Why MMA has become better than boxing, purely from a fan perspective
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Here is an article I recently wrote for the UK's leading MMA website. Please write a comment after the actual article on MMABay if you get a second and want to express an opinion or leave some feedback...Cheers.
Like many, I have been a casual fan of boxing from an early age, following the progress of our nation’s elite fighters during the 90s such as Nigel Benn and Lennox Lewis. Several years ago, my interest in the noble art augmented tenfold with the advent of Mancunian-based fighters that excelled in the naughties (Ricky Hatton proving the most prominent household name that springs to mind). I was also finding myself become progressively intrigued by the scintillating lure of arguably the purest sport on earth, which involved a pair of consenting homo sapiens enclosed in a ring vis-à-vis, with a view to ultimately disconnecting his adversary from consciousness, thereby determining the better (synonymous with more skilful, strong, determined, courageous) 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, essentially No-Holds-Barred cage-fighting, the UFC was literally “Ultimate Fighting” (embodying the ultimate fighting ideal), the most lifelike, realistic fighting scenario in which fighters of different disciplines were showcased (including boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai, karate and multiple other styles) 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 nuthugger shorts). “Man’s ability to adapt and survive has come to define our species. This fighting spirit has been carried over in sport, from gladiators fighting against each other in ancient arenas, to modern men against one another in cages” (transcription from intro to Randy Couture interview on shootmedia.com)
As Dana has reiterated on many an occasion, “Fighting – I don't care what color you are, or what language you speak, or what country you live in, we're all human beings and fighting's in our DNA. We get it and we like it. MMA translates across all different barriers, and this will be the biggest sport in the world, I guarantee it”. Herein Dana intelligibly points out, attributing our penchant for fighting to our innate primal instincts and sheer genetic composition, we are fascinated with ascertaining the “best”/most dominant realm of combat (the overarching purpose of MMA as articulated by Jon Jones during his much-publicised appearance on Jay Leno). Its why we revelled in 80s film classics such as Best of the Best and Bloodsport, which showcased the notorious Kumite (an illegal and underground, freestyle, single-elimination and occasionally deadly full-contact martial arts tournament to which the world's best martial artists are clandestinely invited every five years), and became obsessed in the 90s with a series of early computer games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Indeed, this fascination even harks back to romance of 70s martial arts films, which featured pioneers such as Bruce Lee, legendary characters that had originally inspired numerous current UFC luminaries including Dan Hardy (who demonstrated genuine emotion upon visiting Bruce Lee’s grave) and Pat Berry, who by his own admission aspired to be a ninja with MMA facilitating the realization of his childhood dream.
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 well-documented “MMA Community”. Of course there are those for whom boxing and MMA will forever prove mutually exclusive, to be adjudged in isolation (those people are liable to perceive my endeavour to compare and contrast the sports as sacrilege- it is generally anti-MMA boxing fans that express such distaste/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), whereas for others it may be inextricably linked, falling under the bracket of “combat sports”. Many, analogous to 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 proclaim to be more compelled by MMA than boxing, a transition that has occurred gradually over time and as a result of numerous factors which will be discussed anon.
Whether per chance, or due to the fact that I was subconsciously seeking further bellicose entertainment, I was introduced to MMA by a long-time fanatic. I was instantly riveted by the sport and immediately became an all-round combat sport aficionado (I am knowledgeable in/passionate about the field but would by no means profess to be an expert). I fell in love with the array of arts on display (a veritable assortment of knock outs, TKOs, takedowns, grappling and submissions). After all, it is precisely this versatility which relentlessly draws us to the sport.
So now, having elaborated on my combat sports viewership background, I would 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), but rather which is better to and for the fans, hence purely from a fan’s perspective (it is also important to confirm that I still follow both sports). I will endeavour to eschew sweeping generalisations and validate statements where possible:
1. More diverse and dynamic action
It is undisputable that boxing 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, 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 (left hook, right hook, uppercut, body blow, or cuts stoppage). Conversely, MMA is a self-proclaimed multi-faceted activity in which fights may be concluded in a variety of fashions. This always leaves an element of uncertainty/surprise as to the prospective denouement of any fight. MMA subsumes multiple disciplines which yield myriad potential finishes. 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. Ultimately, this variety proves more intriguing for fans, who are constantly speculating as to the outcome of a fight (consequently MMA invariably stimulates more points of contention/talking points).
2. Generally more accessible/affable fighters
Ariel Helwani, in one of the rare occasions that the high-profile MMA interviewer becomes the interviewee (by John Pollock from the FightNetwork), revealed that it was the unparalleled accessibility/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 and boxers. He fondly recalls contacting luminaries such as Chuck Liddell through MySpace.
