On Sunday night, January 14th, 2018 the UFC made its St. Louis debut. Although I was unable to attend, the reviews were lackluster at best. I grouped my reviews into four buckets. These reviews came from friends, coworkers, social media acquaintances and various news outlets. Here are my buckets.
- Random, non-sport fans that attended because of the spectacle of it all, and mostly to booze and say, “I was there,”
- Diehard UFC fans that could recite every active MMA fighter. Yes all 73,945 of them.
- Middle of the road folk that understand the sport, follow to an extent, could name a few mid to big names and appreciate the action (That would be me).
- Boxing fans that will accept a MMA fight in their local town, or televised to pass time until a worthy Boxing match surfaces. (Also me).
Before, during and after the card was finished, there was a lot of chatter at work and social media outlets. My group chats, I hold many of them among friends were noticeably silent. The national attention to this specific card was equally as quiet. I’m sure there are several reasons for this, including but not limited to a smaller market, late adjustments in some of the headliners and changes in matchups. Did anyone outside of St. Louis care about this event? Did anyone in St. Louis care? It doesn’t appear so.
As mentioned earlier I am a casual MMA fan. I enjoy live action in any capacity. Had my health not pinned me down and if without children I would’ve accepted any of the free offers I received and happily attended. The diehard locals were likely okay with the card. After all they know the guys competing no matter who you stand up out there. The casual fan was good as long as the drinks were flowing, they had time for pictures and were able to check in at the “Thing to do.” The boxing fans were likely very unimpressed.
St. Louis, Missouri and the counties nearby have a strong liking for Mixed Martial Arts and that’s not surprising. There are UFC gyms everywhere, Main Street, St. Charles is a mecca for wannabe fighters and everyone is tougher than the next guy. For whatever that’s worth I think the response and chatter or lack thereof regarding Sunday night’s event say a lot about the future of MMA.
A couple of years back I attended Bellator 138 that headlined a main event with Ken Shamrock and Kimbo Slice here in St. Louis. Two fighters that were passed their prime, and by passed I mean expired. It was still a ruckus event, tons of fun and everyone in attendance had a blast. Since then several larger venues (bigger than nightclubs) have showcased Mixed Martial Arts. The feedback on those events hasn’t been great. One would assume the shine has worn off, and now it comes down to the product. Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before, The St. Louis Rams? At some point we settle in, it’s old hat and we start to analyze the product, not the event and more importantly what we are paying for.
What does this say about a town that used to sneak in the top 25 for attendance, all it be years ago, to watch the St. Louis Billikens play basketball? Yes, before Larry Hughes. Yes, after Anthony Bonner. St. Louis has shown that locals will support a quality product. St. Louis is a spec on the UFC map, smaller market in comparison to most but an adequate gauge of the matter at hand. People were not excited for Fight Night. Many attended and many enjoyed the night’s events, but were people pumped? Were people raving about it? Sure it sounds fun, but this isn’t like get a babysitter type stuff. You sit this one out, and that is very telling. After all it is the first of its kind. EVER.
Clarification – This has less to do with St. Louis as it has to do with the future of MMA, where it’s headed; and the opportunity that lies ahead for boxing. This is an open letter to listening Boxing ears.
Okay, so you are boxing, you do what? Let’s put a few things in perspective… UFC’s most prominent fighter, Connor McGregor’s last fight was not a UFC fight. The guy that handed him his last UFC loss in an actual UFC fight, recently tweeted, “UFC offered me title fight in any weight class Im kool though I’ll givem a shot when they do something good On to the next sport for now.” Nate Diaz may have been “teasing” as it’s since been reported, but this sort of thing isn’t great for MMA. A sport that is hampered with steroid use, domestic abuse, failed drug tests and falling stars probably could do without.
In July of 2016, Dana White and friends sold the UFC for an estimated $4 billion dollars. This will go down as one of the smarter moves in sports history. Dana stayed on to help with day-to-day operations.
Since then the UFC has seen its biggest star, fight a boxing match, its second biggest star, Jon Jones suspended for abusing the drug policy AGAIN, after defeating consummate good guy, Daniel Cormier. With that result tarnishing Jones and Cormier, thus making each of them tougher to market. Then there is the business of stripping Connor of his UFC title. It makes sense to do so, but these sort of things don’t bode well for the future of UFC, and all of Mixed Martial Arts. As the UFC suffers, so does Bellator and all other would-be up-and-coming MMA entities.
The start of the decline of what was the fastest growing sport in terms of popularity is a direct reflection of their inability to breed stars. All off these guys are huge. All of these guys are dangerous and more so, it would appear most of these guys are on some sort of performance enhancer. This is a significant problem. They get bigger, stronger and they get hurt more. The average staying power and prime of a UFC fighter is shrinking by the card. $100 to anyone that can name 25 UFC fighters right now?
