News analysis: Instead of killing boxing, the UFC plans to use it as a lifeline

At 4.3 million pay-per-view buys, the Mayweather-McGregor bout was the biggest event the UFC has been involved in.
At 4.3 million pay-per-view buys, the Mayweather-McGregor bout was the biggest event the UFC has been involved in. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Boxing is dead. This is hardly news to anyone. According to boxing historian Patrick Connor, the phrase was first uttered in 1899 by William Brady, manager for heavyweight champion James Jefferies.

By 1961, Jack Dempsey blew out the candles on his 66th birthday, lamenting: "Without fresh talent, boxing is dying."

Even as the 1965 rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston headed to Lewiston, Maine, a bewildered Rocky Marciano told the press: "I don't care who sees what on TV. Boxing is dead."

The chorus grew after Mike Tyson retired in 2005. And it was deja vu all over again last year after Floyd Mayweather Jr walked away as boxing's first minted billion-dollar earner against Conor McGregor.

The newest cause of boxing's death?

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The mixed martial arts' exploding popularity, we hear, is hammering yet another nail into boxing's coffin. Founded in 1993, the league has flourished since its inception, and in 2016 it was bought by WME-IMG (now Endeavor) for US$4.2 billion (S$5.51 billion).

Dana White, the company's perpetually warring 48-year-old president, has boasted that the UFC's popularity could eclipse not just boxing but also the global popularity of the National Football League, which stood to make US$14 billion last year.

Thomas Gerbasi, the UFC's editorial director since 2005, is optimistic. "We're rolling long," he says. "Look at Dana's track record. He's not a guy who says something and it doesn't happen. He's a man of his word, and the results speak for themselves."

But when White announced last year, fresh off the successful Mayweather-McGregor fight, that the UFC would be getting into boxing, it confirmed what many insiders already knew: Without fresh talent, the UFC - not boxing - would be dying.

"WME buying the UFC for US$4.2 billion is starting to look like Time Warner's decision to merge with AOL," said Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times and one of boxing's elder statesmen, Kurt Emhoff, a sports attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres, is more blunt: "The worst-case scenario is that they just bought Myspace."

Contrary to public perception, boxing gets consistently higher ratings than the UFC and attracts more viewers in America's 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Almost two million tuned in to watch boxing's super featherweight championship broadcast on ESPN in December, headlined by Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, at Madison Square Garden. It was the second-highest audience for boxing on basic cable since 2012 and more than twice that of the UFC's competing telecast on FS1, which drew 870,000 viewers.

After the championship, promoter Bob Arum told reporters: "Boxing is not an old man's sport. Our demographics are young. We've been up against (the UFC) three times on a level playing field, and when (boxing's) free, we beat the pants off them, in the overall rating and the demographics everybody is looking into." Lomachenko and Rigondeaux's telecast made it four times boxing won.

The UFC had its best year in 2016, when it hosted five events that topped one million pay-per-view buys.

"That's unprecedented in all of combat sports," said Emhoff, who has advised both boxers and mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters over the course of almost 20 years as a manager.

That type of success has not been sustainable. A Jan 27 fight on Fox drew 1.593 million viewers and a 0.5 rating among the 18- to 49-year-olds, the lowest in series history and a 20 per cent drop from 2017. The UFC event a month before that drew an 0.6 rating.

"The UFC tend to kill their idols," Emhoff says. "By having the best facing the best constantly, they are wearing out all of their top fighters."

By 2017, the UFC had lost Ronda Rousey, a fighter who transcended combat sports and became one of the most famous faces in America. Anderson Silva and Jon Jones - arguably the two best MMA fighters in the history of the sport -have both tested positive for PEDs on multiple occasions. Brock Lesnar, another major attraction, has also tested positive more than once and joined Rousey in the WWE. George St-Pierre, one of the most popular MMA fighters, reemerged last year for one fight but is now out indefinitely with a case of colitis. (His pay-per-view numbers were south of 900,000 buys, well below projections.)

The audience, too, is getting older. A study published last June by Sports Business Journal analysed how each sport's demographics have changed in the last 10 years; it found that the median age of TV viewers who watch MMA increased the most, to 49 from 34. The actual median age of its fans, the UFC said, is 39.

But the biggest threat -and biggest potential - comes from its best-known star, McGregor, who has publicly declared he will not return to compete in the octagon unless he receives partial ownership and equity in the company.

"They (UFC) have got to entice me now because I came from a billion-dollar fight," he said recently. "You've got to entice me with some equity. I want ownership. I want to be true partners in this."

The Mayweather-McGregor bout was the biggest event the UFC has been involved in. And at 4.3 million pay-per-view buys, it was the second-biggest pay-per-view event of all-time, second only to Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao in 2015.

"Even as a B-side, the company made more money off that event than anything they've produced on their own," says Emhoff. "So their 2017 revenues were probably pretty high as a result. But, going forward, it's all pretty dependent on the new TV deal they negotiate and whether McGregor comes back to fight."

This erosion of viewers comes as UFC and Fox negotiate the terms of a new television deal. The current one, which expires this year, was seven years for US$800-$900 million, averaging between US$120-$140 million per year. In August, on the same day as the Mayweather-McGregor fight, ESPN announced a four-year deal worth an estimated eight figures with Top Rank boxing to take championship fights back from the premium networks such as HBO and Showtime.

The reality of cord-cutting has affected all of the sports networks, and ratings for live sports are down across most categories. Add in the UFC's 2016 numbers, and ESPN- already extended from existing sports league deals - may not be in the running. The UFC has projected that a new deal could be for US$400 million, but Fox just paid roughly US$660 million to broadcast Thursday Night Football, another sport with declining ratings.

The UFC is still tremendously popular overseas, especially in markets such as Brazil and Poland that boxing has never conquered. According to numbers provided by the UFC, a November fight at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai drew more than one million live views on PPTV, China's main sports provider, and an additional one million in video on demand. Part of Endeavor's purchase hinged on its abilities as a global event manager to maximise revenue from markets such as these. But all signs point to it eventually teaming up with enigmatic boxing adviser Al Haymon to gain access to his vast roster of boxers.

Perhaps the UFC, like boxing, will survive its death sentence for the next 120 years. There have been many lean periods in boxing, too, after its most marketable names walked away. The sport has survived 24 years of competition with the upstart UFC.

Long-time HBO boxing colour commentator Larry Merchant summed up the sport as succinctly as anyone: "Boxing … can't fix it, can't kill it." Merchant's HBO colleague Jim Lampley expanded on the point recently on a podcast with sports writer Bill Simmons. "I say the same thing to anyone and everyone who denigrates the sport," he said. "As long as human beings walk on this planet, men are going to fight men for money, somehow or another. The only question is, how is it administered? You need legitimate governance. You need a responsible approach. And it's never happened."