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 (the unequivocal face of MMA), who proactively and consciously represents the sport at all available junctures. Dana constantly uploads video blogs (vlogs) 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”.
This also pertains to the fighters themselves, who have seamlessly embraced social media (underlining the pioneering mindset of the company, Dana White even urged his employees to do so at an Annual Fighter Summit, ensuring that this genus of interaction with the fans is the prime mode of building a brand that endures beyond the limited lifespan of an MMA career), permitting the general public glimpses of their psyche, existence and daily routine through online mediums such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube video blogs, thereby willingly breaking down previously-existing barriers between fan and fighter. Subsequently, fighters appear infinitely more real, genuine, self-deprecating (I direct you to Forrest Griffin’s book) and empathetic through their virtual connection with the populace (to put it simply, the fighters give back more, and are embracing the future of communication).
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). Whether through superior PR, circumstantial coincidence, or genuinely as a result of producing decent human beings, this aforesaid genuine characteristic of the MMA community (fighters and fans alike) has recently manifested itself in various heroic acts. Many people inside and outside the sport are aware of Jon Bones Jones selflessly apprehending a mugger hours before becoming LHW champion, and the New York Subway Hero, Joe Lozito, tackling a ruthless murderer utilising MMA techniques that he had subconsciously digested through hours of viewership.
By holding regular Fan Expos, the UFC also opens up the organisation/the sport to the public domain, with fighters participating in frank Question&Answer sessions, and delivering seminars on specific facets of the sport. 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 impedes them). It also seems feasible that MMA neophytes can receive instruction from their sporting icons at their personal gyms (as Dana is quick to point out, the sport remains in its infancy, and progressively youngsters will develop a desire to train in all disciplines of MMA rather than alternative sports, as a way to keep active and learn self-defense. Many wrestlers have already confessed that they would have trained MMA had it existed two decades prior when they embarked on their pro-wrestling odyssey). Overall, the cumulative effect of the above leads to a much greater affinity with the fans, who feel that they can associate with the fighters.
Indeed, 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 (AH: “I can’t say enough about how accessible and humble the fighters were to me”). MMA now receives a level of media exposure tantamount (if not greater) to that of other popular sports, with marquis fighters possessing an equally high profile, yet they can be differentiated by their humility and accommodating nature (there of course exist numerous exceptions to this rule within MMA and all other sports). Whilst it would be naïve to suggest that MMA is not a money-oriented sport, I think it’s fair to say that it remains less financially-focussed than its fistic antecedent. MMA appears to have retained at least an element of pride-fighting (fighting for purposes extrinsic of finances exclusively), whereas boxing is predominantly “Prize-fighting”, particularly within the upper echelons of the game, as underscored by Andre Dirrell. This is perfectly exemplified by the most high-profile prospective crossover case, with Diaz’s self-professed rationale based principally on remuneration (“Money talks”, and boxing generally rewards a greater percentage of its elite stars more handsomely, and Nick recurrently laments the fact that he is an underpaid asset in MMA).
Contrary to the preposterous assertions of Bob Arum (during his horribly misinformed interview with Ariel Helwani), MMA fighters tend to emanate from a more well-educated background than boxers, with the preponderance possessing university qualifications (indeed MMA congruently seems to produce more well-rounded individuals both inside and outside of the octagon). His statement about skinheads fighting in a cage in front of a bloodthirsty crowd was inaccurate, ignorant and reflected extremely poorly on one of boxing’s most distinguished promoters. Many boxers typically originate from impoverished backgrounds and perceive boxing as a lucrative career, yet Dana White would never disparage boxers in a similar fashion. MMA undoubtedly showcased pure-brawlers during its unregulated formative years, yet as MMA inevitably evolved into a professional sport, the place on the roster for such “fighters” has become progressively more limited (Kimbo Slice is the archetypal “street brawler” who was cut from the UFC despite his PPV drawing clout). As GSP has stated, “I am a mixed martial artist, not a fighter”, and it’s safe to say that with the skill level presupposed by the modern milieu of MMA, most UFC stars would deem themselves athletes as opposed to fighters.
3. More vibrant fan-base and exhilarating live shows
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 and are in danger of becoming largely extinct. It is logical that such a longstanding/established sport will appeal more greatly to the elderly/older generations, but what does it infer when the notion of a quintessential boxing fan conjures up an image of the iconic Bert Sugar for me personally? The recently-concocted “Prize Fighter” tournaments and the Super Six competition (discounting its undecipherable format and mutable line-up rendering it somewhat less meaningful) are certainly steps in the right direction. 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.
