User:PBergman/The Conflict In Modern Day Combat Sport

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This article will initially seek to analyse how and why the Ultimate Fighting Championship has come to prominence within the crowed global sporting marketplace. In answering this, the paper will seek to evaluate the current and historical divisions and shortcomings within Professional Boxing, as a comparative analysis to explain the explosion of popularity surrounding the UFC. This in turn will help to explain the effect the administration, organization, perception and participation within each sport has within the Australian sporting marketplace from a local participatory level, through to state and national levels. With the central point centring on how business and politics within sport reverberates through every level of involvement, effecting the current and future projections of a sporting culture.

Introduction[edit]

For decades Boxing has been the heavyweight champion when it comes to combat sports, but with the rise of a combat sport giant it could mean lights out for the divided sport. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and in particular the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is fast becoming a big fish in the world of combat sports, and it is the premier organisation involved in MMA. Mixed Martial Arts is currently the world’s fastest growing sport, with its appeal lying in brutal primeval bouts, undelayed with extreme skill and intricacy to detail.

UFC image by Bad intentionz
Boxing image by Wayne Short

Why then have we seen a steady decline in the popularity of Boxing, whilst a surge in support for Mixed Marshal Arts, when both sports are offering a similar product. The answer is an extremely prudent application of the importance of politics and business within sport. Whilst Boxing succeeded almost in spite of itself, it was because there was little other competition. Within this new sporting marketplace its deficiencies are taking a toll. A comparison of the two sports highlights how business models, politics and public perception of these processes are so important in the modern sporting market place.

The UFC is run with purpose, driven for success by influential CEO Dana White. Within the UFC, pundits get to see the top fighters in each division facing off regularly. It has a slick business model, attracting new fans through untraditional mediums. The regularity of the bouts (once a month) allows the viewers a feeling of certainty and builds anticipation. The athletes have very little say in who they fight and where, they are employees of a company pursuing and constructing a powerful brand, and a brands success is in pleasing its consumers. The UFC is run to attract fans, increase revenue, and grow the sport into new market places.

The Boxing game is run under completely different principles. With many competing federations, meaning multiple world champions in any division and thus a significant thinning of talent. Boxing is run on the principal of player power, a term often coined for team sports in which the players have more power than the coach or club. Within Boxing, the boxers and even more so, the promoters, hold the sport to ransom, in order to suck every possible dollar out. With money to be made, and injury avoided, facing vastly inferior opponents is the norm. Boxing is about the individual, not a brand or company. Boxing has always allowed itself to be exploited, a now soulless sport, driven by individual greed, enjoyed by few, and respected by fewer.

Boxing and MMA operate under two opposing ideologies, with one highlighting how business and politics can be used to explode a sport into popular culture, whilst the other how directionless business and politics can destroy a sport.

“Human Cockfighting” down for the count or just a wakeup call?[edit]

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has endured a turbulent ride on the road to becoming what it is now. The organisation has encountered its fair share of fights, and its story shows us how business and politics interact around an up and coming sport. This section will give an overall assessment of the UFC’s history and rise to prominence in the sporting world. The UFC was a deregulated combat sport making its first appearance in the United States on November the 12th 1993, in an eight-person elimination tournament and was only planned to be a one off occasion. The first UFC was a no holds barred tournament where the rules were minimal - with no eye gouging, and no biting being the principle limitations, with almost anything else being allowed. Critics decried the events as the most violent of spectacles; despite this – or perhaps because of it - the sport attracted enormous amounts of attention, both positive and negative. Much of this negative commentary came from politicians, notably the high profile John McCain, as well as state’s sport governing bodies, local governments and community groups; they likened the UFC to ‘Human Cockfighting’.[1]

Senator John McCain didn’t take the matter lightly, he prominently opposed the UF C and he personally led a campaign to have the sporting events banned. He was very close to being successful and in 1997 the fight against the new code became a realistic possibility because John McCain had convinced thirty six states to ban such events. When McCain became the chairman of the senate commerce committee he was able to influence many media companies into discontinuing their coverage and not allowing the program to be viewed by their subscribers. Almost instantly the number of households that could receive the events shrunk from 35million to 7.5million, and pay-per-view buys decreased from a peak of 350,000 to 15,000, the days of ‘human cockfighting’ seemed numbered [1]. By 2000 the Sophomore Entertainment Group, which owned the UFC, was losing money and was unable to deal with all of the legal battles it was facing, and on January the 10th 2001 the entire franchise was sold to Zuffa Entertainment.

