Don't Blame UFC for Boxing's Woes

BY Eddie Goldman ON June 29, 2006
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Wholesale panic hasn’t exactly set in yet, mainly because much of the boxing world moves as quickly as a double portion of cheese fries (or, to mark Canada Day this Saturday, poutine), but the other side sure is crowing.

According to a Spike TV press release, the “The Ultimate Fighter 3” finale from this past Saturday night, June 24, drew 2.8 million viewers and was thus “the most watched UFC event in history” as well as “the highest rated Spike original telecast in the network's history in Men 18-49 with a 2.85 rating.” In addition, it tallied a 2.04 household rating and “delivered more M18-49 and M18-34 in the time period than any other channel, broadcast or cable.” And “The Spike TV finale easily outdrew NASCAR's Dodge/ Save Mart 350 on FX which garnered 1.4 million viewers.” They didn’t even have to mention by how much it outdrew HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” featuring undefeated fighters Calvin Brock vs. Timur Ibragimov and Joel Julio vs. Carlos Quintana.

The press release also quoted Dana White, the oft-ridiculed UFC president who is both a former amateur boxer and boxercise instructor (see Fightsport.com for more documentation, sometimes quite humorous), as saying, “We have reached the point when guys across the country say – ‘Did you catch the fight last night?’ -- and they are referring to a UFC fight.”

Nor is this ratings success a one-time phenomenon. Recently the web site of Multichannel News, a leading cable television trade publication, ran an article called “Ultimate Fighting Pins PPV To the Mat”. It stated, “The UFC is averaging between 200,000 and 350,000 buys each for its 10 PPV events a year, according to PPV executives familiar with the franchise. UFC officials refuse to reveal specific figures.”

While it is certainly premature to declare UFC as more popular than boxing, or boxing as ready to die, they each are, for now anyway, headed in opposite directions. While UFC itself has numerous problems, those are best left discussed elsewhere since so many in the boxing world still propagate so much ignorant, biased, uninformed, deceptive, and just plain imbecilic nonsense about UFC. What is key here to understand is that UFC’s recent success is not a significant cause of boxing’s steady decline.

Boxing’s pay-per-view model has not only walled off over an entire generation from being able to view live top-level fights on television. It has also discredited itself as a medium due to one fiasco after another.

For example, at the time, the pay-per-view with the greatest number of buys was the first fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, on Nov. 9, 1996. That drew, according to a report by Showtime Entertainment Television on American pay-per-view in the decade of the 1990’s, 1.6 million buys. Since many fans still believed that Tyson was invincible and just had an off night, the rematch did tremendous business. That took place June 28, 1997, drew a record 1.99 million buys, and, of course, went down in history as the infamous “bite fight” where Tyson was disqualified for biting off parts of Holyfield’s ears.

Then there were the controversies in the Lewis-Holyfield I “draw” in March 1999, with 1.1 million buys, and the Trinidad-De La Hoya decision in Sept. 1999, with 1.4 million buys. That magical million mark was only hit again three years later, in June 2002, with Tyson-Lewis getting approximately two million buys. That pretty much killed the myth of Tyson (by the way, happy 40th, Mike). The million mark was only reached one more time, in Sept. 2004, when pay-per-view’s number-two draw, De La Hoya, was knocked out by Bernard Hopkins in nine, largely signaling the beginning of his exit from boxing’s main stage.

So who is left as a major pay-per-view draw? And what do any of these buy rate-killing fiascos have to do with UFC?

Roughly around the same period when boxing began soaring on pay-per-view, the mid-1990’s, was also when UFC achieved its first wave of success. UFC V, in April 1995, got about 240,000 buys (some estimates are a bit higher) at a time when only about 20 million American households could even get pay-per-view, as opposed to over 50 million today. Other UFC shows in 1994-6 drew between about 150,000 and 190,000 buys. Later came the ban on cable TV in the U.S. of UFC, which almost destroyed that company and took many years from which to recover. But both UFC and boxing were doing well on pay-per-view in that period, with each falling for different reasons.

There are many reasons for UFC’s recent growth, and not just the success of its “reality” show. UFC, as well as the mixed martial arts as a whole, embraced the culture of the Internet early on. Boxing, as an industry as a whole, still has not.

It was the years of using the Internet to provide information, allow discussion, and rally the fan base against the cable ban which was decisive in turning the tide, a fact even grudgingly admitted by executives from pay-per-view distributor In Demand when the ban was finally lifted in 2001. (And for those who haven’t read my bio, I played my part in that battle as host of the daily “No Holds Barred” Internet radio show, which covered all the combat sports including mixed martial arts, boxing, grappling, jiu-jitsu, and real wrestling, on the talk network eYada.com, from 1999 to 2001.)

While the boxing business was complaining about having to give so many media credentials to web sites, mixed martial arts was using its own web sites to mobilize itself. The largest mixed martial arts news site today is Sherdog.com, which, according to Alexa.com, on June 27 had a ranking of 2,742. The web site of the UFC, ufc.com, had on that day a ranking of 4,801. Those are both better than any boxing site.

UFC has also hired MaxBoxing’s Tom Gerbasi to write for its site, albeit articles which have to reflect the corporate line. How many boxing promoters have hired any top writers to acquaint their fans online with their fighters and get them interested in them? (It should be added that there is now a major dispute between UFC and the independent mixed martial arts sites like Sherdog.com, as UFC has been denying them media credentials. Again, that dispute is best discussed elsewhere.)

It is true that both HBO and Showtime have boxing pages on their web sites with fighter profiles and data. But the Alexa ranking for HBO’s ENTIRE site on June 27 was 2,672 – almost the same as that for Sherdog.com alone. Showtime’s overall ranking was 9,055, again lower than these other mixed martial arts sites. While ESPN.com’s overall ranking is 24, and we have no breakdown for its boxing page, note that boxing is not even given its own link at the top of that page as so many other sports are, but is only listed under the “more” category.

It is thus not only the absence of undisputed world champions, the plague of the multiple sanctioning bodies, the weakness in the heavyweight division, and even the corruption and often absurd officiating which rob the sport of most of its credibility and thus push it downward. Those are all major factors, and have been for some time.

Boxing’s decline has been intensified by its failure to embrace fully and decisively the culture of the Internet. Instead it remains a prisoner of the culture of the newspaper.

UFC, and mixed martial arts as a whole, never had a chance to do the same, as almost all the mainstream publications heaped slander on them while doing the same bang-up job of research they did on issues like “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. Mixed martial arts thus had no choice but to bet on the Internet, and that longshot investment is paying off handsomely now.

Much more can and will be said on these issues of fear and loathing of the Internet in boxing. But here is one more tidbit: For this article I wanted to compare the rating for Saturday’s UFC show with HBO’s boxing show. I e-mailed two people at HBO for this information Tuesday afternoon. So far (Thursday afternoon) I have received no response.

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