July 18, 2024

Friday Fights: Rise from the ashes

Although boxing has been the standard in combat sports for centuries, that has changed a lot in the past two decades. In this week’s Friday Fights, Adam takes a look at why boxing has declined and what has arisen to take its place.

The logo for the weekly column Friday Fights.

Boxing has been an established sport for centuries. It dates back to the third millennium B.C. and has always been a subject of human fascination. We have a strange penchant for violence, even if we don’t admit it.

For nearly that entire span of time, boxing has been the predominant combat sport. Yes, wrestling, grappling, karate, etc. have plenty of fans. But boxing has always prevailed as No.1.

That, however, has changed in a big way.

For quite a while now, boxing has been declining in popularity, especially in the United States. This is not to say that it is irrelevant or not popular, but it would be ludicrous to think that the sport is still on the same level it was decades ago.

There are a few reasons that can explain this trend – three to be exact.

First off, the sport has become exponentially more competitive since the 1990s. Before then, and even into the early part of the ‘90s, the United States dominated the landscape of boxing.

There were U.S. superstars such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and many others who were simply several cuts above their competition. But over the last two decades, the competition has grown infinitely tougher, particularly in foreign countries.

The continued growth of other nations, and the lack of superstars from the United States, has resulted in lowered interest of the sport. For example, think of the U.S. men’s swimming team. The only time they get any real interest is when Michael Phelps is involved. American viewers have shown that they respond much more favorably to dominance in sports outside the big four, rather than tough competition.

The second factor that can explain boxing’s decline is simply the sport itself.

There are an absurd amount of bone-head decisions that are made on a daily basis by people in and around the sport of boxing. Judges make horrendous calls during fights, boxing allows the few superstars left to dodge each other and the huge fights and promoters are able to manipulate things to their preference, which usually isn’t good for the sport as a whole.

There are also entirely too many “champions” in boxing. I use quotes because it feels like as long as you have a pulse and a jab, you can be a champion boxer now. There are four major sanctioning bodies in boxing – International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Organization (WBO) and the World Boxing Council (WBC).

Each of these four bodies have their own champion in each weight class. There are seventeen weight classes. That means that there can be 68 different champions in boxing at one time. There can be sixty-eight champions. At that point, the word champion becomes completely meaningless, if it’s shared with over five-dozen other individuals.

There are so many people claiming to be “champion”, that it creates major chaos and confusion. Casual fans become disinterested because there aren’t any stars to follow or clear-cut champions. And hardcore fans become agitated, because nothing the sport does makes any sense.

Then, last but not least, comes the third factor that has played a massive role in boxing’s decline – mixed martial arts.

Unlike the long history of boxing, MMA has been around for less than 25 years. In fact, the first known time that the sport was called MMA was around the time of UFC 1, the UFC’s first ever event, in 1993. That makes the sport just 23 years old – just three years older than myself.

However, despite its relative youth as a sport, MMA has had a meteoric rise in popularity. Particularly in the past few years, it has grown by leaps and bounds.

The reason for this? MMA has succeeded where boxing has failed.

MMA is an ultra-competitive sport, yet it has several superstars that fans can choose to either love or hate. There’s Ronda Rousey, there’s Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar and several others. And let’s not forget the biggest and brightest star of them all – Conor McGregor.

These fighters have larger than life qualities, and often times, larger than life personalities. They have also supported their stardom by succeeding at an extremely high level inside the cage.

Unlike boxing, MMA doesn’t suffer from chaotic, territorial devaluation of the title of champion.

Whereas in boxing there are four major sanctioning bodies, MMA only has one that is truly recognized and looked to. That is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Although there are other promotions with their own champions, UFC is undoubtedly the dominant promotion, and it’s not even close. The UFC’s champions are often seen as the “true” champion of their respective weight class in MMA. UFC also has the best talent from top to bottom on its roster, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind which promotion is the best.

MMA also isn’t plagued with terrible decision-making and head-scratching promotional moves.

Of course there are still controversial fight finishes and questionable decisions made by the organization, but in a much smaller amount. An overwhelming percent of the time, the fight ends with the right outcome and the promotion makes the right moves when booking fights.

There is a long list of things boxing would need to do if it wants to reverse this trend.

The sport and its organizations would need to get more involved and invested in the amateur level, improve its judging exponentially, take a lesson from the UFC and put together stacked pay-per-view cards (not boring, largely uninteresting ones), the amount of divisions and champions would need to decrease greatly and more.

Those are all things, that up to this point, boxing has proven incapable of doing. The sport seems to be stuck in the past, relishing in the “good old days” and not thinking about how to stay relevant and popular.

MMA is the opposite. MMA promotions, not just UFC, have shown themselves capable and very willing to challenge the norm and evolve as time goes on. In particular, the UFC has given the fans what they want and has been growing in popularity at a blistering rate. In 2015, the company agreed to a deal with ESPN to feature more interviews with fighters and more coverage for UFC as a whole on ESPN’s networks.

Combat sports is akin to the phoenix, from Greek mythology. The phoenix will combust and perish, only to rise from the ashes and be born again. That process is taking place right now.

Boxing is moving closer and closer to combusting, while MMA is coming closer to rising from the ashes of boxing and taking its spot as the king of combat sports.

Edited by Dalton King 

Featured image by Adam Milliken

Adam is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Tennessee Journalist and a Junior at UT. Most of his free time is spent watching sports, listening to good music, and enjoying life. If you wish to contact him, you can email him at amillike@vols.utk.edu, follow him on Twitter, @AdamMilliken14, or find him at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/adam-milliken/109/a89/a32.