GRINUPS: What can boxing learn from MMA and UFC to bring the sport back to life

By Nick Grinups, MMATorch columnist

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor (Photo credit Mark J. Rebilas © USA Today)

Mixed Martial Arts fans and especially UFC fans have been very pleased with the sport over the past two years.  Between the exposure, energy, fights, and the promotion’s willingness to listen to the fans, we have seen the sport reach new heights.  On the other hand, boxing fans like me have been frustrated.  I want to take a deeper dive on why this is happening and what boxing can take from the explosion of MMA and the UFC to bring the sport back to life.

Part 1: Too many weight classes

Boxing has 16 male weight classes.  Boxing weight classes: Mini Flyweight – 105 lbs., Light Flyweight – 108 lbs., Flyweight – 112 lbs., Super Flyweight – 115 lbs., Bantamweight – 118 lbs., Super Bantamweight – 122 lbs., Featherweight – 126 lbs., Super Featherweight – 130 lbs., Lightweight – 135 lbs., Super Lightweight – 140 lbs., Welterweight – 147 lbs., Super Welterweight – 154 lbs., Middleweight – 160 lbs., Super Middleweight – 168 lbs., Light Heavyweight – 175 lbs., Cruiserweight – 200 lbs., Heavyweight – 200+ lbs.

With having 16 weight classes, boxing is having a hard time promoting all of the champions in each division.  For a very long time heavyweights reigned as king and as the big money weight class in the sport.  But with the help from fighters such as Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao, boxing has shifted their interest to the lighter weights. The money weight classes now are at welterweight (147 lbs.), super welterweight (154 lbs.), and middleweight (160 lbs.). 

Now this is compared to the MMA’s eight male weight class system.  The MMA weight classes are: Flyweight – 125 lbs., Bantamweight – 135 lbs., Featherweight – 145 lbs., Lightweight – 155 lbs., Welterweight – 170 lbs., Middleweight – 185 lbs., Light Heavyweight – 205 lbs. and Heavyweight – < 265 lbs.

It should be noted that the UFC started with only five weight classes (155, 170, 185, 205 and HWT) until 2010, when the Zuffa owned WEC merged rosters with the UFC, which added 145 lbs. and 135 lbs.  Then in 2012, the UFC added the Flyweight Division, 125 lbs., to the roster.  This was a smart tactic to make sure that each weight class had enough depth and marketable names throughout the roster before expanding weight classes. 

The UFC had a similar history as boxing where popularity started with the heavier guys at 205 lbs., when Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Randy Couture took the sport by storm.  But now, like boxing, we are also seeing the rise of 145 lbs. and 155 lbs. fighters because of mega-star Conor McGregor becoming the money fight for the UFC.   Something you saw when Floyd Mayweather was at the peak of his popularity.

Part 2: Way too many Belts & Organizations

This is where it can get confusing for some very casual boxing fans.  You can have four different champions in one single weight class.   This is because there are four different organizations in the sport of boxing.  This means there is a possibility of having 64 different champions across the 16 different weight classes at the same time. This makes it almost impossible for each organization to successfully promote all of their champions and keep up with the boxers who are ranked below the top few contenders.

The major boxing organizations are World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF), and World Boxing Organization (WBO).

Each Organization (WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF) have a set of rules for their prospective champion.  These include conditions such as when the belt is vacated, what happens if a champion does not make weight, and how much each fighter makes and how it is distributed.  Most often, there is a time frame from when a champion has to fight the number one contender.  If the champion does not fight the mandatory challenger, the belt is considered vacant and the two top contenders will square off for the belt.  Fighters can be in multiple organizations and ranked differently.  Example: (A fighter could be ranked #2 in the WBA but ranked #5 in the WBO.)  Once a fighter wins two or more belts, they are considered undisputed champions.

Although many classify the UFC as the major promotion in MMA, you do have the likes of Bellator, World Series of fighting, and ONE FC.  The difference is in MMA you never see cross-promotion fights.  Instead, fighters will gain momentum and a following in smaller organizations before being signed by the UFC and getting a chance to perform in front of a wider set of audiences.

