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Home » The Shifting Tides: Boxing’s threat in the Face of MMA’s Rise

The Shifting Tides: Boxing’s threat in the Face of MMA’s Rise

Throughout history, combat sports have captivated audiences with their raw display of athleticism, skill, and determination. Among these sports, boxing has long reigned supreme as the epitome of mano-a-mano combat. 

However, in recent years, a new contender has emerged to challenge boxing’s dominance—Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). As MMA’s popularity has surged, primarily through the vehicle of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), boxing has experienced an undeniable dip in popularity. So to what extent are the two linked and how is MMA achieving this?

One of the primary reasons for boxing’s waning popularity, particularly in the face of MMA, is the obvious fact that fighters are restricted to using only their fists, while MMA encompasses a wide array of fighting styles, including striking, grappling, and submissions.

MMA offers a more dynamic and versatile experience, captivating fans with the unpredictability and excitement that come from diverse combat approaches. Undeniably, the MMA product is not only more representative of real-life scenarios which fans can relate to, but also is more likely to produce the ‘glutton for punishment’ viewing pleasure they crave. In this way, the increased gladiatorial aspect of the sport is better equipped to win and keep eyeballs. 

MMA, and in particular the UFC, has successfully tapped into the changing preferences of the modern audience.

 The sport’s presentation emphasizes high-energy, action-packed bouts that frequently result in knockouts or dramatic finishes with plenty of blood and pain thrown in en route. 

In contrast, boxing matches are often criticised for being marred by excessive clinching, defensive strategies, and drawn-out rounds that lack the same level of excitement, despite many being key aspects to winning bouts in the sport.

MMA’s incorporation of various fighting styles, combined with shorter rounds and a greater emphasis on finishing fights, contributes to its reputation as a more thrilling and spectator-friendly sport.

Another significant factor contributing to boxing’s loss of fans to MMA is the emergence of captivating and marketable personalities within the MMA world. MMA fighters often possess a unique blend of charisma, showmanship, and relatability that resonates with fans on a deeper level. 

Boxing, too, has had and to a degree still has this cultural resonance, to name a few; Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the 1970s to Roberto Duran, Ernie Shavers and Marvin Hagler in the 80s, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis in the 1990s and Floyd Mayweather, Tyson Fury and the Klitschkos since. 

But even today’s bonafide boxing stars; Terrence Crawford, Gervonta Davis, Canelo Alvarez etc are barely holding on to their household names. The ‘McGregor effect’, named after UFC fighter Conor McGregor is the moniker for the transcendence of the fighter outside of their sport and McGregor is arguably the greatest example of this for combat sports since Ali. 

Even with two years out of the cage, McGregor is set to return imminently and betting sites with mobile capability are already flush with action on the Irishman’s bout with UFC relative newcomer and dynamic competitor, Mike Chandler. 

MMA and in particular the UFC, is now a veritable personality breeding ground both in and outside of the cage.

To say that boxing has struggled to produce personalities with the same level of charisma and mainstream appeal in recent years is, while a somewhat lazy assessment, nevertheless true. 

The success on MMA’s part in the digital age is in no small part down to the accessibility and promotion play a crucial role in the success of any sport. 

The sport has effectively capitalised on the power of social media and online platforms to promote its fighters, events, and narratives. The UFC has issued a masterclass in this respect in the last decade, embracing digital media, making fights available for streaming and sharing highlights across various platforms. 

This approach has allowed MMA to reach a wider and more global audience, while boxing has been slower to adapt, often relying on traditional pay-per-view models and failing to engage younger generations who consume media primarily through digital channels.

Make no mistake, boxing is still popular, the fourth-most viewed sport, behind NFL, basketball, and baseball in the US and with a significant following globally in markets like Mexico, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom.

But much of the problem behind remaining a boxing fan centres around the numerous promoters and organisations that offer belts and different weight classes. 

There are 17 weight classes in professional boxing, and five major recognised belts for each of the divisions: The WBA (World Boxing Association), WBC (World Boxing Council), IBF (International Boxing Federation), WBO (World Boxing Organization) and The Ring meaning that no fighter is considered truly undisputed until they have unified at least the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO belts

Since the four-belt era began in 2004, there has not been a unified heavyweight champion and only six fighters in the entire sport have accomplished the feat; Josh Josh Taylor (junior middleweight), Bernard Hopkins (middleweight), Oleksandr Usyk (cruiserweight), Jermain Taylor (middleweight), Terence Crawford (junior welterweight), and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez.

In MMA’s most popular product, the UFC, there is one belt for each of the eight divisions for men and four for women; 12 belts for 12 divisions; thereby passing the need for a fan to be overly engaged in the sport to understand it.

Another reason for the decline of boxing’s popularity is the decline of the traditional boxing gym. Typically a mainstay of communities in large swathes of the US and the UK, many boxing gyms are suffering the perils of the small, local business model and are closing down. 

This is due to a number of factors, including the rising cost of rent and the decline in the number of young people interested in boxing.

This is in complete contrast to grassroots explosion MMA has seen the world over. Aside from the practice of the sport as a whole in many gyms, participation in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muy Thai in particular have shot to the moon in the US, UK, Brazil and Asia. 

This groundswell has lifted both sports in their own right to enjoy much higher viewing figures outside of MMA, with organisations like ONE Championship’s Muy Thai league and ADCC Grappling tournaments growing exponentially in recent years. 

The rise of MMA has undoubtedly posed a significant challenge to the popularity of boxing. 

While the latter retains its historic significance and continues to have dedicated followers, it must adapt and innovate to reclaim lost ground and re-engage with a new generation of fans. 

Ultimately, the evolving landscape of combat sports underscores the importance of staying relevant and meeting the ever-changing demands and expectations of the audience.