The rise of MMA is one of the greatest stories in sport. It has grown from being perceived as a ruthless bare-knuckle sport featuring only tattooed-up jacked fighters to becoming a hugely significant part of pop culture packed with some of the most appreciated athletes on the planet. The growth of the sport has been meteoric and can’t be matched by any other. It’s thanks to the early stars of Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, and the Shamrock brothers et al who paved the way for some of the biggest names in sport today like Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagamedov, and Rhonda Rousey. Debating with sports fans about which is better is always a passionate affair, but when it comes to combat sports, many are speculating that MMA could one day overtake boxing as the most popular fighting sport.
MMA vs Boxing
MMA always had a market of fans eager to watch more than just fists fly, and they had already a pool of athletes ready to step into the octagon. Previously, competitors from a range of disciplines like wrestling, judo, and jiu-jitsu had no avenue to go down that could pay the bills and reward their abilities, this included many Olympians. It was only boxing that had a route to mainstream attention, that was until promotions like the UFC entered the fold. While the UFC was as raw as can be with no weight classes and very few rules when it began, this was slowly fine-tuned along the years and saw a particularly drastic change when the UFC was acquired by Zuffa. Zuffa, who was owned by Dana White and brothers; Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, really blew the roof off of the company and took the UFC to the next level.
While there were and are many organizations that contributed to the global rise of MMA such as Bellator, One Championship, and the now-defunct Pride FC, it is the UFC that led the sport to become the fastest growing sport that it is today, the 3rd most popular in the world. They knew what the UFC needed to do in order to achieve success. Their ambition pushed events out across the world to capture the interests of audiences in different countries. Strong marketing and promotions, especially on social media helped them ascend into the public conversation, especially when trash-talking clips of Conor McGregor or big knockouts such as Jorge Masvidal’s knee against Ben Askren go viral, it becomes inevitable that it will get people curious about the sport. They even tapped into a younger market by launching their crossover of fighting and reality TV back in 2005 with The Ultimate Fighter. The UFC has also been one of the most innovative figures of the sports by identifying the opportunities in broadcasting such as including subscription-based viewing models like the ‘UFC Fight Pass’. The UFC has developed a respectable and successful adaptation of MMA rules that has allowed it to move from lawless brawls to technical and entertaining battles of toughness and skill. On top of that, they have also managed to acquire arguably the best fighters in the world ahead of their competition. All of these changes now value the UFC at around $9–10 billion.
Another shift that gives a hint towards MMA’s position for popularity against boxing is the betting numbers. Many sports fans are following UFC odds more so than boxing. This is for sure partly down to the rise in popularity but also from a technical aspect that may offer better outcomes to gamblers. The fact is that in MMA, viewers are more likely to see definitive clear-cut results from knockouts rather than leaving it to the judges, which has drawn some levels of distrust in boxing.
To compare the two is perhaps slightly unfair, but they are both fighting sports so you can see how they get thrown into the same conversation. Boxing is a sport where fighters only use their hands, and those competing develop world-class skills both in offense and defense in the stand-up battle. MMA on the other hand allows fighters to use all kinds of different martial arts, not just the hands. Like boxing, victory can be achieved by knockout or by judges’ decision, but MMA also allows for submission wins. Whilst many UFC fighters would fall short when stepping into the boxing ring, Mayweather vs McGregor for example, it would be the same vice versa if boxers stepped into the cage, look at Couture vs Toney. MMA encompasses all elements of fighting and is considered a better form of self-defense which is why many fans are flocking to MMA.
The UFC’s and MMA’s boom can be traced back to around 2014 when the likes of Conor McGregor became a household name as he dropped the infamous line “We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over”. Perhaps his statement represents more than just his fan base, but the sport as a whole. The popularity of co-commentator Joe Rogan’s podcast has also had a significant influence on its rise to popularity.
Boxing has a number of big names, Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, and Canelo Alvarez to name a few. But the unfortunate thing is that we don’t get to see the big names clash, particularly in the heavyweight division in comparison with UFC. We’re still waiting for Joshua vs Fury. While it draws many new fans to boxing, a lot of boxing hype amongst younger audiences has come from YouTube boxing, make of that what you will. The UFC has one title per division (unlike boxing), meaning fans get to see the best against the best most of the time which inevitably leads to more unpredictable fights. MMA and boxing are both incredible sports in their own rights, but which will become more popular? So far, most indicators suggest MMA.
Roberto Villa is the CEO, Executive Writer, Senior Editor of FightBook MMA. Has a passion for Combat Sports and also a podcast host for Sitting Ringside. He’s also a former MMA fighter and Kickboxer.
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