The Peak @ Simon Fraser University
CUP —From the gladiators of ancient Rome to Ali versus Frazier, history demonstrates that combat sports are among the oldest and most enduring forms of athletic endeavour.
Today, title bouts in mixed martial arts and boxing attract millions of fans and dollars. Along with soccer, they constitute perhaps the only truly global sports.
But fight fans, often like the fighters themselves, seem bent on self-destruction, fostered through a never-ending debate between fans of both sports who insist that their discipline is superior in skill and entertainment.
For strict boxing fans, MMA is little more than organized street fights that are more spectacle than sport.
MMA advocates depict boxing as yesterday’s news: a sport corrupted by inside influences and consumed by your parents’ generations.
While both disciplines have their own set of distinct flaws, the increasing similarities — in structure, marketing and competition — mean the two sports aren’t as different as they appear.
The charges leveled against boxing, typically by supporters of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, are as familiar as they are ironically self-descriptive.
Certainly it’s easy to point to boxing’s complex, and arguably corrupt, conglomerate of alphabet soup governing bodies, an arrangement that breeds needless speculation as to who the sole champion really is.
Yet MMA’s popularity has led to a comparable explosion of about 50 worldwide governing bodies, each with its own set of champions and challengers. Confusingly, each of these bodies enforces such wildly different rules that they often seem entirely distinct from each other.
It’s also easy to forget that MMA, and specifically the popular UFC, only established itself in American sporting culture after it remodeled its rules, presentation and competition structure to mirror those traditionally held by boxing.
Early UFC events were little more than glorified tough-man contests; there were no rounds, no judges, no weight classes and events were held in the incredibly dangerous format of a 16-man, same-night tournament that could see a fighter potentially contesting four brutal bouts in as little as three hours.
It was little wonder that such mismanagement failed to attract any discernible mainstream audience and led fight fan U.S. Senator John McCain to characterize the event as a “human cockfight.”
Only after mirroring boxing’s standard of established, unified rules did MMA begin to move beyond a niche sport.
Boxing can also be criticized for its often underwhelming champions. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that fighters like Nikolai Valuev or Oleg Maskaev are anything but champions in name only. But again, the similarities between the old and new disciplines are as striking as the differences.
Only the most myopic of MMA fans would argue that their sport is without its own share of champions who rule in name only. For instance, Brock Lesner — a former Olympian and professional wrestler — is the present UFC heavyweight champion with only three MMA contests to his name, one of which was a loss.
Lastly, while organizations such as UFC love to tote their accessibility through cable TV, MMA has always looked to the lucrative dollars of pay-per-view: the medium of choice for showpiece events in both disciplines.
Both sports feature live events and reality shows on cable TV, but both have failed on network television. Boxing’s The Contender was switched to cable after the first season, and MMA’s network exposure on CBS was, rather idiotically, almost entirely dependent on the fairings of one-trick pony Kimbo Slice who underwhelmingly lost a prime time bout to an opponent from a lighter weight class who had only hours to prepare to face him.
While most would agree that Slice is a caricature of what MMA is all about, to the uninformed public and network executives, the damage had been done.
MMA entrepreneur and UFC president Dana White built his career on supplying an innovative product, directly marketed to the 16 to 30-year-old audience, that challenged the conservative rules and traditions of sports in North America.
But as the two sports grow increasingly alike, MMA’s distinctness fades and the need for it to re-evaluate its future grows.
Otherwise, it risks falling into the trap of a confusing array of rules and promotions built on the sort of profit-driven corruption that has cost boxing a generation of fans and gives any kind of sporting competition a needless black eye.