9 Things MMA Can Do Right Now to Replace Boxing as No. 1 Combat Sport
There are a lot of combat sports in the world. There is wrestling, kickboxing, kung fu (wushu), open submissions grappling, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Sambo and many more.
The two most popular combat sports are mixed martial arts and boxing. None of the rest come anywhere close.
Which of these two is the most popular combat sport in the world? Sorry to disappoint the MMA faithful, but the answer is still the same as it was 20 years ago. Boxing is still the biggest combat sport in the world today.
It just so happens that I'm a fan of both sports. I'm not going to tell you that boxing is stupid, dead or that it is destined to cease to exist within the next ten years.
Despite my love for both sports, I do think it's inevitable that MMA will surpass boxing. It will become the the biggest, most popular combat sport in the world. It's really only a matter of time.
Here are a number of things that the MMA can do to speed up the process.
1.) Hold Events in Bigger Stadiums and Go Everywhere in the World
To go one-up on boxing, take a page out of their own history books. Put on events in bigger stadiums and book events all over the world.
In 1978 Muhammad Ali fought Leon Spinks in at the Louisiana Superdome in front of a crowd of 63,315 boxing fans.
On Feb 20, 1993 in Mexico City, 136,274 spectators filled Estadio Azteca to watch a then unbeaten Julio César Chávez fight Greg Haugen.
In 2010, a crowd of 50,994 turned out for the first boxing match at the Cowboys Stadium to watch Manny Pacquiao battle Joshua Clottey.
Booking events in front of huge crowds has been good for the sport of boxing. It showcases how big the sport is and acts as visible proof of their sport's enormous popularity. To be perfectly frank, I don't think boxing does enough of it.
As for mixed martial arts, the flagship promotion of mixed martial arts, the UFC, has tended to be much more conservative. The majority of events happen in front of relatively small crowds in relatively small arenas. The vast majority of your really big fight cards happen in front of fairly small crowds in Las Vegas casinos.
The UFC is the one promotion in existence that could realistically fill the world's largest stadiums. So why don't they? It's really just a matter of making it a priority.
The UFC is going to more and more places. This year, the UFC has already booked events in the USA, Canada, Brazil, Japan and Australia. They are also planning to go to China and the United Kingdom in 2012.
The problem is that they habitually target the same relatively small arenas.
Make it a goal to one day to one day sell out Wembley Stadium in the UK, Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia, Estádio do Maracanã in Brazil, Guangdong Olympic Stadium in China and Croke Park in Ireland. If you can't fill those arenas yet, work up to it.
In the USA you can probably book an event in Cowboys Stadium without too much trouble. You just need a card that is compelling enough to sell every seat in the house. And the UFC would do well to target MetLife Stadium (New Meadowlands) in New Jersey. If you can fill the home of the New York Jets and New York Giants, I think it it offers strong encouragement for New York to finally legalize MMA.
Currently, the UFC has one rivalry they can do really big things with. A rivalry that looks a lot like the Julio César Chávez vs Greg Haugen feud -- the same one that blew away all records for boxing ticket sales. The UFC needs to book Chael Sonnen vs Anderson Silva II in Brazil. If they do, they should have no problem selling out the 95,000 seat Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro or any one of Brazil's other mega-stadiums.
2.) Create Local UFC Champions in Nations and Regions World-Wide
Mixed martial arts already exists in every nation in the world to some extent.
The trouble is that the small-time promotions almost inevitably struggle, go broke and die. Other promotions are created to fill the void but most of them eventually meet the same fate.
In the meantime, the premier league of MMA—the UFC—is not broadly established anywhere but in the USA.
Having the UFC traveling the world and showing up every couple of years like the Ringling Bros. Circus just isn't good enough. The other nations of the world need to have an actual piece of the UFC for their own.
What the UFC needs to do is create regional UFC organizations complete with their own local champions.