Like most, I pull my info, stats and research from the world-wide web. How could I possibly watch every reality show, lower budget showing and feature fight? I just don’t have the time. There are 581 UFC fighters. Simply put, that is way too many. That’s actually ridiculous. The mass volume of competitors cheapens the sport and creates more of a spectacle and less of an art and craft. If the idea is to go more the way of wrestling, and less boxing, they are achieving the intended result. A 60% roster cut could do UFC some good, especially when there are only 4 titles of real significance, and don’t get me started on the women. There are many talented female fighters, but their looks will forever hold them back. Meisha Tate and Ronda Rousey are hardly the best the UFC could offer, but we know why we wanted them to win, right?
How does this impact boxing? There a few ways this could push boxing to its previous dominance over combat sports, but it is imperative they execute. Planning is equally as important, but it does nothing without execution. The UFC is indirectly planning boxing’s comeback.
Boxing has been hung over for 15 years, and shows minimal signs of rehab. Boxing has been dealt far tougher blows than UFC, and is still hanging around. It won’t be easy to get off the mat, but it’s doable.
If someone would have told you 20 years ago Oscar De La Hoya would go from the top draw in the ring to signing top talent outside the ring, you may have laughed. If someone would have told you Mike Tyson would be more of a visionary than a joke you most certainly would have laughed, and if someone would have told you, the best ambassador of ANY sport EVER, Muhammad Ali passed you would have been extremely sad. Insert a retired Floyd Mayweather Jr; poor attempts at nationally televised fights on network television, the slow death of the heavyweight division and boxing’s unwillingness to pull Roy Jones Jr; and other half-brain dead analysts off big fights and you have what we face today, a sport that is dead to all that are not purists. It’s been a rough decade.
The last two BIG fights would place Money May versus Connor McGregor. We all knew the eventual outcome, and had it been different most would have assumed fixed and a means to generate more revenue with a rematch. Aside from a few flurries the fight was a snooze. Then an extremely controversial decision in the GGG/Canelo match. I argued Canelo, and called a draw upon watching. Few people agreed with me. Miguel Cotto returned in December, 2017 and did exactly what we expected him to do, give it his all against Sadam Ali. A man 8 years younger and much faster. His eventual loss sinks him in to retirement, leaving more holes in the sport. So what’s left? What’s the plan?
Boxing has to market a few select stars and close in on an accurate, less tainted scoring system. Generally speaking when most of the population thinks a result is bogus, it probably is. This is an issue UFC rarely faces since most fights are either obviously lopsided or end in knockouts. The “Sweet Science” takes its name from sharp, strategic, well thought-out counter punches, defensive techniques and the ability to read and anticipate what your opponent will and will not do. Thus, the sport will always carry a “boring” tag. That and the absence of legs, ground game, flying knees, spinning punches and other Street Fighter moves separates a brute fighter from a more talented individual with their hands. Casual boxing fans know that, thus only turn out for the big fights.
Do you recall our buckets from earlier categorizing UFC fans? Those same buckets apply to boxing, except the middle of the road fan has hopped the UFC fence the last decade because of the growing hype, consistent presence, appearance of MANY “big fights” and the star power the UFC once provided.
As the star power pool in the UFC becomes more cloudy and tough to identify, there is no better time for Boxing to fire back.
Here’s where we start…
Andre Ward, Vasyl Lomachenko, Saul “Canelo” Alavarez, Gennady Golovkin (GGG), Adonis Stevenson, Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Carl Frampton, Jeff Horn, Erislandy Lara, Leo Santa Cruz, Sergey Kovalez, Anthony Joshua, Terence Crawford, Wisaksil Wangek, Khalid Yafai, Roman Gonzalez, Shawn Porter, Manny Pacquiao, Michael Berchelt. These are your guys, there are others, but these guys are all marketable in some way to those outside the fan club and typical spectator.
When did we lose our guys and become obsessed in Floyd Mayweather must fight Manny Pacquiao? The world waited for what most knew would be a horrifically boring fight, while many great boxers took a back seat and fans missed the prime years of some really amazing talent. UFC thrived during this time.
About two decades ago boxing started pushing expansion of the sport through hometown favorites getting home matchups. That makes sense in some ways, but was an absolute killer in most. In April, 2004 I attended Zab Judah vs Cory Spinks in St. Louis on Mardi Gras night, and in Cory’s first title defense we watched the hometown guy get his a$$ kicked. In attendance were Jay Z, and a host of other celebrities. Nelly walked Spinks out, we were so excited and then he lost… We have never seen a fight of that magnitude since in St. Louis, and the fact is we shouldn’t! As boxing loosened their stranglehold on Las Vegas, Madison Square Garden and Atlantic City, take a wild guess who came in the backdoor?
