Boxing is sometimes known as “The Sweet Science,” and to those who appreciate it, the name fits. The foundational rules of modern boxing are over a century old: striking only with the fists, only to the front and sides of the body, and only from the waist up. In its practice and in philosophy, boxing is a mature sport; an endeavor whose science and theory are well established. But despite over a century of study and refinement (or perhaps as a result of that study and refinement), in terms of generating excitement, the old formula still works.
In fact boxing seems to be on the rebound lately, both here in Minnesota and at the national level. In Minnesota, in particular, we see more cards, more fights, better matchups, and more good young pros today than in the recent past. It’s been said that boxing is a depression sport, and the recent down economy may deserve some of the credit for boxing’s current surge, but there’s much more going on than just a lack of other opportunities. The hypothesis behind this article is that the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts has been good for boxing. I will argue here that boxing has retained some marginal fans and added new ones by adopting some of the virtues of the most successful MMA promotions, and that given a level playing field, boxing has a natural advantage of MMA because its product is more compelling and exciting when it is well-managed and well-presented.
Boxing Borrows a Good Idea
The successful blueprint of UFC shows the importance of good matches and more frequent fights for the stars. Over a period of decades, and particularly with the proliferation of pay-per-view events, boxing had fallen in to a rut where the most successful fighters – the ones with the most draw – eventually became the least active. Some of the true greats of the sport believed that it was enough to fight once a year or less, as long as the one fight was a big moneymaker. And as far as the fighters and promoters were concerned it was working well for them; but it was killing boxing as a sport. Their complacency was killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. In MMA, by contrast, it’s the promoters who call the shots, and they have established a practice of keeping their fighters active while matching strength against strength – a practice which boxing promoters have now begun to emulate.
“A lot of old-school boxing fans don’t want to admit that boxing has benefitted from MMA’s influence,” says North Dakota boxing commissioner Jesse Barbot. “But boxing promoters are getting big fights done. With MMA as an alternative, people aren’t going to pay for shitty cards. Look at the last four or five years, the most popular years for MMA. Look at the matchups, and boxing has totally stepped up.”
The Revival of Combat Sports
Sports fans in the US and Canada had grown bored with combat sports before MMA came along and renewed interest. There is no consensus on the subject, but I believe that the rising tide created by MMA – particularly by the remarkable popularity of UFC – has lifted boxing at the same time. KJ Noons, who has compiled a boxing record of 11-2 with 5 knockouts and an MMA record of 7-2 with 7 knockouts, agrees that the rise of MMA has brought boxing into the view of new potential fans: “MMA has the newer generation of fans, where a boxing match will have an older crowd. I think as both generations watch both sports the fans will become more educated on both and will be able to appreciate both sports as skilled and different sports.”
Another adherent of this theory is ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore. “I agree with that 100%,” says Tessitore. “When people are exposed to combat sports and they become more attuned to what is a combat sport, they develop more of an appreciation for boxing…Listen, I respect MMA very much – and anyone who goes into a boxing ring or an octogon – but I think that the emergence of MMA has brought some people back to boxing and for other people, it brings them to boxing for the first time. MMA brings people in, and when they’re exposed to boxing, they begin to appreciate the higher skillset of boxing. They begin to develop an appreciation for counterpunching, for crisper punching, more accurate punching, for slipping and moving.”
This brings to light one of the challenges that MMA has to overcome; its practitioners tend to be jacks of all trades but masters of none. Theoretically the typical background for an MMA competitor will be a mix of wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, and maybe a smattering of eastern martial arts. But rare is the MMA combatant who is adept at multiple disciplines. Noons oberves, “I think a lot of guys who get into MMA forget that the fight starts standing (boxing) and if you’re not efficient in that first, you’re gonna have problems.” In fact, some young fighters turning pro in MMA have no fighting background at all. According to Barbot, “Boxers are better prepared for a pro career because they’ve had game experience, they’ve had experience in how to conduct themselves in the ring, and if they’ve been successful, they’ve had experience in how to conduct themselves out of the ring, with the press, for instance.” Barbot, himself a dual-threat during a combat arts career during which he compiled records of 8-0 in MMA and 6-5 in boxing, envisions a scenario where a gifted young athlete never even gets his MMA career off the ground: “In MMA you could turn pro without any real experience. You could have a talented young guy who isn’t good in his first year, he loses three or four times in that first year, and his career is down the tubes.”
Boxing definitely seems to be on the rebound lately; it’s getting more press (both good and bad) than its had in a decade, compelling matchups being made more frequently in the last three years than at any time in the previous fifteen years, and pay-per-view sales that compare favorably to the best that its main rival has been able to generate. Whether this upturn in boxing’s fortunes is a long-term trend or a short-term anomaly will depend to some degree on whether boxing (to the extent that it can be characterized as an entity) makes a concerted effort to gain new fans by capitalizing on the new wave of interest in combat sports which has been generated by MMA.