The UFC is already popular enough to do the following right now:
1.) The UFC UK & Ireland
2.) UFC Canada
3.) UFC Brazil
4.) UFC Australia
5.) UFC Japan
6.) UFC China (probably)
7.) UFC Korea (probably)
That's where you start. From there, try to create other mini-UFC's for broad groupings of nations. UFC Latin America or UFC Europe, for instance.
You would still have your world champions, of course. You still have world-wide events. The original UFC would continue to function much the same as it does today
Through having UFC organizations of their own, complete with national champions, other nations will truly feel like they are a part the UFC. Better yet, you can have 20 UFC events per year in each of those countries instead of only one or two.
Mini-UFC organizations should be run nationally, by people from within each member nation. The greater UFC can offer advice but the citizens know their local culture, laws and customs better than anyone. They are the best qualified to grow the UFC in their own country.
The UFC Needs to Bring Back the Tournaments!
Combat sports and tournaments have always been interlinked. From unsanctioned and underground no-rules competitions to the Olympics, the best way to crown champions is by having a tournament and crowning the last man standing as champion.
In the Olympics, they don't just take the four highest ranked boxers from each weight class and let them fight it out for gold, silver and bronze. Every fighter from every nation must have an equal chance to prove themselves.
The same system is used for Olympic judo and wrestling. Everyone has an equal chance to prove themselves worthy of competing in the Olympics. Once you're in the Olympics, just beat all the rest of the best in the world to win the gold medal.
The UFC was originally built on the tournament format. The appeal for tournaments hasn't really diminished over time either. Pride FC was incredibly successful with their Grand Prix tournaments. Pride would be alive and well today had it not been for Yakusa mob connections. Lack of popularity had nothing to do with Pride FC's demise.
Today, Bellator Fighting Championships is a very young organization, yet their rapid success has surpassed all expectations. The key to their popularity is the fact that they are built around tournaments.
Bellator has become very popular with fans and fighters alike; they can thank their use of tournaments.
There is just one big problem: Dana White dislikes tournaments.
In the end, it may not matter what Dana White likes or doesn't like. If he wants to create a truly international business model for the UFC (see the previous slide), he might not have any choice in the matter.
If you build mini-UFC's all over the world, complete with national champions, then you need to give all those champions an equal shot at capturing the world championship title. If you handpick the UK champion, then fans and fighters from the rest of the world are going to feel cheated.
Another thing worth considering is the condition of two sports that do not use a playoff or tournament system, FBS college football and boxing. Both sports are a complete mess as a result.
Dana White and Joe Silva generally do a first rate job of matching the best fighters in the world against one another, but they won't live forever. When greedy and corrupt power brokers like Bob Arum, Don King and the BCS start pulling the strings, MMA will be headed for disater.
Tournaments are the perfect cure for many ills, both present and future. Boxing, college football and other screwed up sports would go a long way toward restoring the faith and good will of their fans if they instituted a permanent, structured tournament format.
Tournaments aren't easily corrupted and they don't play favorites. The concept is also very appealing: The best fighters in the world fight in single elimination combat and the last man standing takes all.
Having a tournament-based system also legitimizes UFC world champions. If every fighter in the world has an equal chance at the next title shot, nobody can say that the UFC is playing favorites or that a particular champion is only a paper champion.
UFC champions are already vastly more legitimate than boxing world champions. Building the UFC around tournaments would increase that legitimacy and ensure that it endures indefinitely.
Maximum MMA on Free TV!
Today, boxing is largely an old man's sport. The sport's most devoted fans are old enough to remember the golden age when "The Fight of the Century," "The Rumble in the Jungle," and "The Thrilla in Manila" showcased epic battles between the most popular superstars in boxing history, Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
For years, you could watch the biggest fights for free on TV.
During the golden age of boxing an entirely new concept was introduced to sports fans: The pay per view. The first boxing pay per view event, dubbed "The Thrilla in Manila," showcased the third and final fight between Frazier and Ali in 1975.
