has incorporated successful operational elements of boxing into the UFC format).

    Aside from the cursory “Rocky” reproductions, boxing has largely failed to replicate such collectibles, probably perceiving it to be an unworthy enterprise. Whilst it may only have a miniscule effect, cumulatively such branding escapades can positively impact upon brand image, and boxing’s neglect of such endeavours may ultimately prove yet another factor that contributes to its diminishing appeal. Even Dana has a statuette dedicated to him (drawing upon the same comparison, do Don King and ODLH boasts figurines? And even if they did, would anyone purchase them?).

     

9. The Best Fights Possible Are Consistently Made

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    Go to 2.15 on the video

    This is the crux of the entire article; leaving aside for a moment all of the peripheral elements of MMA that attribute significantly to our appreciation of the sport (the characters, the events, the diversity, the coverage), our principal motive for viewing are the fights themselves, those 15/25 minutes of action entrapped within an 8-sided cage. We have all lost count of the amount of times Dana has paid lip service to that much-loved phrase “I put on the fights the fans wanna see”, yet true to his word, Dana customarily delivers.

    This may be ascribed to MMA’s uniform, logical and venerated appropriation of boxing’s mandatory challenger/defense concept. Unlike boxing’s rather complicated version of the policy, the UFC champion is obliged to face the number one contender within his weight division (as adjudged by Dana and Joe Silva, though 90% of the time these challengers prove self-explanatory) between 2-3 occasions per annum. Consequently, fights are made according to the current pecking order, rather than on a promoter’s whim.

    The operative word here is “make” fights, as opposed to boxing in which fights are frequently offered/requested. In the UFC, champions remain passive in the process. Shirking fights, an ever-increasing phenomenon in boxing, is virtually unheard of, simply not permitted in the UFC. I will not dwell on the obvious case of Floyd vs Manny but this really serves to typify this unfortunate trend (were they fighting under the same promoter the fight would have likely transpired). Also, it took an eternity to finalise the Haye-Klitchsko bout but thankfully fans will eventually be able to witness this fight materialise. Contrast this with the ease of finalising the makeshift bout betweem JDS and Carwin.

    The above policy guarantees at least 25-30 highly-anticipated title bouts annually, with numerous influential and keenly-awaited no.1 contender battles also ensuing during the course of a year. So, it’s straightforward to comprehend why MMA supplies more regular meaningful bouts than boxing. Irrespective of whether you believe the merger and acquisition to be a positive, this supply of elite fights will only be enhanced by the well-publicised Zuffa takeover of Strikeforce, enabling the arrangement of “superfights” between the champions of both corporations, and ultimately benefiting the fans.

    Other “Superfights”, pitting legends from different weight classes, organisations or eras also become inevitable, an absolute treat for the fans. Suddenly MMA rankings may begin to hold weight, as erstwhile hypothetical fights can be realised. The UFC becomes synonymous with MMA (effectively representing the sport as the NBA represents the zenith of basketball), the playground for the world’s best. Place this adjacent to boxing, which appears comparatively fragmented, governed by too many sanctioning bodies and promoters, and dictated primarily by money rather than entertainment, legacy and the desire to determine the best of the best.

    It appears that boxing has diverged from its original successful blueprint, which evolved throughout the course of the C20th, an operational professional sports format very much inherited by the UFC under Messrs White and Fertitta. Ironically, boxing could now learn a lot from UFC by reverting back to its functional roots (less weight divisions/less belts etc).

    Disconcertingly for boxing, boxing probably only provides between 5-10 eagerly-awaited bouts annually for the casual fan. With the exception of less than a handful of names, certain alleged “must-see” bouts struggle to attract full houses. Recently Bradley vs Alexander took place in front of a sparsely-filled arena. This was a much-hyped bout between two unbeaten fighters, which experts claimed to be one of the most exciting matchups available, yet ultimately it proved another poor advertisement for the sport of boxing.

    Pacquiao still managed to fill to capacity the Dallas Cowboys stadium when fighting an unmatched opponent such as Joshua Clottey which culminated in a decidedly one-sided affair, as have all of Pacquiao’s latest matchups against evidently unworthy adversaries, including his most recent fight against Mosley, which some have argued was the best possible advert for MMA, since yet again a highly-anticipated bout failed miserably to live up to the unwarranted hype.

10. Better Value for Money

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    Tune in circa 6.35 to witness a characteristically understated Dana rebuttal

    As a paying fan, whether on the TV or live, MMA generally offers greater value for money (more bang for your buck, more punch for your pound) than boxing. Cards are more densely-packed with intriguing matchups due to the UFC’s aforementioned policy to constantly ascertain the top combatants, and its superior marketing of talent and fight-hyping capacity which carries all the way down to the undercards. Boxing preliminary cards regularly pit unmatched fighters against each other, and receive comparatively scant exposure. Can you name a recent boxing card that has been uniformly competitive, and replete with widely-recognisable, marquee names? It rarely seems to transpire.

    In addition to comprising more fights per card, generally including higher-profile matchups, the UFC also regularly provide free events on Spike TV, accounting for 4 of the 11 events that have taken place thus far already in 2011. So, it would appear on the surface that boxing is more PPV-centric than MMA.

