5 Lessons Boxing Must Learn from UFC to Help Boost Its Popularity
While none of the various boxing promoters and associated television networks went full-steam ahead the way UFC and ESPN did amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the sweet science did continue its 2020 march at a relatively fast pace compared to other sports.
That turned out to be good and bad.
It was bad because with nothing but UFC to compare itself to over recent months, boxing has never seemed so old and obsolete as it does right now.
But since boxing is a sport that's soldiered through fairly consistent proclamations every decade or so that the sport will soon be dead, it's also good that the people who make up the sport have this time to clearly see how much better a job they could be doing.
Just in case they have somehow missed any of that, here are the five most important lessons boxing could learn from UFC President Dana White and company to help boost its popularity.
The single biggest issue in boxing today is probably the one that UFC gets most right.
Heck, if we're being totally honest about it, UFC isn't even the only MMA promotional company that understands this important concept. Rather, it seems inherent to the sport as a whole that competition matters.
In boxing, fighters too often are matched against competitors who don't have any hope of beating them.
That almost never happens in UFC.
For reference, and as someone who has followed the odds for both sports closely over the last few years, oddsmakers tab favorites in boxing at -1000 or higher all the time, even for so-called main events.
Meanwhile, UFC fights are almost always more competitive. Moreover, main events rarely feature such massive favorites.
And why does that matter? Well-matched fights mean there is much more incentive for fans to watch UFC fights than the non-competitive fights in boxing.
Tight TV Packages Sell the Product
One of the things markedly different between ESPN's broadcasts of UFC and boxing is that UFC programming packages are super tight when compared to those for boxing.
That's probably because White has historically been a bit of a control freak when it comes to how things are produced. While some might not agree with everything the face of the company has done over the years, this is one area among many where White has proved his worth.
White knows his product. It's the fights, and not just people sitting around talking about fights, that matter.
By extension, White has made sure that his television partners know that, too. If they don't, he finds partners that do.
So where ESPN might schedule four hours of boxing programming for a Top Rank on ESPN card, the actual time the viewer spends watching fights is minuscule compared to all the action shoved into UFC's same four-hour bracket.
UFC's 3-Pronged Marketing Approach Works
UFC's three-pronged marketing approach is also light-years ahead of anything seen in boxing.
Boxing is a sport and UFC is a promotional company, so the comparison isn't exactly fair. But UFC does so much better marketing than all the various boxing promoters combined that it makes it way faster just to say it this way.
Similar in style to how WWE operates, UFC markets three things at once. It markets the sport, the company and its fighters, and it does so with equal fervor.
Watch any of UFC's promotional assets and three things become crystal clear.
Nobody loves MMA more than UFC's marketing team.
Nobody loves UFC more than UFC's marketing team.
Nobody loves UFC fighters more than UFC's marketing team.
That rising tide would seem to lift all ships.
When I covered UFC 247: Jones vs. Reyes in February for Bleacher Report, what struck me most was that there were thousands of people lined up hours before the doors opened at the Toyota Center in Houston.
I've covered a slew of boxing events over the last 10 years and have never seen anything close to that at any of them.
The most obvious takeaway for me was that UFC fans are fans of all three things: the sport, its top promotional company and the fighters.
The only explanation is how much better UFC has marketed all three things together.
How People Feel About What They See on TV Matters
It's perhaps a tad anecdotal, but I heard White tell somebody in the media room at UFC 247 that one thing he hated about professional boxing was how the people calling fights were constantly criticizing the combatants and how there was no room for that in his company.
Indeed, for whatever reason, it does seem the UFC crew actually enjoy their work, and even the ex-fighters tasked with color commentary on the evening aren't steaming in jealousy because they would much rather be fighting that night.
That positivity transfers to the audience, or at least it seems that way.
In boxing, it's almost like we all just gathered around the TV to watch some people we barely like complain about a sport that we all think could be better but accept that nobody is going to do anything about.
That's not fun. It's an ugly type of negativity that the audience feels, too.
Learning from the Past
Boxing isn't dead, and it's not going to be anytime soon.
But boxing might be some kind of zombie right now, or at least in danger of becoming one.
Look at all the various MMA gyms popping up around our nation's biggest cities. Where boxing used to serve a vital function in our culture, it seems like MMA has slowly taken over that role.
I train at a famous boxing gym in Houston a few times a week and can tell you that today at least 75 percent of the foot traffic headed into that place on any given night comes from people heading into muay thai classes.
The gym recently expanded its offerings to include Brazilan jiu-jitsu.
The most obvious reason why that's happening is that the gym owners want to offer what customers want.
That same thing is happening on our TV sets right now, too. ESPN has invested heavily in UFC and boxing over the last few years.
But it invested tons more into producing UFC content, seems to expect more out of it and almost always gives UFC the premier programming slots.
For too long it seems like boxing's power brokers have ignored these and similar trends.
Not too long ago, people wondered whether MMA would ever become a legitimate sport, especially in the United States.
Today, it's one of the most popular and fastest-growing enterprises in the world.
How did it happen? It's because early MMA leaders, particularly White, didn't have their heads buried in the sand about the state of the sport as a whole.
They knew the stakes were high and were willing to try anything and everything to do things in a better way.
Boxing could use some of that.