Since then, we've seen an interesting trend. Greedy promoters have pushed more and more of the best boxing content into the pay per view and premium cable subscription world. Boxing has slowly but surely disappeared from major broadcast networks and non-premium cable channels. At the same time, the widespread visibility and popularity of boxing has been gradually decreasing.
There are still enough aging fans who remember the golden age of boxing to keep boxing alive and prosperous for now. But if boxing cannot find a way to attract newer younger fans, their sport is doomed to decline significantly when that older generation of fans starts dying off.
The history of mixed martial arts is a bit strange if you think about it. It looks like the history boxing in reverse. In the earliest days, the UFC and other MMA content was viewed as too brutal and too violent to be allowed on regular TV, so pay per view was the only option. Over time, MMA has gradually work its way into non-pay per view television.
Pride FC was the first to put MMA on a major television station, with Pride FC events appearing regularly on Fuji TV (comparable to FOX, CBS, NBC or ABC in the United States.) That relationship lasted from 1997 to 2006. Unfortunately, Dream Stage Entertainment the parent company of Pride was suspected to have ties to the Yakuza mob orgainzation. As the reality of mob ties became more and more obvious, Fuji TV ceased all Pride FC broadcasts indefinitely, citing contract violation by DSE.
It is worth pointing out that it was not lack of popularity of MMA that killed Pride FC. It was the scandal.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, after years of struggling to survive, UFC broke out of the deep dark basement of fringe sport status and into the mainstream with their successful first season of The Ultimate Fighter. It didn't take long for other US based MMA promotions to follow suit.
Since The Ultimate Fighter 1, more and more of mixed martial arts has made its way to non-premium national television. Additional seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, UFC Unleashed, Ultimate Fight Night in Spike TV, Elite XC on CBS, Strikeforce on CBS, The Best of Pride on Spike TV, Bellator on MTV2 and most significantly The UFC of FOX.
If there is one thing that mixed martial arts promotions can learn from the history of professional boxing, it is this: Keep your sport as visible as possible.
With the recent purchase of Bellator by Viacom, Bellator is set to replace the UFC as Spike TV's flagship mixed martial arts promotion. There will be a year delay, but starting in 2013, we should be seeing a lot more than just the UFC on television. Bellator may even grow to rival the UFC's popularity one day, but at minimum they put bring even more eyes to MMA.
Phase out the Pay Per View Model
Pay per view events have been the bread and butter for the UFC since day one, so even thinking about phasing them out entirely sounds like blasphemy.
But it's actually just good business sense. The most lucrative sports in the world are not built on the pay per view model because you can make more money through advertising revenue when your viewership is absolutely massive.
The UFC is already moving in the right direction here. Next year, they have five events booked to air on free TV and one more that might or might not be free -- UFC 143: Diaz vs. Condit. Only three pay per view events are currently scheduled.
The pay per view model is the UFC's cash cow for now, so it's not going away anytime soon.
If and when they start making more money from free broadcasts, you can expect them to start phasing out pay per view very quickly.
Bellator is next strongest MMA organization and they are currently 100% committed to putting everything on free TV. They don't have a large enough fan base to do pay per views just yet. The way things are going, they might not want to bother.
As the UFC and Bellator continue to grow, so too does interest in your other minor league promotions. You may readily expect to find DREAM, K-1, Sengoku, MFC, Shark Fights, BAMMA and others showing up on stations not named HDNET.
To reach Dana White's goal of being the greatest sport in the world, you have to make yourself as visible as possible and be seen by as many people as possible.
The true mark of a highly successful sport is its ability to make a maximum amount of revenue broadcasting fight cards on free television.
Boxing bet the farm on the pay per view model. In retrospect, it wasn't really the best idea.
If MMA can become a highly profitable non-PPV sport, they will rapidly surpass boxing by every conceivable measurement.
It's simple psychology. People think about, talk about and take interest in things that they can see and see often. The harder you make it to watch, the more forgettable your sport becomes.