Boxing fans don’t need to see Jermaine Taylor fight in Little Rock or Vernon Forrest fight in Augusta and we definitely don’t need to see foreign guys fighting at 1pm on Sunday to fit a time slot overseas. These are death blows, and a major reason boxing has remained dormant. You don’t run the Kentucky Derby in Wyoming. YOU RUN IT IN KENTUCKY! The glitz, glamor and countdown to a big fight in Vegas or Madison Square Garden is part of the event, and why so many fans get excited. Small market fights featuring big fighters are a major deterrent to the growth of the sport, it becomes just another thing. This is what UFC is currently doing and what Boxing has learned from the hard way. You want to see a big fight? Travel.
The fact is, the fighters are just as good as they were 20, 30, 40 years ago, some better, but you would never know because for some reason boxing does not want you to know.
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing… Market these guys. If you are going to run free fights on network television, they need to be accompanied with endorsements and immediately pushing the same fighters through pay per view. These fighters need to be in front of the world. Paid online ads, television spots. Fighters promoting other fighters inadvertently and advertently through trash talk, beefed-up Twitter accounts, sponsored Facebook ads and a consistent presence. If you can get the hype behind these guys and run pay per view at half the cost of a UFC event, with less frequency providing that elusive TRUE “Big Fight,” there is no doubt you see a lift in the sport and the fans will follow. Those that left will find their way home and those that have never been, will stop by for a visit.
Lastly, safety regulations. Boxing may need to consider this. As the world becomes more aware of the dangers surrounding head trauma and CTE, it may call for some sort of security so that parents don’t discourage their kids from participating, allowing a younger generation of boxer to emerge.
Here are a few comparisons as I see it.
OPERATIONS Advantage – UFC: Taken Boxing to cleaners for a few years now. It’s not close.
PRIMARY FACE OF BROADCASTING – Boxing: Jim Lampley may be a real sh*thead outside the sport (or so I hear), but he is exceptional at what he does and timeless. I love Joe Rogan. He’s hilarious, a man’s man, I follow him on every social media outlet and Fear Factor was my jam. Jim still takes this easy.
FAN BASE Advantage – Boxing: Pure boxing fans dominate this area (Remember the buckets) because they appreciate the sport more than the athlete, the apparel and the lifestyle. No offense to MMA fans, but it seems to be more a fad and a fan of raw violence than actual talent.
MARKETING Advantage – UFC: Another landslide for UFC, and this directly relates to operations.
FIGHTERS Advantage – Boxing: Most UFC fighters appear to be manufactured. Dolph Lundgren, who oddly enough played a manufactured boxer in Rocky IV is essentially what half of these dudes are. It’s like they’re made in a laboratory and if they complete 15 fights before they’re put down it’s a significant accomplishment. The average boxer usually has many amateur fights before they touch the big stage. To put this in perspective GGG had 350 amateur fights before he turned pro. Let that sink in…
MEDIA (TELEVISION/PRINT/ONLINE PRESENCE) Advantage – UFC: The best and worst thing to ever happen to the UFC is Dana White. If Dana could do 15% of what he did with the UFC with Boxing, this would be a different read.
CURRENT STATE Advantage – UFC: UFC still has a large advantage. As boxing fans become older and many lose interest, UFC fans stay the ‘Saaaaame Age.’ Most of UFC’s oldest fans still sit in their prime years, since the fan base is mostly compressed to young men. Boxing’s oldest fans are in their 80’s and 90’s. They can tell you more about what a time once was. UFC is not aged enough. I can tell you Chuck Liddell was once “The Baddest Man on The Planet,” and he was shaped like he drank Busch Light and ate chicken wings, not steroids. Aside from the flooding of hundreds of soon-to-be champions, there aren’t an enormous amount of differences in UFC from twenty years ago.
OPPORTUNITY Advantage – Boxing: If Connor McGregor, Nate Diaz or anyone else of notoriety would make a full time move to Boxing, and get a few dummies propped up for their beating pleasure on pay per view, the game would change. That coupled with the names mentioned above gaining traction could potentially take us back to The Wonder Years. UFC fighters are severely underpaid, and it wouldn’t take much to get a few to jump, even if they aren’t talented enough to compete. Hence “propped up dummies.” The financials for UFC also are down drastically. UFC rode a carryover of late 2016 earnings funded in early 2017, their share of the Mayweather/McGregor fight and almost $50 million in cuts from payroll to another successful year, but pay per view slipped 55% from 8.2 million in 2016 to 3.71 million in 2017. Live gate numbers slipped from 60 million in 2016 to 26 million in 2017. Dana White is smart. It’s also worth noting Bellator experienced a 9% decline, FS1 live shows a 17.9% decline and prelims a 13% drop.
You may be able to tell, I’m a boxing guy. I enjoy UFC – I really do, but boxing at its best is a beautiful thing and we deserve to see that.