By Matthew Hurley: In its infancy the world of mixed martial arts that I would see late at night on ESPN held no interest for me. I found it to be slap-dash and amateurish and subsequently ignored its refinement over the years. It wasn’t until my friend Cazie, a boxing fan, became enamored of the sport that I realized UFC president Dana White’s work in progress had come into its own and in turn become a legitimate form of sports entertainment. Whether that growth in professionalism and popularity has been detrimental to boxing is really a moot point – boxing has enough problems within its own ranks to lay blame at the UFC doorstep. From insipid sanctioning bodies, junior titles, mismatches, endless overpriced pay-per-views and lack of free television exposure for up-and-coming fighters boxing’s waning popularity in the mainstream is truly due to cancers within.
UFC fans are as attune to their fighters skill sets, which includes everything from wrestling techniques to Ju-Jitsu to classic power punchers, as boxing fans are of their fighters. Some of the more slightly nauseating moves, such as the arm bar – the bending back of the forearm at the elbow that when locked in most often leads to a tap out – are, in fairness, no less violent than, say, a perfectly placed right hand to the temple from a murderous puncher like Thomas Hearns.
Unfortunately, for non-fans of the sport, many of the matches begin and end in grappling and jockeying for position. There are fighters more akin to straight up fighting like Andrew Silva, the middleweight champion, whose style is referred to as a striker. But it is the fights that usually end up on the mat that turn off boxing fans who wave off the UFC as inconsequential. These matches can become as tedious as two defensive minded boxers fencing each other for 12 rounds. But wrestling fans, as in college wrestling, enjoy the nuances going on when the battle reduces to the floor. Dana White monitors these bouts closely and if he is disappointed or senses that the audience is disappointed he has been known to punish the fighters by excluding them from future pay-per-view events. White’s motto is basically, “You don’t earn your money by providing excitement then go back to the end of the line.” If only boxing could have done that with John Ruiz.
Although there are several popular fighters there does seem to be a dearth of talent in a sport defined by five weight classes – lightweight (155), welterweight (170), middleweight (185), light heavyweight (205) and heavyweight (265). How else to explain the recent pay-per-view that I watched between heavyweight king Randy Couture, 18-6 and his upstart challenger Brock Lesnar, a recent addition to the UFC fold who entered his first championship contest with a paltry record of 2-1?
Still, the audience for the UFC isn’t interested in records, as many boxing fans remain. In boxing the over-estimation of an undefeated record has become a strangely important credential for fighters, particularly young up-and-comers. Most UFC fighters, from champions to contenders, have multiple losses on their record, but as long as they produce in the octagon neither Dana White nor the fans could care less.
I took in the Couture – Lesnar fight at Coop’s Bar & Grille, a local establishment in Quincy, Massachusetts with my friend Cazie. Coop’s runs all of the UFC pay-per-views and Spike TVs free bouts on multiple flat screen televisions and it has become a cash cow for the bar’s owner Mario Recupero.
At ten o’clock when the event started Coop’s was filled to capacity. Many people were left out in the rain. So jazzed was this crowd for the upcoming fights that the majority of the near dozen flat screen televisions were switched from the Boston Bruins – New York Rangers game to the pre-fight interviews with the UFC combatants. As a huge Bruins fan I found that almost sacrilegious, but so pumped up was this crowd that the hometown team became an after thought.
As the fights started I found more enjoyment in watching the intense audience in the bar than the fights themselves. After watching a few of these cards with my friend at home I can say, in the final analysis, that, well, I just don’t get it. But I can recognize a phenomenon when I see one. The UFC isn’t going anywhere and its fan base, though primarily men 18 to 35 also includes many female fans just as intense in their love for the sport as their male counterparts.
Before I left Coop’s I talked with Mario about these pay-per-view events and whether or not he ever shows boxing.
“I could never get the crowd for a boxing show that I get for the UFC,” he answered with a shrug. “I pay an $875 fee to show these fights and look at this place! I had to turn people away. And I’ve never had a problem with the crowd. Always well behaved; loud but well behaved.”
Mario went on to add, “Showing boxing just wouldn’t be cost effective. I’d pay the same fee but I’d be lucky to break even. The interest just isn’t there.”
When I mentioned the upcoming Oscar De La Hoya – Manny Pacquiao fight in December he just shook his head. “The interest, at least from my patrons, just isn’t there.”
As the satiated crowd filed out many people sought out Mario, asking when the next big show was.
“November 22nd!” he bellowed.
At the door I asked a few of the UFC fans what they thought about boxing. The replies were all similar.
“I don’t know any of the fighters.”
“Who is the heavyweight champ?”
One man said, “Boxing got boring when Mike Tyson lost it.”
The Tyson remark was telling. I can remember back in the day what we called “Tyson Parties”. This was when Tyson was arguably the biggest sports star in the world, with the exception of Michael Jordan. Even the girlfriends, who mostly detested boxing, enjoyed “Tyson Parties” because they knew the fight would be over quickly and in the process they too got wrapped up in the quick, explosive violence that typified a Tyson bout when he was in his prime.
Apparently the axiom ‘so goes the heavyweight division, so goes boxing’ holds uncomfortably true to many fans who have all but deserted boxing. Without a dominant, menacing Tyson-like figure guiding the ship fans such as those at Coop’s would rather watch the UFC.
In a recent conversation with Hooman Majd in Interview Magazine filmmaker James Toback reiterated that very point. Toback directed the documentary film Tyson that has garnered excellent reviews and debuted at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
“You know,” Majd says, “since Tyson – or maybe since Lennox Lewis – can anyone even name the heavyweight champion of the world? Unless you’re a real boxing fan?”
Toback is brutally frank in his assessment. “No, boxing died with Tyson.”
That is a heavy indictment of the sport and an obvious falsehood made by a man more intrigued by Mike Tyson’s story than boxing in general. Although Tyson represented a figure of iconic proportions the fact is that boxing history dictates that the most exciting divisions are usually from featherweight to middleweight. But Toback’s point, as well as those of the UFC fans I spoke with, holds an uneasy truth. Without an intriguing big man boxing suffers, and the sport has been without a notable defining presence at heavyweight for years.
As I left Coop’s my friend Cazie asked what I thought of the whole experience. Although I told him I still don’t completely enjoy the sport I have a newfound respect for it and for Dana White’s expertise in presenting events that are stacked with undercard bouts designed to pump the crowd up into a frenzy before the main event. Compare that to boxing undercards, which are usually abysmal (the recent Joe Calzaghe – Roy Jones undercard was one of the worst in memory), and the UFC is at least ahead of the curve in that respect.
As we were heading home Cazie was waxing philosophical about deposed champion Couture who lost his belt by second round stoppage to the hulking Lesnar. I didn’t mention the Jermain Taylor – Jeff Lacy bout that I was taping on HBO. I don’t think he even would have been interested; a notion that made me rather sad after experiencing the energy of the crowd at the bar.
The excitement I witnessed for this recent UFC show was not an anomaly. It was a microcosm of the ongoing popularity of the UFC and the indifference many contact sports fans have for boxing. But true boxing fans are as passionate about their sport as any UFC fan or fans of any other sport for that matter. Still, despite dozens of great fights that have taken place in the past two years even those true fans are waiting anxiously for some clarity in the heavyweight division. Hopefully that will come sooner rather than later and boxing will regain a proper foothold in the mainstream. Perhaps even Coop’s will show boxing on Saturday nights.
November 18, 2008