Part 3: Years of boring and bad match-ups

Boxing has been known to put together some non-fan friendly match ups over the past few years. The main reason for this is trying to keep a fighter undefeated.  This is one of the most important aspects for a boxer.  Boxing has a different standard than MMA where once a fighter loses he will no longer have the same marketability or push that he had before the loss.  In MMA, your marketability is based on the level on your competition, how you performed against them, and your style of fighting. Example: (Chael Sonnen, Robbie Lawler, or Nathan Diaz.)

When there are no title shots for belt unification or mandatory contenders available for the champion, match ups can get fishy.  This is when a promotion or a manager may choose to fight an opponent lower in the rankings to try to maximize the revenue with a minimum amount of risk.  Examples: (Canelo Alvarez vs. Amir Kahn and Floyd Mayweather vs. Andre Berto. This quota has made boxers and managers choose to avoid certain opponents until they get older, suffer a loss, or are forced too by their organization.  Boxers are looked at as almost a commodity and one bad match up and fight could end a boxer’s career before it even gets going.  Sometimes boxing is not fair to talented fighters because no one wants to fight them.  We are currently seeing this with Gennady Golovkin. 

Boxing had a chance to win back some non-traditional fans when Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather finally squared off.  This was after a decade of the fight being a possibility but never a reality.  Boxing promoters knew this was dubbed the “fight of the century” and they wanted to cash in on it.  The fight did over 4.6 million pay-per-view buys, but majority of the fans were very dissatisfied especially with all of the build up around the fight.  The public dissatisfaction of this fight left a bitter taste in the mouths of many boxing fans that do not exactly appreciate a defensive genius.

Since that pay-per-view fight, the majority of boxing events have underperformed with pay-per-view buys and overall ratings.  One of the biggest stars in boxing today is Canelo Alvarez, a Mexican fighter, who fought Floyd Mayweather at the ripe age of 23 years old who has benefited from carrying the weight of the Mexican nation on his shoulders.  He is a perfect example of a fighter whose promoters have kept relatively safe because another loss would have been detrimental to his career.  Having this notion of being one of the best Mexican fighters of all time comes with pressure but also a lot of financial incentives. 

Below are some notable boxing pay-per-views since 2014.  You will see a lot of the same names which could be a problem especially since Floyd Mayweather is retired and Manny Pacquiao seems to have one or two more fights left in the tank.  This is showing that boxing needs to expand and invest in more than just four or five superstars.

Notable boxing pay-per-views since 2014:

March 8th, 2014 – Canelo Alvarez vs Alfredo Angulo – 350,000 buys

April 12th, 2014 – Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley II – 800,000 buys

May 3rd, 2014 – Floyd Mayweather vs. Marcos Maidana – 900,000 buys

June 7th, 2014 – Miguel Cotto vs. Sergio Martinez – 315,000 buys

September 13th, 2014 – Floyd Mayweather vs. Maidana II – 925,000 buys

November 23rd, 2014 – Manny Pacquiao vs. Chris Algieri – 400,000 buys

May 2nd, 2015 – Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao – 4,600,000 buys

September 12th, 2015 – Floyd Mayweather vs. Andre Berto – 400,000 buys

October 17th, 2015 – Gennady Golovkin vs. David Lemieux – 150,000 buys

November 21st, 2015 – Miguel Cotto vs. Canelo Alvarez – 900,000 buys

April 9th, 2016 Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley III – 400,000 buys

May 7th, 2016 – Canelo Alvarez vs. Amir Khan – 600,000 buys

July 23rd, 2016 – Terence Crawford vs. Viktor Postol – 55,000 buys

September 17th, 2016 – Canelo Alvarez vs. Liam Smith – 300,000 buys

Notable pay-per-view buys for UFC since 2014:

March 15th, 2014 – Johnny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler – 300,000 buys

April 26th, 2014 – Jon Jones vs. Glover Teixeira – 350,000 buys

June 14th, 2014 – Demetrious Johnson vs. Ali Bagautinov 115,000 buys

July 5th, 2014 – Chris Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida – 545,000 buys

