The rapid rise of the UFC, combined with boxing's decline in the American mainstream, has led to a slew of pundits, including yours truly, suggesting that the sweet science has plenty to learn from its cage-fighting brethren.
And it's true.
The UFC does many things extremely well, and its success has not come by chance. From providing excitement up and down the fight card to expert use of social media, the UFC has much to teach its older combat-sports brother.
Former junior welterweight boxing champion Ricky Hatton pinpointed the most important lesson after he spent a little time studying exactly how the neophyte Las Vegas-based MMA promotion has managed to do so well in recent years (via Gareth Davies of the Daily Telegraph, h/t sportsnet):
What boxing can do is learn from what the UFC is doing. One thing that hinders fighters is not being able to get the fights they need as quickly as they need. I’d like to see boxing’s promoters work more closely together. It would be for the good of the sport.
But that doesn't mean the UFC has it all figured out. Boxing promoters have been raking in money hand over fist since John L. Sullivan was boasting he could "lick any man in the house" way back in the 1890s. There are some time-tested tricks boxing folks use very, very well that the UFC would be smart to pay careful attention to.
The best thing boxing does is build stars. A cynic might replace the word "build" with the word "manufacture."
Either way, by the time boxing's best young fighters are ready to take on the world, they have been carefully matched in a way that maximizes their strengths, minimizes and slowly works to improve their weaknesses and gives them a chance to build a fanbase on increasingly large television platforms.
The UFC doesn't nurture its young fighters in the same tender way. Instead, matchmaker Joe Silva tends to throw them to the wolves, demanding they sink or swim—early and often.
Take, for example, the 2010 fight between then-25-year-old wrestling star Phil Davis and then-23-year-old Swedish striker Alexander Gustafsson. In boxing, these two prospects would have been on parallel paths, learning and developing at the same time. When and if they met, it would be in a fight that mattered, sometime well down the line.
In MMA, they met up in what was just the second UFC fight for both young fighters. Davis got the better of Gustafsson that day, meaning before he'd ever had the chance to shine, a young prospect faced a very public and very bitter defeat. That fight should have never happened—and it wouldn't have in boxing.
Once a star is built, even if you take the long way around like the UFC does, he needs to be propelled onto the national scene. The UFC hasn't had great success making this happen. They've had one notable success in Chuck Liddell and another work in progress in Jon Jones. The rest of their crew are stars only in the insular world of fight fans.
The bulk of the UFC's television time is spent attempting to make a name, not for potential pay-per-view drawing cards but for young fighters, often no-hopers, on The Ultimate Fighter reality show. There's very little time or promotional muscle left for fighters climbing their way up the ladder, the grinders who build their success in tiny increments on card after card.
Boxing has been kind enough, however, to leave behind a template for making a rising boxer a bona fide star. HBO, along with the gifted Floyd Mayweather, turned the young fighter from pay-per-view bust to pay-per-view sensation with their own reality television special called 24/7.
Instead of investing hours and millions into fighters who will likely never leave the undercard, boxing turns its attention to the top of the card. 24/7 and All Access on Showtime let fans know what fighters are like outside the ring, and media tours to select cities make every major fight feel like an event, not just another night of television.
As yet, the UFC has been content to promote its brand over any individual fighter. National media about the group almost always features the promotion's owners and president Dana White. Attention, and credit, is rarely deflected to the fighters themselves. It's a major part of the reason boxing has cornered the market on the "mega event."
When Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao fight, it's national and international news. Canelo Alvarez and Adrien Broner are well on their way to the same kind of stardom. If the UFC wants to follow in those footsteps, the blueprint of success is there waiting for it. The UFC will just need to follow boxing's footprints. They've been there for years.
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