Is boxing Dead? No, but MMA will be King soon enough…
If you ask most people who invented the telephone, chances are the answer would be Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was the first to obtain the legal patent for the invention, and as they say the rest is history. However a quick trip to the library can paint a somewhat different picture. My favorite contributor to this scenario is none other than Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci. Many believe the Italian-American innovator championed the idea years before Bell. The controversial legend of Meucci strikes a chord with me. Regardless of who invented the phone, he still deserved the respect of his peers for his groundbreaking ideas. My father and Frank join a long list of figurative “Meuccis”; men who stood at the cusp of greatness but didn’t get any credit. Be it fate or destiny, the UFC is the metaphorical Bell Telephone of mixed martial arts. Nobody can dispute its success and rightfully so. However, CV Productions deserves an asterisk in the history books.
Over a century later the United States House of Representatives passed a bill essentially honoring Meucci’s contributions with some clever wording giving him recognition “in the invention of the telephone” not necessarily “for the invention of the telephone.” It would have been a moral victory had he lived to appreciate it. This book represents a moral victory for CV Productions. Finally, a detailed account of mixed martial arts’ “Forgotten Forefathers” is documented.
The sport of mixed martial arts has come a long way since 1979 and even further since 1993. CV Productions took a groundbreaking step forward only to see the original UFC take two steps back when America was reintroduced to MMA in its pure unaltered state, a savage contest that boasted, “There are no rules.” It was a harsh “reality” check. In a sense, they [UFC et al.] couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
As outspoken as Senator John McCain was of the early UFC, the mixed martial arts community actually owes him gratitude. People have spent far too much time questioning his allegiance to boxing and his wife’s union with Anheuser-Busch [a major sponsor of boxing at that time] as the only motive to outlaw extreme fighting. In essence, he did us all a favor. The inaugural UFC was spectacle, not a sport and without his public crusade to ostracize the contests, the Ultimate Fighting Championship we know today may not exist.
McCain’s actions sparked the “necessity” of more rules, regulations and safely precautions; ironically the same rules, regulations and safely precautions that CV Productions were banished for creating. As a political science major, I can’t help but shake my head at the hypocrisy, but thirty-five years ago it wasn’t about “right or wrong”; it was about suppressing the threat of MMA.
The scales of justice were severely tilted by malfeasance, a fact fans would be hard pressed to dispute after digesting this book. I’ve heard that necessity may well be called the mother of invention but calamity is the test of integrity. CV was tried and true under the circumstances, setting a standard for years to come.
Tom McMillan of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote about the advent of mixed martial arts in 1980, “Although contestants are allowed to punch, kick, and wrestle, the action is not as savage as its newspaper ads indicate. There’s a doctor ringside, and the flow of blood is kept to a minimum. The referee closely surveys the fighters and takes points away for illegal tactics. Viola told the Tribune-Review, ‘They wear gloves and boots. It’s really refined. One guy even brought his two little kids to work his corner.’ McMillian continues, “In other words, it’s a cut above the old ‘Battle Royale’ brawls in South America where the only rule was to call the undertaker living closest to the arena.”
Even though most readers weren’t familiar with the “South American” reference, it was an obvious allusion to the Vale Tudo matches of Brazil and the stomping grounds of the Gracie family. McMillian didn’t know it at the time, but his words illuminate the philosophical difference between UFC 1 and CV Productions. It was a case of walking a similar path with very different destinations.
As for McCain and the MMA, it seems all is forgiven. On February 28th 2008, Anheuser-Busch announced that Bud Light, the world’s best-selling beer, would become the new exclusive beer sponsor for the UFC. The blue chip sponsorship agreement was renewed again in 2011; and Bud-Light continues to plaster the center of the Octagon today.
Boxing and MMA are still in a tug-of-war today, but the gap has closed considerably. While boxing pays its marquee fighters more lucrative salaries, its star power is fading fast. The Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao rivalry had kept the sport relevant among younger fans, but there is a lack of talent in the pipeline. On June 8th 2012, boxing’s creditability came under severe scrutiny once again following the controversial decision of Timothy Bradley over heavy favorite Manny Pacquiao. Critics lambasted the outcome with a landslide of strong statements. According to ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas, “Boxing is a corrupt sport;” a comment that sportscaster Linda Cohn made famous in the “twittershpere.”