The new owners realised that to be able to continue the UFC it needed to be sanctioned and regulated. They introduced rules to improve the safety of the sport, which was the main concern from all of the UFC’s critics and as a result the code was eventually legalised in Texas, California, New Jersey and Nevada. If the sport had not changed then it would not be operating today. Dana White - the current UFC president - has even said that John McCain saved mixed martial arts, and especially the UFC, commenting: “I consider John McCain the guy who started the UFC. If it wasn't for McCain I wouldn't be here right now. What people don't understand about mixed martial arts and the UFC is, what [McCain] was saying to the old owners is that you cannot put on fights in states that aren't sanctioned. It's illegal. You can't do it. You have to be sanctioned by an athletic commission, which we agreed with him on 100 percent.” [2]

Ever since, the UFC has lead the way for this rapidly rising sport and helped to turn it into an internationally acknowledged activity. By tidying up the sport, the UFC not only turned around itself as a business but was also able to change the view of one of their biggest critics and in 2007 John McCain said: "They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting anymore.[2]

Boxing in contemporary times, divided like a split decision.[edit]

Long gone are the days in international Boxing where one fighter can stand out from the rest and be crowned the champion of the world for their respective weight classes.“UFC doesn't claim to be directly targeting boxing, but the obvious mismatches, early stoppages and professional boxing's fragmentation of titles with four separate sanctioning bodies have all made the sweet science vulnerable to this clever mix of the martial arts.”[3] Much of the fighting in international boxing isn’t even between the fighters anymore; it is between the different sanctioning bodies, the promoters and it is a big struggle to get the best boxers in the world to face each other. International Boxing is divided by four major sanctioning bodies:

The fact of the matter is that these separate divisions leads to a lot of disillusionment in the fans as the best fighters very rarely face each other. The sport in the modern day has a divided nature that revolves around all involved trying to suck out every cent they can.Having five world champions in one weight class is a relatively normal occurrence in international boxing, along with this it can be spread out over the 17 weight classes. It really is no wonder why international boxing is in a maze of champions. There is no single champion for any weight class - they are all held between at least two fighters, because to become the real world champion you would have to win four belts from different organisations. Champions have the choice to face an opponent who is a real challenger, who will test them for their belt/s, or they could choose a fighter who lacks the ability to challenge them, but they can make the same amount of money and improve their personal record. This is why the quality of bouts in the sport known as the ‘sweet science’ aren’t so sweet for real fight fans. Boxing in today’s society isn’t about having the best quality bouts; it is all about the dollar sign and how much one can get out of the industry.

The Politics of Promoters[edit]

Boxing as a sport has faded since the days of the heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. This is partly due to the sport being divided by so many sanctioning bodies. Another reason why boxing is a dying sport can be blamed on personal greed and boxing promoters. On the other hand the UFC is booming in popularity, yet it does not allow promoters to feed of its product and this could be the crucial difference between success and failure. Don King will be used as an example of how boxing promoters seem to be dragging the sport into the final stages of the countdown. Don King is one of boxing’s biggest names, yet he is not the heavyweight champion of the world, he has no championship belt for any weight class, most of his fighting is done in courtrooms, but he is arguably boxing’s biggest promoter. Don King has generated over one billion dollars in boxing revenue; his largest annual salary was $70 million dollars in 1996[4]

While Don King was making so much money, his fighters weren’t and many of them took him to court, including big names such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Larry Holmes, just to name a few. [5]

Don King image by Shawn Lea from Jackson, MS, US

So how does one man, whose sole job is just to promote fights end up making so much money when his fighters do all of the work. “[Don] King still controls the heavyweight championship through his monopolistic manipulations of the ratings organizations. Even though champions like Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield have personally disliked him, they had to do business with him because his octopus tentacles still strangle the sport.”[6] The role of a boxing promoter is to organise and sell a boxing event, in order to make more money the promoter attempts to publicize the event as much as possible. A promoters interests often conflict with the interests of boxers, because the more money that the boxer gets paid, the less money the promoter makes from the event, so there is a constant battle between the two over financial issues. Promoters are able to twist and manipulate the sport through their power over the fighters, and they are the ones who really hold a monopoly over boxing. Many would argue that the violence in the boxing ring pales in comparison to the corruption of the business and regulation of the sport. In professional boxing, it is a frequent occurrence for promoters to steal fighters from each other, sanctioning organizations to make unmerited ratings changes without offering reasonable explanations and for promoters to refuse to pay fighters.[7]

