Instead of Killing Boxing, the UFC Plans to Use It As a Lifeline

Boxing is dead. Of course, this is hardly news to anyone. The public has heard the same death knell for years. According to boxing historian Patrick Connor, the phrase was first uttered in 1899 by William Brady, the 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 rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston headed to Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, 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 déjà vu all over again in 2017 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 UFC. The mixed martial art’s 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 $4.2 billion.
UFC president Dana White hosts a press conference prior to the UFC 220 weigh-in at TD Garden in Boston, Mass. 

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 NFL. (The NFL stood to make $14 billion in 2017.) 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 would be dying, not boxing.

Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and one of boxing’s elder statesmen, says, “WME buying the UFC for $4.2 billion is starting to look like Time Warner’s decision to merge with AOL.” Kurt Emhoff, a sports attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, 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 the 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Almost 2 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, 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.