Having attended several boxing and MMA events live, the experience tends to befit this age-related discrepancy. I would have to contend that an MMA event is the more enthralling spectacle. If I were advising a person, who held little to zero interest in either sport, as to which event to invest in as a pure spectacle, I would recommend a UFC event over a world-title boxing show (and I’ve only ever experienced UFC in England, whereas I’ve been present at the MGM Grand Las Vegas, the acclaimed Mecca of boxing, to witness a reported “Superfight”). Irrespective of the result (my Mancunian native lost in devastating fashion on the said evening), the entire experience was relatively 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), primarily accomplished through cultivating the peripheral atmospherics that pertain to the human physiological senses (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). Please allow me to translate the aforementioned marketing jargon; essentially, the peripheral ambience must be rendered more electrifying (prime examples would be the employment of lighting, 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…I can’t help but think that the middle-aged contingent in attendance at boxing matches would complain about such youthful carry-on). I have been in much quieter/less lively and atmospheric super-clubs than UFC events, and this is no coincidence. 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 (it’s only a matter of time before such theatre is accentuated on MMA’s biggest stage by solo performances akin to the flamboyant dance routines showcased by Mayhem Miller during his infamous ring entrances- incidentally Miller has just resigned with the UFC). Perhaps most tellingly, boxers (including Zab Judah and Mike Tyson) and wrestlers (Stone Cold, The Rock and The Undertaker) regularly attend UFC events live, but not vice versa.
Certain promotions, ordinarily within Europe, endeavour to enhance the dramaturgy of a boxing occasion. On primetime nights in Germany, globally-recognised live rock bands have performed to lend an extra “je ne sais quoi” to the proceedings. Nevertheless, it is the boxers, rather than the promotions themselves, that have been known to tap into such thespianism. However, since the days of Prince Nas, (whose dramatic ring entrances adhere to the type of theatre to which I allude), boxing has been largely devoid of any theatricals. David Haye’s entrance to cheesy 80s anthems always draws a wry smile (principally owing to the fact that such a musical genre belies his very contemporary brashness/“swagger”), and 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 will only be amplified following UFC 129, hosting its first event in front of an enormous 55,000 plus in Canada (more reminiscent of the figures secured by erstwhile Pride events). As presaged by the MMA Live panel (namely KenFlo and F-Mac), it is verisimilar that this will act as a precursor for future spectacles on the level of a Superbowl/WWE Wrestlemania (which customarily play out in front of upwards of 90,000 people). In fact, the only reason this has not been attempted hitherto is due to Dana’s overriding concern that it would compromise the quality of the experience for supporters, something on which he has worked extensively for the upcoming Canada showcase.
I concur with Dana’s partial declaration that “it is one of the most exciting live sports events you will ever see”, which according to the “Baldfather” has infectious positive WOM capabilities that will lead the sport to expand considerably.
4. A better all-round fan experience
The UFC is a branding juggernaut and well-oiled PR machine, their expertise and prowess in these particular realms acknowledged even by Bob Arum. The UFC provides a master class in branding, and should be adopted as a blueprint for other ambitious enterprises.
Through their superior branding, the UFC has further ingratiated itself to both existing and prospective fans, helping it to retain and acquire loyal followers.
Fan Expos are the prime paradigms of events which both educate (part of the process has been to procure mainstream acceptance) and entertain the fans, providing a greater insight into the nuances of the sport and its personalities. To the best of my knowledge, such expositions are non-existent within boxing. When the UFC is in town, it becomes more of an extended 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, 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 serve 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 will oversee 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.
Aside from this, the UFC’s monopoly enables various unique branding coups and a focus on CSR opportunities (its “Fight for the Troops” reinforces the munificence of the organisation); UFC gyms (I can envisage an epoch in the not-so-distant future during which a major metropolis without one of these avant-garde complexes is a rarity). 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, whilst demonstrating that the organisation does possess a jovial side and thereby further endearing it to the masses (in the same fashion as Dana has incorporated successful operational elements of boxing into the UFC format, he has also integrated the effective theatrical elements of the WWE, an influence which isn’t reciprocal owing to Vince McMahon’s distaste for MMA according to Ariel Helwani). 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?).
As alluded to in Point 2, the quantity and quality of online material at the disposal of the internet browser also distinguishes MMA, courtesy of the willingness of those connected to the sport to share information (another indication of MMA’s somewhat younger, more internet savvy audience). The coverage is far more diverse and generally superior, with sites like CagePotato, with its deliberately irreverent content and subversive tone of voice, paradoxically illustrating the light-hearted nature of the toughest sport on the planet, a welcome addition that is notably absent from boxing.
5. The Best Fights Possible Are Consistently Made
This is the crux of the entire article, constituting by far the definitive point of paramount importance. 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