While boxing is complicated with its sanctioning bodies and conflicts between promoters over fighters, the UFC is run very simply and effectively. It is purely run as a business; it is not disjointed, it is very straightforward with the CEO Dana White being the sole promoter for the organisation. The UFC as an organisation is in charge with setting up and promoting the fight cards, this in comparison with boxing is very simple as it rules out the chances of manipulation by different promoters. “Years of corruption, manipulation, and scandal have tarnished the sport [Boxing] to the point that it is hardly covered by the mainstream media. In fact, up-and-coming sports like mixed martial arts, the Ultimate Fighting Championship for example, have surpassed it in popularity”.[8] Essentially what the UFC has done as an organisation is removing the middle man from the sport and from this it has been able to grow into a reputable worldwide organisation that is transparently run like a business. It is not just MMA as a sport that has become so popular, but the UFC’s implementation of business like politics is proving to be a great strategy which in turn enables the fans to see fair and exciting match ups leaving people wanting more.

Does this affect Australia at a national, state and local level?[edit]

The rise of MMA as a sport and the UFC as an organisation really brings a new dimension to the fight arena in Australia at a local, state and national level. Local gyms are being forced by popular demand to offer MMA training, and whilst the largest fan base is in America the rapid rise of this sport is having a ripple effect around the globe. With international boxing gradually eating away at itself, plus marketing for organisations such as the UFC with video games etc, younger generations are falling away from the once loved sweet science of boxing and into this new exciting world of mixed martial arts. The rise in popularity for this sport in Australia is astounding. The first UFC held in Sydney, despite the lack of even one officially announced bout, sold out in the first two hours that tickets were available to the general public. The second UFC held in the same city equalled the record for the fastest sell out of tickets for a UFC event; it took a total of 30 minutes to have sold tickets to every seat in the arena. The rise in popularity of MMA at a grass roots level is evident in Australia. Chris Haseman a pioneer of MMA in Brisbane, and a wrestling coach for the Brisbane Broncos has witnessed the change: "When I opened the first MMA gym in Brisbane back in 1995 I would have been lucky to have 20 or 30 members in it. “[Nowadays]The two main [gyms] in Brisbane, they would be in the hundreds with regards to memberships.”[9] Johnny Lewis a dominant figure in Australian boxing believes that MMA as a sport has the potential to gobble up boxing as a sport very, very quickly. As well as this Noel Thornberry a well-known boxing trainer said in regards to MMA taking over boxing that “At the top, worldwide level I don't see it taking over but on a national level I wouldn't be one bit surprised." [9]

Conclusion[edit]

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was bought for 2 million dollars in 2001 and in 2008, Forbes magazine valued the organization at $1.1 billion.[10] which is evidence of the code’s dramatic commercial success. The reasons for this are clear and relate to having a good business model combined with an absence of divisive internal politics – unlike boxing that has become highly factionalised with different and artificial structures competing for the same shrinking audience. Until those involved in the administration of boxing are prepared to make sweeping changes it is likely that the relative appeal of the sport is likely to continue to decline, especially when up against a well-organised rival in the form of the UFC.In turn this will affect people from all over the globe from local cities to entire nations.

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Downey, G. (2006). "The Information Economy in No-Holds-Barred Fighting." Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy: 108–132.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Smith M D, June 22nd 2008. UFC President Dana White: 'I Consider John McCain the Guy Who Started the UFC'. Viewed on the 26th September 2011. http://www.mmafighting.com/2008/06/22/ufc-president-dana-white-i-consider-john-mccain-the-guy-who-st/
  3. Masters R. February 1 2010. The fastest growing sport in a cage – the mixed arts of combat and television, The Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/business/the-fastest-growing-sport-in-a-cage--the-mixed-arts-of-combat-and-television-20100131-n6jf.html#ixzz1bkYf2EB6
  4. Pulley, B. (2006). The King and His Sport at Twilight. Forbes.com, Viewed on the 24th October 2011. <http://www.forbes.com/global/2006/0424/042.html>
  5. Is King's Run as 'Teflon Don' Over? December 14, 2003
  6. Newfield, J. (2003). The Life and Crimes of Don King: The Shame of Boxing in America, Harbor Electronic Pub.
  7. McCain, J. (2004). "Symposium Sports and the Law: A Fighting Chance for Professional Boxing." Stan. L. & Pol'y Rev 15: 7-579.
  8. Jurek, M. J. (2006). "Janitor or Savior: The Role of Congress in Professional Boxing Reform." Ohio St. LJ 67: 1187.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Nancarrow D. July 9th 2010. The Rise of Rage in a Cage. The Brisbane Times. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/sport/the-rise-of-rage-in-a-cage-20100708-1027p.html#ixzz1bwgI3eJ4
  10. Brown, A. (2011). "The Fight for it All." Seidman Business Review 17(1): 10.


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