Increase Fighter Pay Across the Board
Why do the world's most elite athletes compete in the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and not in mixed martial arts? Internationally, why do your best physical specimens set their sights on a career in soccer, rugby or cricket?
It is quite simple really: It's all about the Benjamins. They are guaranteed to make a lot more money in those sports than they ever will in MMA.
The minimum yearly salary you can make in the NFL is $375,000. In order to make that little, you have to be a rookie. A ten year veteran must be paid no less than $910,000 per year. All the rest of major league sports have comparable minimum pay standards.
Precious few MMA fighters will ever make over $100,000 in a full year of fighting. Only a tiny handful of the UFC's biggest pay per view draws, such as Brock Lesnar and Georges St Pierre, have ever made more than a million dollars in a year.
Georges and Brock are rare anomalies. Odds are, even most of your UFC champions are making less than NFL minimum pay. Your mid-level fighters are making well under $100,000 per year and they still have to pay for training and a host of other things. If you get sidelined for a year by injury, then it really sucks to be you.
It is noteworthy that the lowest paid UFC fighters are already making considerably more money than your less known boxers fighting on the under-cards. You can drive a lot more athletic talent into MMA by significantly increasing all fighter pay.
On the other hand, the world's best boxers are still making a lot more money than the best MMA fighters. Manny Pacquiao made $32 million in 2010. In that same year, highest paid MMA fighter by far was Brock Lesnar and he made $5.3 million -- and that is probably the all-time MMA record.
Now that's not the whole story. There are a lot of things Manny has to pay out of his winnings that the UFC simply pays for out of their own coffers. But even after you total up those expenses, the best paid boxer in the world is making a lot more money than the best paid MMA fighter.
Ultimately, until pay in the UFC is better than boxing across the board, some of the most talented prospective fighters in the world will continue to be siphoned off by boxing. They'll choose boxing hoping to eventually make Mayweather/Pacquiao-like paydays.
In the greater scheme of things the cold hard truth is simple. Until every prospective MMA fighter can expect a payday comparable to that of any of the major league sports, those other sports will continue grab up all best athletes. Until they can pay competitively, MMA will just have to make do with the athletes that couldn't quite make it in sports that would have paid better.
Fully Disclose All Fighter Pay to the Public
Another problem with fighter pay is that all fighter pay is not publicly disclosed.
Certain states and nations require that all fighter pay for each event must be publicly disclosed and all MMA organizations are happy to comply.
It is perhaps the worst kept secret in all of MMA that the UFC and others pay their fighters a significant amount of their salary behind the closed doors. Those numbers are not publicly disclosed of course.
It was purely by chance that somebody leaked Brock Lesnar total pay for 2010: $5.3 million in total. We were never supposed to know that.
They may have their reasons for staying tight-lipped about what they are really paying fighters. In the long run, it's just plain bad for business. Once you get to a point where even the lowliest of the UFC's fighters are making a very respectable salary, everything changes. Real fighter pay no longer needs to be a closely guarded state secret. At that point, it just makes sense to start fully disclosing all fighter pay.
Why does it matter?
Consider for a moment: How many young boys everywhere dream of one day becoming a fabulously wealthy national celebrity by making it big in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, soccer or rugby?. Imagine for a moment what happens when young people start to see mixed martial arts the same way?
Obviously, you're never going to have that stigma until all fighters are getting respectable major league pay. But it doesn't help draw new talent if you only report a tiny fraction of fighter pay.
Once all of your fighters are being paid and paid well, there is no point in keeping it as a closely guared state secret. You'll want to shout it from the rooftops!
Better Support for Hollywood Films Featuring Mixed Martial Arts
At long last, a top-notch film about mixed martial arts has come out. Earlier this year, Warrior, starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte, hit theaters. The movie offers an extremely compelling storyline that centers on a broken family and two brothers who just happen to fight in the same MMA mega-tournament.