     

11. Better Depth of Entertainment

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    Tune in circa 6 minutes

    MMA regularly delivers more entertainment than boxing. Of the 11 fights on a UFC card, you can virtually guarantee a breath-taking knockout, an impressive submission, and an exhilarating two-sided fight of the night. For all three, Dana’s bonuses of 70k provide substantial motivation to the participants (over double most fighters’ basic pay) and underscore his insistence on entertainment. Even Top Rank’s Todd duBoef acknowledges the fact; "I think we ended up a little bit with boxing businessmen and annuity fighters. I think that model has to get back to prizefighting. Our sport was called prizefighting, and those guys gave it their all and gave fans a show. That's important to me. That's what you see a lot in the UFC. It's what Dana has ingrained in the fanbase, and it's what they expect the fighter to do."

    The card is sufficiently deep to ensure that even if the main event and co-main events do not live up to their billing, fans will be compensated lower down the proceedings. As a result, fans are not generally left with that frustrating feeling of being short-changed. This was neatly exemplified by UFC 129, which culminated in a drab main event encounter between Canadian favourite GSP and Jake Shields, though this didn't serve to tarnish the resounding success of the overall occasion given the calibre of the preceding fights (in particular the co-main featuring another title bout in Aldo vs Hominick, and Couture vs Machida). Juxtapose this with the Pacquiao vs Mosley co-feature, Jorge Arce vs Wilfredo Vazquez, which also proved to be a scintillating affair yet received a miniscule level of publicity, signifying that it did not serve to temper criticism of the main event. This has lead John Morgan of mmajunkie.com to conclude that “the main-event-only approach of boxing seems to be a risky approach”.

    The other seven Pacquiao vs Mosley prelim fights essentially appeared meaningless to the fans, a fact that was emphatically highlighted when lightweight bout Karl Dargan vs Randy Arrellin kicked off the fight card, and was witnessed by no more than a few dozen family members and friends. It's a stark contrast to the UFC's events in the building. While not always full from the opening bell, the UFC consistently scores at least a few thousand people for the first fight of the night. In newer markets, the venues often are close to capacity for the first preliminary-card bout.

12. Less Disappointments, More Consistency

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    In boxing, I’m beginning to lose count of the amount of occasions on which I have cursed my own decision to forego slumber in order to watch a title fight from America, in which pre-fight coverage encourages ambivalence on behalf of the viewer by conveying two evenly-matched combatants, only to be encountered with an emphatically one-sided affair. It’s very much a 50/50 (if not less favourable) ratio situation, in which some fights delight, whilst others disappoint. Just within the last six months, I can recall numerous supposed title bouts which have proven non-events verging on the farcical, leaving a sour taste in my mouth; Haye-Harrison, Bradley-Alexander, Klitchsko-Solis, Khan-McCloskey to name but a handful, all of which promised so much yet delivered so little. Yet simultaneously, boxing can still produce positively magical moments, as evidenced by DeGale-Groves, Khan-Maidana and Berto-Ortiz.

    The 16th April 2011 perfectly encapsulated boxing’s uncanny capacity to disappoint and delight in the very same evening. No sooner am I cursing the perennial disappointment of boxing (as exemplified by Khan vs McCloskey), I am eulogising the enticing brilliance of Ortiz vs Berto. As Al Pacino might utter, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”.

    MMA is by no means immune to organising underwhelming cards. Just tracing back 18 months, 108 (Evans vs Silva), 115 (Liddell vs Franklin), 122 (Marquardt vs Okami) and even more recently 130 (Rampage vs Hamill) were heavily criticised as cards that did not justify the $50 PPV price. However, such cards are often adversely affected by multiple injuries which inhibit the participation of proposed star names (108 is a case in point, with bouts involving Silva vs Belfort, Lesnar vs Carwin, Nogueira vs Velasquez, Condit vs Daley, Miller vs Griffin and Kampmann vs Markham all cancelled due to injuries sustained by the fighters). It’s testament to the UFC that is still managed to host a respectable card in spite being plagued with such circumstances. And whilst not hotly-anticipated, the events still managed to provide great levels of entertainment throughout the 11 final bouts. Overall, it’s fair to say that MMA delivers more satisfaction/quality on a more regular and consistent basis.

Conclusions

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    The patent conclusion would be that boxing can continue to learn many lessons from MMA, as MMA has done from boxing. The UFC is currently seeking to penetrate all continents, whilst boxing is experiencing certain difficulties during a somewhat tumultuous period. Claims have been made therefrom that MMA is the future, while boxing is in serious danger of stagnating unless it resolves its glaringly obvious issues.

    Alas for me personally, MMA just seems to have more general character, more of that alluring and invaluable “je ne sais quoi” quality. MMA has become an intensely beautiful relationship, boxing a mere fling, consigned to a bit of combat sport on the side if you will, yet for the handful of glorious moments that boxing still awards me on an annual basis, I will always continue to pay the alimony.

    From the perspective of a general combat sports fan, it would be great to witness both sports thriving and burgeoning. And who knows, with more exciting fights coming to fruition in boxing during the rest of 2011 (Haye vs Klitschko, Khan vs Judah, Froch vs Ward, Mayweather vs Ortiz), let’s hope the sport continues in this fruitful vein.

     

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