MMA-Boxing Popularity Stakes: 2 July 2011, the Turning Point?

Luke TaylorCorrespondent IIJuly 20, 2011

Klitschko and Haye failed to Deliver, where UFC 132 did
Klitschko and Haye failed to Deliver, where UFC 132 didScott Heavey/Getty Images

Every dynasty has its day. Now, even the world of sport fighting may have been influenced by the winds of change.

For years, boxing has been the dominant sport—to such a huge degree that any other form of fighting was barely even televised. Kickboxing, taekwondo, professional wrestling (not the entertainment kind) and Mixed Martial Arts weren’t even given a look-in.

Then, on 2 July 2011, the world of boxing seemingly handed over the reins to the UFC.  

The night in question was a fight fan's dream.

First, the IBF, IBO, WBO and WBA heavyweight titles were on the line in a title unification bout between David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko.

Shortly after its conclusion was the start of UFC 132, with five exciting fights on the card, including a contest for the UFC bantamweight title.

Both promised fireworks, but only one delivered.

The damp squib that proceeded for 12 rounds in Germany was appropriate considering the torrential rain fans were subjected to in Hamburg; the lacklustre fight came to an obvious conclusion with barely a meaningful punch thrown in anger.

In stark contrast, the bright lights and glitz of Las Vegas couldn’t have been a more suitable home for the entertainment offered by the Ultimate Fighting Championships, just a couple of hours after the Klitschko brother's boxing dominance was confirmed and David Haye’s broken toe was broadcast to the world.

UFC 132 was one of its greatest events, beginning with four preliminary fights (broadcast on Facebook) of which two were televised, due to time left on the show’s broadcast. Another two preliminary bouts were televised before the main card, too; both ended in a brutal knockout within the first round.

This was followed by a main card which delivered five stirring bouts: a knockout via a flying knee, a guillotine-choke submission, an exciting decision victory and a twenty-second knockout were all on show in the first four.

The show’s swansong—the main event with the UFC Bantamweight Championship on the line—offered up a fantastic 25-minute display of Mixed Martial Arts at its finest, arguably eclipsing anything fans have seen in the combined 103-fight history of the Klitschko brothers.

The card easily surpassed anything the boxing world had to offer in recent years, save perhaps the odd moment of genius from Floyd Mayweather, Jr., or Manny Pacquiao. This is becoming an issue—nearly every UFC card proves to be worth the money, while boxing often fails to deliver.

What’s more is that the UFC delivers a good fight card at least once a month; it is almost unheard of for one of those cards to go without a big knockout, submission or slug fest for the fans.

Boxing, meanwhile, has struggled to recapture the excitement fans felt when Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis fought.

Its heavyweight division was briefly revitalised by the speed, power and talk of David Haye, who, love him or loathe him, gave something different to a division that has too often seen round after round of tall Eastern Europeans pawing an opponents face on the way to a decision victory.

Haye’s defeat, and subsequent complaints about a broken toe’s impact on his punching ability, left the world unimpressed; heavyweight boxing returned to its original semblance as a two-man show.

After the fight, the common fan reaction was to criticise both fighters for their tedious showing, openly express regret over their pay-per-view purchase, head to the fridge for another beer and offer suggestions as to what Mike Tyson would have been capable of doing to today’s heavyweight division in its entirety.

This is not to say that the UFC comes without its problems, though.

Foul language and trash-talking is commonplace. Top talents are sometimes caught using performance-enhancing drugs. Serious injuries, such as broken orbital bones, are regular occurrences. Blood is a common sight and talent occasionally experiences legal troubles outside the UFC.

Furthermore, the fact that some MMA fights take place inside a cage, something which distinguishes the sport from others, means that companies fall victim to the ill-informed, who are happy to band around the notion of cage-fighting: an age-old barbaric “sport” which bears little resemblance to today’s well-marshalled MMA global promotions.

These are obstacles which the sport must overcome if it wants to surpass the popularity of boxing. However, the sport itself is rising fast and has big names from all over the globe capable of drawing a crowd.

In contrast, boxing’s biggest names are becoming less of a draw every time they fight, and the most marketable names are approaching the twilight of their careers, with some of them seemingly intent on ducking the most marketable fight in recent history to preserve their own records.

As a result, its popularity has hit a slump—and it is not easy to overcome such deep-rooted problems in any sport.

The huge emphasis that is put on boxing’s “Heavyweight Champion of the World” does not exist in the world of MMA, which has helped its growth, as each weight class is given a similar standing. As a result, fans will just as happily clamour to watch the lightweight and featherweight fighters as they will the heavyweights.

Wladimir’s victory, coupled with the promise that he would never fight his brother Vitali, was little more than a death-knell for the world of heavyweight boxing. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest another weight class is capable of stepping up to fill the void it will leave.

The problems currently experienced by boxing are not just the fault of the dominant Eastern Europeans; they cannot help their talents. However, the regrettable situation that has arisen from their obvious supremacy has opened wounds so deep that only an unbeaten American, a combative Filipino and an imminent showdown will help repair the damage.

Fans may now find it difficult to be interested in the heavyweight division and, short of Mayweather-Pacquiao, most fans will accept that there is not much to look forward to either. The UFC doesn’t have that problem.

MMA will continue to draw as excitement is not confined to a couple of weight classes. Fighters don’t duck fights to preserve records and the draw of a highlight-reel finish is enough for some fans.

As for the broken toe, two large Ukrainians, empty promises of knockouts and countless jabs, boxing better hope that flying knees and 25-minute thrillers are kept to a minimum or they might soon find themselves watching the UFC’s juggernaut pass them by.

Mixed Martial Arts is not the biggest sport today, but there is little doubt that boxing is slowly losing its credibility—and right now, it doesn’t have a solution.

If MMA does surpass boxing in the next few years, the 2nd July 2011 will be looked back on as the turning point.