Was this film the "Rocky" or "Karate Kid" film for our sport? Unfortunately no. "Warrior" cost $25 million to make and it only made $23 million at the box office worldwide. It still has a chance to become a giant DVD sales phenomenon, but the odds are against it.
The movie could have probably done a lot better with more advertising. It was actually a very good movie with a very compelling story-line. "Warrior" was definitely the closest thing to MMA's own "Rocky" I've seen so far.
The best thing that Zuffa and Viacom can do to grow the sport via Hollywood is to throw more of their support behind future movies like "Warrior."
The UFC regularly does spotlights of upcoming films during pay per views and other events. It's just a matter of making the next well done MMA films a priority.
Viacom owns the MTV family of networks as well as SpikeTV. That puts them in a position to do much more than Zuffa can to promote future MMA movies.
Get All the Girls Together and See If They Can Make Women's MMA Work
Dana White makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't like women's MMA. He doesn't think there are enough elite female fighters out there to justify creating a division for them in the UFC. Right or wrong, Dana becomes a huge obstacle preventing women's MMA from being taken seriously.
In the eyes of most casual fans, if it doesn't exist in the UFC then it doesn't truly exist. So the girls are going to have to find a way to prove Dana wrong.
Just as we saw in the early days of men's mixed martial arts, the best female fighters are spread all over the planet. They are scattered among promotions like Strikeforce, Bellator, Shooto, Pancrase and a lot of promotions you've probably never heard of.
What they need is to get all the best female fighters in the world together under the same banner and see what they can do. If they can have a significant positive impact on ratings and have fights frequently enough, that will go a long ways towards changing Mr White's mind.
The idea of women's MMA is actually quite appealing for many reasons.
First, consider that most MMA fans are men. Do you think they'd rather:
A.) Watch two women punch each other in the face until one of them falls down.
B.) Watching two girls punch, knee, kick, trip, tackle and wrestle until one of them quits. There's a very strong possibility that you will see those two ladies rolling around on the ground in an all out grappling war.
Which do you think male MMA fans find to be more appealing?
Any man that isn't gay is going to answer B. If he's hetero and says A, then he's lying. Yes, yes, I know. We're pigs. But if it helps get women's MMA going, who cares? Just go with it.
There's also a very strong feminist tendency to view any sign that reads, "No girls allowed!" as an affront to every female of human species. You gain a lot of political correctness just by adding one or more women's division to your MMA promotion.
There is also a growing number of women who are serious MMA fans too. My wife, for example.
If the girls can prove that they are good for business and helpful in getting MMA legalized, Dana White will eventually cave in and let them fight in the UFC.
Ultimately, if women's MMA isn't hurting you and possibly helping you, why not just go for it?
Mixed martial arts doesn't really need to focus on being bigger and better than boxing. Professional boxing is doing a fine job of destroying itself.
The even worse news for boxing fans? Pro boxing's self destructive habits aren't about to change anytime soon. Things will get much worse for boxing before they start to get better.
MMA promotions can just continue doing what they do and eventually MMA will be acknowledged as the premier combat sport on the planet.
Mixed martial arts is already much closer to that inevitability than most people realize.
Boxing is at an unfair disadvantage in this fight. MMA is as close to a real fight as you can get, legally. Boxing is nothing like MMA in that respect.
The real baddest man on the planet is the best MMA fighter in the world. Boxers are skilled in only a tiny subset of actual fighting, and as such they don't even belong in the conversation.
Any boxer is welcome to come fight in mixed martial arts to prove that they have what it takes. Several boxers have tried and failed miserably. And if you think about it, they can only prove themselves inside the world of MMA. Beating an MMA fighter in a boxing match doesn't tell you anything about what would happen in a no rules street fight.
Realism and real life application alone makes it inevitable. Eventually, MMA will surpass boxing. It will grow into a bigger phenomenon than boxing ever was. The end game is already written here.
But there's nothing wrong with fast-forwarding to that inevitable future, right?