Saturday, September 20, 2008

The MMA Walls are Closing in on Boxing

Is this the face of boxing? An aging demographic with an inability to attract young fans, many say boxing is in trouble because of it.

There has been much discussion recently about what the future of boxing is going to be. The doomsayers tell you that for boxing the end is near, that it can’t compete with the mixed martial arts and that boxing fans are just a bunch of old people hanging onto a sport that is clinging to the coat tails of the past.

Those who prefer MMA tell you that it is exciting, that it appeals to a younger demographic and that the future for that sport has unlimited potential.

I make no effort to hide the fact that I will forever be in boxing’s corner. It’s not that I dislike MMA or have anything against it. It’s just that my taste, plain and simple, is for boxing. I am sure that many of those who support MMA will tell you the same thing, it’s not that they dislike boxing - it’s just that their preference is MMA. I’ve tried watching different MMA programs, I really have, but I just cannot develop an affinity for it.

The issue as I see it, is that you can’t compare the two sports. People like to make the comparison because boxing and MMA are sports that pit fighters against each other, but as far as I can see, that is the only similarity. Professional wrestling fans are not necessarily MMA fans are they?

To compare boxing and MMA is like comparing tennis to ping pong or football to rugby. Boxing and MMA are two totally different sports with different fan demographics, different rules and just because you are a fan of one does not mean that you will be (or will not be) a fan of the other.

Because you may be a fan of “American Idol” does not mean that you will tune into “So, You Think You Can Dance?” Similar reality programs to be sure, but not exactly the same.

There is anecdotal evidence that suggests younger fans are drawn to the energy, violence and unpredictability that MMA offers. But if MMA had not been around would those have been young people that would have been drawn to boxing instead?

Known for its raw violence, unpredictability and the many stunning ways in which a fight can suddenly end - mixed martial arts attracts young fans.

I had a chance to speak to Angelo Dundee in Manchester, New Hampshire earlier this week at a fight card that was held there. The 87 year old Dundee has lived his life in boxing and I think I’d be safe in suggesting that he has seen it all in this sport.

“Right now it’s a popular sport,” Dundee said. “The kids like it, that’s important. You’ve got to give the public what they want. I wish them well…There’s room for everybody in this world.”

If there is one big criticism that MMA fans have of boxing it’s that it is not always competitive, that it is too predictable and that it no longer offers the raw violence that MMA does.

I would agree with all of those points.

The fight card that I witnessed the other night in Manchester was basically a mismatch festival. Cedric Kushner was the lead promoter. Of the five fights on the card only one made it past the third round and that was a boring fight where one man, Peter Quillin, dominated used up veteran Sam Hill before the referee finally saw enough and waived it off in the tenth and final round. One of the prelim fighters had cut-off sweatpants for trunks.

Before the fight card began I acted as an informal tutor to a couple of newspaper reporters who told me that they had never covered boxing before. They asked me what to expect and I told them, “Not much.” I told them that all of these fights were pretty much mismatches and while some of the fighters on the card were very good (Ronald Hearns, Peter Quillin and Danny O’Connor) that their opposition was very poor and stood little chance of winning. Things evolved exactly as I said they would and I felt embarrassed that their first night of live boxing was going to be this debacle.

Legendary trainer Angelo Dundee as he appears today at age 87. Dundee has trained more than 20 world champions from Carmen Basilio to Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard.

There was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people in attendance in Manchester and they seemed hungry and anxious to see the first professional boxing card ever held in the Verizon Wireless Arena. I shudder to think at what their impression of the sport is after they witnessed that card. If there were people who had shown up to watch boxing for the very first time I would guess that this night gave them little incentive to ever show up again.

Sure, boxing still manages to get it right on so many occasions. But great fights are the exception in this day and age. More often than not, even at the highest levels, fans are forced to sit through boring, over-priced fights where neither boxer fights with a sense of urgency. In fact, the fighters sometimes seem content to do as little as they have to in order to win.

But it’s not all the fault of the fighters or the promoters. In my opinion, boxing seems to have regulated itself to passiveness. With larger gloves for smaller fighters, the shortening of title fights to twelve rounds and meddlesome referees who will simply not allow infighting and stop fights very quickly, boxing is much less violent now than it was even a decade ago. MMA on the other hand is much more raw, much less predictable, and as a result, much more fan friendly.

Boxing promoter Lou DiBella was also in attendance in Manchester the other night as his fighter, Ronald Hearns, was on the card. DiBella told Manchester’s city newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader, “I don’t think mixed martial arts is responsible for boxing’s marginalization. Boxing’s biggest problem is attracting young fans. (MMA) is accomplishing something boxing has been unable to accomplish. If boxing doesn’t (attract younger fans), it will continue to marginalize itself.”

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt pictured at ringside for the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Ricky Hatton fight in December 2007. When done right, boxing is a sport that offers fans the best bang for their buck.

One of boxing’s big problems is that it is fractured. A host of promoters, managers, networks, state commissions and governing bodies all attempt to exert their influence and take a piece of a shrinking pie. Boxing has no centralized marketing program, no one voice or body that directs policy and makes all of the rules. What may be a rule in one state is not a rule at all in another, etc., etc. The two biggest entities in the game - HBO and Showtime - work against one another, or at least HBO works against Showtime. Then there is the entire political conundrum known as the sanctioning bodies - the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO.

Where the 800-pound gorilla in MMA, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has a distinct advantage over boxing in that it controls everything from fighter salaries to marketing to the rules. It is in effect a one stop shop and this has led to what seems like overnight success. Whether it can be sustained for more than a generation remains to be seen, but the UFC has a leg up on boxing because of the manner in which they are able to control all aspects of their message.

Boxing’s problems, however, are not the result of anything that MMA has or has not done. Boxing has had these same sort of systemic, fundamental problems for decades before MMA was ever even thought of. It’s just that now, with a real, viable alternative to boxing for fans to whet their appetite for watching grown men fight, that boxing’s problems have been put into the spotlight for all to see.

I would agree with Angelo Dundee, that there is room for both boxing and MMA, but the walls in that room are rapidly closing in.

September 2008

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