As the UFC and HBO Boxing battle for the niche market of mainstream combat sports, fans are quick to predict the downfall of either side. The rivalry will die down over time, but with such a similar style of promotion, how long until corruption devastates the reputation of Mixed Martial Arts as it has boxing? MMA is still fairly young, so predicting its future requires a look at what has made organized fighting notoriously corrupt.

Boxing is both the most popular combat sport in the world and the crooked standard for athletic competition. The biggest problem is the boom-and-bust style of events. Unlike most sports where fans follow a team through a season and playoffs, boxing events are based around a few individual stars who rarely fight more than twice per year. Also, while having 18 weight classes may be easier on the fighters, it makes individual title-fights irrelevant to casual fans. Rather, only inter-league “undisputed” title shots, and undefeated champions against (extremely rare) dangerous contenders bring in the big money. Such factors whittle the cards down to an average of one huge boxing fight per year. As a result, profits are heavily consolidated and huge pressure is put on the judges, referees and promoters to produce a certain outcome.

Complicating things further is the relatively few people involved. HBO Boxing usually features 2 events per month ranging from about 1-4 fights on a card. That’s anywhere from 24-96 individual fights per year, involving a maximum of 192 boxers. By contrast, the NFL has 256 regular season games with up to 1696 players and an army of coaches. The small number of venues and boxers—combined with the absence of teams—leaves  less opportunity to develop a fanbase for fighters, let alone rivalries.  

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Much of the problem is therefore caused by the nature of the sport—individual-based with a shallower talent pool, hurt by the public’s preference for lighter, ball-chasing sports over competitive violence. But the killing blow comes from blatant sliminess on behalf of promoters and sanctioning bodies. Corruption is embedded in the structure of boxing; it is actually customary for promoters such as Don King to pay for hotels and meals for judges and referees. The close ties of promoters to sanctioning bodies also results in official rules being broken on a whim, such as Roy Jones Jr. having his WBC title reinstated after retiring. Furthermore, there’s no instant replay or overturned decisions except for a failed drug test. 

MMA, by way of the UFC, shares much of this flawed promotional structure, however, it is still in far better shape. An importance difference is having only 4 weight classes. That gives champs greater recognition as well as cramming each weight division full of contenders—thereby title fights are both more important and (potentially) more exciting. Another advantage is the greater variety of styles. An MMA fighter can be famous for submissions (Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera), wrestling (Georges St. Pierre), Muay Thai (Anderson Silva), or simply being a terrifying loudmouth like Brock Lesnar.This allows for more easily distinguished stars, bringing out fans for fighters who are not even in title contention—see  Forest Griffin, Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin. That fattens up the overall cards and reduces pressure to swing a fight or break sanctioning rules to make a fight happen.

There are also important differences in promotion. Rather than $15-30 million purses, UFC fighters live off of sponsorship deals with companies like Affliction, Tapout, Silverstar and Lugz. Fighters get relatively small pay for an actual fight, but a lot of wins can earn juicy deals—such as Georges St. Pierre being the new face of Under Armour. As a result, a fighter’s reputation is very important. While that may not directly prevent corruption, it helps keep the image a little cleaner—a conviction for say, rape, would make it difficult to get sponsorship and remove most of the financial rewards for competing. Most importantly, fighters sign multi-fight contracts with a promotional company, Zuffa, who handles all of the competitors, rather with an individual promoter who negotiates their matchups.

There are potential downsides to all these differences and certain problems remain unsolved. Most importantly, a fighter’s career is still largely out of his hands—instead of a promoter, they are held at the whim of an organization that may cut them at any moment. Nevertheless, as a whole, the structure that the UFC is setting up for MMA is not wired for dirty dealings like boxing.

The best evidence for consistency in these sports is the Pay-Per-View numbers. The annual top ten Pay-Per-View sales typically break down as 7 UFC, 2 HBO Boxing and 1 WWE. The UFC’s average buy rate is about 350-500 000 with a record high of 1.7 million for UFC 100. HBO Boxing holds the all-time record of 2.7 million for De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr., but has also had big events dip as low as 50 000. While MMA events do not come close boxing’s highs, they also stay clear of the bombs. Overall, UFC cards are far more consistent. That is important for maintaining a clean sport by making money on a regular basis rather than betting the house on one night of the year.

MMA and the UFC owe a lot to boxing; it carved a place for combat sports in modern society through ups and downs. But the most valuable thing boxing has done is made decades of mistakes for new promotions and commissions to learn from. Probably the only scandal that won’t eventually hit MMA is steroids, ala Baseball. However, MMA, by way of the UFC, has both important differences in promotion and style and the advantage of starting second, which provide a solid base to remain a legitimate, respectable sport in the future. 

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