January 3rd, 2015 – Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier – 800,000 buys

January 31st, 2015 – Anderson Silva vs. Nick Diaz – 650,000 buys

February 28th, 2015 – Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zigano – 600,000 buys

July 11th, 2015 – Chad Mendes vs. Conor McGregor – 825,000 buys

September 5th, 2015 – Demetrious Johnson vs. John Dodson – 115,000 buys

November 15th, 2015 – Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm – 1,100,000 buys

December 12th, 2015 – Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor – 1,200,000 buys

March 5th, 2016 – Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz – 1,500,000 buys

April 23rd, 2016 – Jon Jones vs. Ovince Saint Preux – 450,000 buys

July 9th, 2016 – Miesha Tate vs. Amanda Nunes – 1,200,000 buys

July 30th, 2016 – Robbie Lawler vs. Tyron Woodley – 240,000 buys

August 20th, 2016 – Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor – 1,650,000 buys

September 10th, 2016 – Stipe Miocic vs. Alistair Overeem – 450,000 buys

One of the major differences between the UFC and Boxing is the use of undercards and co-main events.  Even when there is a highly-touted matchup or a highly-acclaimed title fight, the UFC will surround the card with other big name fighters and exciting match ups just in case the main event disappoints.  In a sport where knockouts and submissions can happen a blink of an eye, it is smart to produce other fights that could steal the card with different styles.

We have seen pay-per view boxing events with a lot of lopsided wins and ridiculous betting lines.  This means that even the bookmakers and the public already know who should win. We even saw this in the “fight of the century” between Mayweather and Pacquiao where Mayweather was a 2 to 1 favorite to win.  Who was on the undercard for that fight?  Exactly.

As mentioned before, part of the reason UFC has been doing well in pay-per-view buys is that they make the fights.  That is why for example you are seeing fan-friendly matchups like Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping this weekend.  If the fans want to see it, the UFC will do it. Boxing has had a hard time getting two fighters to fight one another and, by the time the fight happens, it is a couple years too late.  Boxing needs to book the fight when the hype is hot.

Part 4: Lack of new superstars

The Ring Magazines rankings of the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters, there are only two are Americans; Terrance Crawford and Andre Ward.  Of the top 10, only three of them speak English as their first language.  The UFC’s top 10 pound-for-pound rankings features six American fighters, eight of whom speak English as a first language.  This is a crucial part in promoting fights; ask Conor McGregor, the Diaz brother, Chael Sonnen, and Jon Jones to name just a few.   The top two boxing draws right now are Canelo Alvarez, who speaks no English, and Gennady Golovkin, who speaks very broken English.

If Boxing wants to get pay-per-view numbers back up, they need to take a look at the MMA model.  I do not see them combining organizations anytime soon or getting rid of weight classes (both I think are very badly needed).  But what boxing can do right now is simple – promote marketable fighters, stack the cards with exciting and known fighters, and try to create the most fan-friendly and common-sense ranking fights possible.

Like any product or service you are trying to sell, the customer is king.  If boxing continues to protect their high-level fighters from the best fights possible for the sport, the sport itself will suffer like we have seen.  I am excited for Boxing and what the future holds, I think there are some real talented fighters who can carry the sport for the next decade.  Let’s just hope we get a chance to know them and follow their careers before it is too late.

NOW CHECK OUT GRINUPS’ PREVIOUS COLUMN: GRINUPS: The Top Ten Fighters who have never competed in UFC, from Ben Askren to Lance Palmer to Michael Chandler

(Nick Grinups has previous written about MMA for He wrestled 15 years and ended his career wrestling Division I for Drexel University, where he graduated with a double major in Finance and Marketing. He wrote for the school paper at Drexel as well. He grew up boxing and doing judo to stay in shape for wrestling. He has also done some BJJ while training. He has been an MMA fanatic since 2006 and has been immersed in learning about the sport as it has grown. He is also a stand-up comedian in Philadelphia and involved in the advertising/marketing industry.)

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