Boxing is a staple of world sports history - it is often referred to as 'the sweet science'; it is a brutal sport that feeds the public's insatiable desire for hand-to-hand combat at its very best. But, the days of Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Pryor, and Arguello are over. Boxing, to its detriment, has allowed the power of the sport to shift from the organizing bodies to the matchmakers and media executives. The most powerful people in boxing today are promoters / managers (Oscar De La Hoya - Golden Boy Promotions, Bob Arum - Top Rank, Al Haymon - Infamous manager of a disproportionate amount of boxing's top talent. including Floyd Mayweather Jr, etc.) and the executives at HBO and Showtime - they are the ones who make the fights happen and unfortunately, they work on a timetable predicated on money, rather than great fights. Today, there are a lot of great fights that are never made and it's not because the boxers don't want to get in the ring - it's because the promoters don't want to put their prized money-making assets at risk.
The lack of structure and ongoing free-for-all (from matchmaking to weight class distortion to judging) that has created the current landscape of boxing has enabled other forms of combat sports to emerge, and some would even say surpass, the very status that boxing held for decades. The biggest disruptor in combat sports is the UFC and to its credit, it has created a structure that enables what everybody wants - the best fights when fighters are at their peaks.
To understand the dynamics of why boxing has been damaged and in turn, yielded popularity to Mixed Martial Arts (the UFC), you have to look at the underlying structure (or lack thereof) of each sport.
Independent Contractors vs. a League
- Boxing: Boxing is made up of 'independent contractors' who do not have a central governing body that dictates how fights are made, how proceeds are distributed, or even what weights can be used to segment the different weight classes. Sure, boxing has 4 major sanctioning organizations (WBC, WBA, IBF & WBO), but these organizations have lost much clout in recent years. The value placed on the 'belts' given out by these organizations has been greatly diminished - can anybody name the belts that were at stake in the most lucrative boxing event in history (May-Pac in May 2015)? No, because nobody cared. Boxing is not how it used to be, where holding a title meant something. The new standard in boxing prowess is Pay-Per-View buys and the resulting money that comes with it.
The great boxing analyst, Max Kellerman of ESPN and HBO, once said something very true about the structure of the sport of boxing: "Boxing is made up of independent contractors with the freedom to make as much money as possible, often at the detriment of the sport". He is 100% right. Mayweather-Pacquiao was a boring fight because it took place five years after it should have. If that fight would have taken place in 2010, I am convinced it would have been one of the all-time greats. But, by 2015, Floyd was still on top of his game and Pacquiao (shoulder injury or not) had slipped - he suffered a brutal knockout to Juan Manuel Marquez in December 2012 and some claim he has never been the same.
- UFC: The UFC is much more like a traditional league - think NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB. It has structure to it and a central figure (Dana White) that provides very strict rules and regulations over the sport. In the UFC, if there's a fight for the lightweight title, it's going to be at 155 lbs - no questions asked. That is in stark contrast to boxing where you'll see a 'middleweight' title fight (a middleweight is defined as 160 lbs) being fought at a catch-weight of 157 lbs. It is ridiculous.
Given that the UFC is an official league that dictates the rules of the sport and its fighters, it means that fighters are not in control of their careers like they are in boxing - control is with the UFC. There are many implications of that lack of control for UFC fighters, including money. No UFC fighter could ever dream of taking home over $200 million for one fight like Floyd Mayweather did after beating Pacquiao. Like any other league, the UFC sets how much fighters will take home. As a result, the best fights in UFC are made when the UFC thinks they are ripe based on the fighters' maturation of talent.
Since boxing has no central organizing body that governs the sport, it is now largely an incentive-driven game. Sure, the top talents in boxing are making more than fighters of the past, but we are not getting anywhere near the level of fights that we once got. But, until people stop paying for fights on Pay-Per-View (May-Pac generated 4.6M PPV buys equating to $410 million), does the sport have any incentive to change? Absolutely not.