A Wake-Up Call For Boxing

BY Ronan Keenan ON July 05, 2007
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Being on the receiving end of a wake-up call is never a pleasant experience. Even so, after a while the body comes to life and feels refreshed, ready for a productive day. But sometimes, after a fitful night’s sleep, the revival never arrives and the day becomes one long countdown until its bedtime again.

With this in mind, how will the sport of boxing react after the forceful wake-up call it’s been given by the Ultimate Fighting Championship?

With pay-per-view and ticket sales reportedly surpassing those of the sweet science, the organization is quickly becoming a global phenomenon, and the June 16 UFC 72 event in Northern Ireland was a glowing testimony.

Nearly eight thousand fans filled the Odyssey, creating an arena record live gate, for what was a card devoid of the promotion’s biggest names. There wasn’t even a title bout on the eight fight bill, yet in their excitement at being part of a UFC event the crowd generated a deafening clamor for nearly four hours.

“I’d come back here to fight any day as long as the crowd promises to make noise like that,” said fighter Forrest Griffin after his victory over Hector Ramirez.

Griffin’s tussle with compatriot Ramirez generated the night’s highest decibels even though it was a semi-final bout between two American fighters coming off losses. What’s more, the fight was pretty lopsided and one-paced as Forrest picked Ramirez apart on route to a unanimous points verdict.

Intuitively, similar matchups should get a comparable reception at big boxing cards.

Not so. The bout preceding the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather clash last May drew a steady chorus of boos from the sparse crowd who unwittingly found themselves sitting through ten rounds of featherweight contender Rocky Juarez’ points win over Jose Hernandez.

Moreover, this lack of respect for undercard fights is so commonplace that HBO actually featured a tediously incoherent interview with Floyd Mayweather Sr. during the fight.

So why do UFC fans pack an arena early and holler throughout a lengthy card?

It’s erroneous to claim that one sport is more exciting. While boxing can’t match mixed martial arts in terms of attacking unpredictability, not much compares to two boxers trading punches back-and-forth in a multiple knockdown slugfest.

From this author’s experience at June’s UFC 72 show the key difference is people’s attitude towards the respective sports. UFC fans think that the sport of MMA is cool, period. Conversely, boxing is cool only when the main event fighters are deemed so.

And that perception has been created by UFC’s endeavors to invest in the marketing of their entire product, while boxing promoters tend to publicize individual fighters.

The UFC spent $1.4 million advertising the June 16 event and say they intend putting $4.5 million into their brand in the UK alone.

“We’re definitely looking at this long term,” said UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta after the Belfast promotion. “One of the things [UFC president] Dana [White] has talked about is that nobody has ever invested in boxing the way we have invested in this sport.

“There’s no boxing promoter who has done that, putting his own money into marketing boxing.”

Then again, the UFC has a clear advantage over boxing promoters when it comes to spending money on the sport since the UFC has a near monopoly on MMA, while numerous boxing promoters must battle each other for supremacy. As a result, promoters will never spend money publicizing the sport of boxing for fear of unintentionally marketing a rival’s event.

Even so, many observers believe boxing should be promoted differently.

Former bantamweight boxing champion Wayne McCullough recently accepted a role with the UFC as European ambassador and believes that the sweet science can learn from the upstart organization, citing his own personal experiences.

McCullough’s last bout was a 122-pound title rematch with champion Oscar Larios underneath the July 2005 Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins middleweight showdown. McCullough, a Las Vegas resident, had battled Larios in a thrilling brawl the previous February, but he felt that the promoters for the July card paid too much attention to the main event.

“I wasn't even on the poster and it was my home,” McCullough told writer Kevin Iole. “The boxing promoters are all for their own guys and if you're not signed with them, they act like you don't exist. It just seems to make sense that if you are promoting a show and you have a guy on the card fighting in his hometown going after a title, you'd have his picture on the poster and you'd try to push him.

“But nothing happened for me. You don't see that with the UFC. They really promote the right way and when they promote a fight, you know everyone who is on the card.”

That was true for UFC 72, as posters giving equal space to three of the card’s fighters, Rich Franklin, Yushin Okami and Forrest Griffin, featured on billboards throughout Belfast and Dublin. Such a move gave prospective viewers a message that the card was not a ‘main event only’ occasion.

But there are signs that boxing is waking up to the attractiveness of the UFC product.

“The presentation of boxing is terrible,” veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum was quoted on Maxboxing. “Going to a boxing show is the most boring thing in the world. Sitting there for a half-hour or more between fights, nothing to do, no music. I mean, it's horrible. It's not a good experience and that's why some old people will come because they want to see fights. But younger people don't want to go anymore.

“UFC is bringing to the table an electric atmosphere with great presentation.”

And Arum, who used to laden his cards with the likes of the 300-plus pound Butterbean and former Playboy model Mia St. John, has begun to produce events with competitive preliminary bouts and pyrotechnics that have drawn widespread approval from sections of the boxing industry.

“You have to do enough with your card to make it enticing even if the main event is disappointing,” Arum continued. “You have to give fans more action and less talk. You have to give them four [pay-per-view] fights, not three. You have to keep fights moving, you have to play a lot of music, you have to keep everything upbeat.”

Moreover, Arum’s Top Rank organization and the rival Golden Boy Promotions, who each promote some of the sport’s most notable fighters, had recently been locked in a bitter battle over the promotional rights to Manny Pacquiao, with both outfits intimating a refusal to work together – a wrangle that threatened to stifle the fruition of boxing’s biggest matchups.

In contrast, there is little standing in the way of the UFC’s best fighters squaring off. While big time boxing matches are preceded by months of negotiations between promoters, UFC fights seem to happen naturally. After dethroning Chuck Liddell last May for the UFC light heavyweight championship in one of the sport’s biggest events, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson will make his first defense against the Pride organization’s champ Dan Henderson in a unification showdown this September. No easy first title defenses, no showcase bouts, no obstructing politics. Just good fights.

But in a surprising development last Friday, Top Rank and Golden Boy shocked the boxing industry when they announced that an agreement had been made on their legal differences and that both companies will be working in tandem to match their fighters in enticing matchups, starting with a long awaited rematch between Pacquiao and Marco Antonio Barrera scheduled for October.

Perhaps the growing threat of MMA persuaded these bickering boxing promoters to put aside their differences for the health of their industry.

And with possibly better fights on the way, does boxing really need to market itself like the UFC?

“The people who put on televised boxing don't need to worry about what other sports are doing, they just need to put on better fights,” said veteran boxing writer George Kimball. “The impediments to that aren't external – the problem is that everyone concerned – the sanctioning bodies, the promoters, and the networks – are all more concerned about their own short-term interests than those of the sport.

“Boxing doesn't need more flash and dash. It just needs to consistently put on better fights.”

Hopefully this will prove to be more than just a dream.

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