According to some experts, the days of integrity in the sport of boxing are gone. Call it incompetence or corruption; either way it’s another self-inflicted black eye that has boxing purists and pundits calling foul. The scandal is just another example of a disappointed and already diminishing fan base, one that has been suspicious of fixed fights overshadowed by Vegas bookmakers for years. Pacquiao has fallen further from grace, suffering a devastating knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez. While boxing fans shelled out hard earned cash to watch PacMan kiss the canvas on HBO, the UFC treated its audience to a “free” PPV caliber card on FOX; a savvy move by Dana White and company. Punch—Counterpunch.
UPDATED: Pacquiao, tarnished by two losses, squared off with Mayweather in the so-called dream fight May 2nd 2015. It of course didn’t live up to the hype, but was pay-per-view gold becoming the highest-grossing PPV in history. Now that the smoke has cleared, what does boxing have left to offer young fans? We’ll get to that soon.
Boxing may be its own worst enemy with no true structure. Fans don’t always experience the best matchups and judges have relatively no accountability for their decisions. Boxers and fans alike feel disenfranchised, manipulated by conspiracy, greed and bribery. For all intents and purposes MMA is monopolized by the UFC, an organized body that has the power to give the public fights they want to see with a unified champion. (It’s worth noting that Federal Trade Commission did investigate possible anti-trust law violations against UFC’s parent company Zuffa, LLC. The probe was urged on behalf of the Culinary Union, an outspoken critic of the Fertitta brothers, who besides owning the majority stake in Zuffa, also operate a large “non-union” gaming business in Las Vegas, Station Casinos.)
Boxing still thrives among older audiences who reminisce about iconic figures like Ali and Frazier. I myself grew up in the age of Nintendo, playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! and watching the “Baddest Man on the Planet” thrash everyone in his path during 1980s. “Iron Mike” was bigger than boxing, a persona he took to an entirely new level. Tyson was ferocious; the most feared and intimidating man to ever step into the ring. He acted with sheer malevolence, “When I fight someone, I want to break his will. I want to take his manhood. I want to rip out his heart and show it to him,” snarled Tyson in a 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated.
In 1990, the undefeated and seemingly invincible Tyson was upset by James Buster Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, shattering the undisputed image for millions of fans. I watched in disbelief as Tyson fumbled to find his mouthpiece, down for the count. It was one of the biggest upsets in sports history and in some strange way opened the door for a resurgence of MMA. With the UFC looming on the horizon, it wouldn’t take long for Royce Gracie to claim the title as the new “Baddest man on the planet.” Tyson was out and Gracie was in; a changing of the guard.
In recent years, boxing and MMA diehards have begun choosing sides. While the stereotypical UFC-type comment remains, “Boxing is your Grandfather’s sport,” The boxing “establishment” has also gone on the offensive; Ding-ding-ding. Let the mudslinging begin.
In an interview with Ariel Helwani for Fanhouse.com, Bob Arum [Top Rank Boxing] refers to MMA as “garbage” and offers a skewed view of its audience, “UFC are a bunch of skinhead white guys watching people in the ring who also look like skinhead white guys.” He continues his rant, “For me, and people like me, it is not something they ever care to see. They’ve watched it. It’s horrible. Guys rolling around like homosexuals on the ground. It is not a sport that shows great, great talent.” As for Dana White [UFC President] he doesn’t sugarcoat his feelings about Arum, “I can’t stand him, he makes me sick… He’s a phony, he’s a liar, he’s what I hated about boxing when I was growing up. He’s one of these lying two-faced pigs who has destroyed the sport of boxing.” Further, “He’s a scumbag who actually thinks he’s a pillar of society who destroyed the entire sport of boxing and has done lots of dirty things.” Whether it’s 1979 or 2013, it seems as if some things will never change.
In a sense, the times have changed though, and today if you ask any kid who the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World is, you’ll likely get a blank stare. I’m afraid boxing has lost some of its charisma and will continue to have a difficult time winning over new young fight fans. While a faction of boxing’s hierarchy clings to hope that the sport can remain viable, other experts have offered a more candid forecast of the future. Boxing examiner Charles Jay stated in 2011, “Boxing is now behind and is playing a game of catch-up that it will not likely to win, and there is, at this moment, no ‘Hail Mary’ in the playbook.”
