Rise of UFC at Boxing’s Expense

October 18, 2021

When Marvelous Marvin Hagler died in March at the age of 66, his passing was mourned by true boxing fans around the world. The fact he was 66 seemed quite surprising. His fights against the likes of Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard seemed just like yesterday, writes Gary Lemke.

They were, in fact, in the 1980s, when boxing experienced its glory days and years. Hagler, who lost only three times in a 67-fight career, including his last match-up, a 12-round points disputed defeat to Leonard, was one of the poster boys for the sport. Along with Duran, Leonard and Hearns they gave the fight game its box-office appeal.

Hagler’s three-round war with Hearns at Caesars Palace in April 1985 remains one of the most brutal, but beautiful fights at world championship level. If you haven’t seen the contest in its violent fullness, look it up on YouTube.

Boxing has been in decline for a couple of decades now, its demise brought on by the multiple world organisations, which have diluted the value of being a world champion, and the added weight divisions. There was a time when there were eight weight divisions and eight world championship belts.

Now there are 17 weight divisions and five or six ‘recognised’ organisations, all having their own champion and rankings.

The days of the best fighting the best seem long gone. Even the glamour event of the sport, the heavyweight, has suffered since Mike Tyson went into terminal fighting decline in the late-90s. Sure, we can probably name three heavyweights out there – Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder – while the best boxer, pound for pound, right now is Canelo Alvarez. 

As boxing has become more fractured and lost its Hollywood A-list appeal, barring a handful of possible match-ups, UFC (mixed martial arts) has grown in stature.

It was bought for $2-million in 2001, when Dana White was entrusted with expanding the fledging sport. In 2016 it was sold to a group of private investors for $4-billion. Five years later, the worth of the UFC is said to be closer to double that, between $7- and 8-million.

Boxing is not dead, nor will it die. It is one of those sports which requires minimal grassroots funding, and the act of one human fighting another with their fists has been around for centuries. However, in terms of professional sport and then again at the elite level, it has lost ground to MMA and the UFC which it is unlikely to claw back anytime soon.

The younger generation is attracted to UFC. There are eight weight divisions and eight world champions for men and women. The sport is brutal and it’s all-action. It also embraces women fighting on the same card as the men. It has moved with the times, while boxing has been left behind.

A UFC title fight lasts a maximum of 25 minutes, five rounds of five minutes. Boxing would only have completed eight of its 12 title rounds in that time frame, and for extended periods there is an awful lot of nothing much happening. There should be little surprise that UFC has grown in two decades from a $2m business to a $7bn empire.

We have tried to cross the bridge from UFC to boxing with the Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor ‘fight’, but it was a shambles. It’s like rugby union and rugby league are ‘rugby’, but not as the opposite code would recognise.

UFC brings a brutality and drama to the octagon, much like the ferocity Hagler brought to the square ring. Spectators and fans are drawn to the violence and TV ratings soar. The best fight the best and there’s no protecting of unbeaten records, like there is with boxing, where fighters are carefully matched by their promoters to pad out their CVs.

Hagler’s passing was a reminder of why we would get up at 3am to watch boxing beamed through to us back in the ’80s. He carried a torch for boxing but with his death that light has dimmed even more. Boxing is flickering and it will continue doing so, but to recapture some of its past glories it has to take a leaf out of UFC’s book and go back to basics.

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