As we watch the scenario unfold, power players continue to weigh in on the subject. On June 14, 2012 Mike Tyson was asked by complexsports.com, “Do you see that sport [mixed martial arts] as a threat to boxing? Or do you think they could coexist? His response, “Hey, listen man, a threat to boxing? It’s already defeated boxing. It’s all about MMA right now.” It was an inevitable reaction, one that boxing promoters have dreaded for decades and why CV was shut down.
Boxing and MMA started sparring in 1979, knocking CV Productions to the canvas by 1983… it was merely round one of a thirty year title fight, one that is only now approaching the final bell. Regis Accettulla may have been the Pennsylvania Athletic Commissioner in the 1980s, but he was a de facto bodyguard for boxing. There was no sense of reasoning, no Larry Hazzards or Marc Ratners in the fold. Today, ideology has changed, and leaders like Ratner accept the boxing/mma dynamic in a very different way. His analogy, “In real life I have two kids, and in my sporting life I also have two. My older child is boxing, my younger child is mixed-martial-arts, and I love them both.” That’s compromise. I just can’t help but think what might have been—where the Super Fighters would have gone.
The boxing versus MMA saga will ultimately be determined by the next generation. From my perspective mixed martial arts, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling schools are thriving, while many boxing gyms are struggling to keep their doors open. Teenagers today wear BJJ Apparel and clothes while dreaming about entering the octagon. MMA is trendy and gaining momentum. While there is certainly room for both sports to flourish, Mixed Martial Arts has undoubtedly poised itself to challenge the “King.” Fans can make their own predictions of who will ultimately take the crown, but personally I am betting on the dream of two men, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri.
The climate has changed since the original release of Godfathers of MMA (2014) but the boxing / MMA dynamic has never been more prevalent. In 2016 the Feritta brother’s cashed out of the MMA game to the tune of an unprecedented $4 billion (that’s with a “B”), passing the torch to WME-IMG. New ownership began cleaning house; trimming the fat by eliminating legacy positions and ousting everyone from commentators to matchmakers; but two things remained constant: 1. Dana White (who inked a 5-year deal) and 2. The haves and haves-not (aka underpaid fighters). As many experts label the gap as exploitation, athletes have been forced to think outside the box.
While UFC 3.0 was busy adjusting operations, their biggest asset was flirting with the “enemy.” Connor McGregor, the UFC’s poster boy, began courting pretty boy Floyd, taunting him to come out of retirement for some “fantasy” fisticuffs. The industry response: “This is a joke!” A year later and the one they call “Notorious” was able to broker the most lucrative fight in HISTORY weighing-in with more twitter jabs than boxing wins. In the image of Ali vs Inoki, Connor scored the ultimate prom date and the two most polarizing figures in combat sports are set to dance August 26th at MGM Grand.
McGregor stands to be the wealthiest “MMA” athlete in history (his cut estimated upwards of $100 million) from a boxing contest? I say “contest” because “it is what it is.” Floyd is one of the best P4P fighters of all-time, and Connor is a 0-0 novice in the professional squared circle. The Irishman (who at one point was collecting welfare checks) earned a paltry $16,000 in his UFC debut (April 2013). Although he currently leads the roster (disclosed pay of $3 million for UFC 202), it pales in comparison to comparable boxers. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Connor is a marketing juggernaut. Win or lose, he wins! If by some miracle he lands the Hail Mary “puncher’s chance,” he’s instantly immortal. If he loses, he was supposed to! Either way he bags the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that “he” hustled—Genius. The entire scenario takes us back to 1979 and the allure of the Tough Guy Contest. McGregor vs Mayweather isn’t about boxing per se, it’s a “what if” contest. Boxing fans are salivating to see Connor get his ass kicked, while some MMA junkies still believe in Lucky Charms. Connor is an “average Joe” in the world of pugilism and yet the age old question still has a billion dollar answer.
I’d be remiss not give CV Productions a preverbal pat on the back; they created a business model with market share in line with other professional franchises at the time. In 1980 the average NFL salary was $78,657 and the Tough Guy Champion was slated to take home 100K. With a nearly 14-year jump start on the UFC, it begs to ask the obvious; would such a gap and disparity between boxing and MMA exist today if the sport wasn’t outlawed? Chalk it up to another reoccurring, “what if?”
Read about the 40 year struggle between boxing and MMA in the book “Tough Guys” www.godfathersofmma.com