The UFC Is The Fight Of The Century
How The UFC Has Gone From A Perceived Bloodbath To A Highly Popular Sport.
"We're not just here to take part. We’re here to take over.” Conor McGregor was talking about himself and the Irish nation he represents after an emotional victory in the Octagon back in 2014. But he could well have been talking about the sport he competes in.
In less than three decades, the UFC has gone from being perceived as a bloodbath freak show, to a highly popular sport with a regular global TV audience. Of the 10 highest Pay Per View audiences of all time, there are already three UFC contests – two involving McGregor. While boxing still leads the way, it is worth noting that three of those 10 are Tyson fights from back in the day. The recent Khabib versus McGregor fight is ranked third of all time, with only Mayweather versus Pacquiao ahead of it as a pure boxing title fight.
At number two is Mayweather and McGregor, when the two richest fighters in their respective sports, met on Mayweather’s terms. If McGregor was to rematch with either Mayweather or Khabib, then a new record might be set.
Conor has taken UFC to a new level. But Dana White is the man who gave him the platform and has set up the sport for success.
It’s as if Dana brought a communist ethic to boxing when he reimagined UFC. No more maverick promoters, individual fiefdoms, breakaway organisations and economic divide. Just one dictator, largely working for the greater good – as well as himself.
Yes, you can still make far more money as a top boxer (heavyweights Fury, Joshua and Wilder all earned as much as McGregor, if not more in 2019, with far less fanfare). But the fighters on the undercards of UFC make more than the journeyman boxers.
There is also only one organisation in the UFC, one main promoter and the events are organised and regular. Boxing tends to feel sporadic and random – big when a fight is being promoted, but you’re never sure when that’s happening next. Dana just decides to get it on for the good of the sport and, of course, himself and his fighters. Hearns, Warren, Haymon, Arum, Don King et al, shadow box in business for their own ends.
Boxing is also more confusing than ever to the average punter when it comes to who is the best.
In boxing there is the WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF. Only dedicated boxing fans could tell you which is the most important. Throw in 17 weight divisions for the boxers and that’s a hell of a lot of world champions. In the prized middleweight division, there are currently four different titleholders.
Watching Fury beat Wilder for the heavyweight title was exciting, but he’s only got one of the belts. He needs to fight Anthony Joshua for a couple of the others. Again, the promoters will decide if and when that happens.
UFC has eight weight divisions and eight champions – nine if you count Justin Gaethje, who has Khabib’s lightweight belt on an interim basis. It’s regular and pragmatic. More of a democratic feel to it, despite Dana the Despot.
There are even famous women in UFC. Most sports fans have heard of Ronda Rousey but would struggle to name a female boxer. (Muhammed Ali’s daughter doesn’t count.)
The only thing UFC truly lacks is a longer-term narrative, with drama and characters.
Boxing has a legacy – from Tyson to Marciano; the middleweights of the 80s (Hearns, Hagler, Leonard, Duran, De La Hoya). Characters like Don King. Legendary stories like the Rumble in the Jungle. Even fictional heroes in the form of Rocky and Creed.
That will come for UFC, though. In relative terms, it’s a baby. The man in the street knows McGregor. He might know Khabib (the ferocious Russian grappler, undefeated in 28 fights). But he probably couldn’t name Jon Jones or Georges St. Pierre unless he was a fan. Even Aussies might not know they have a world champ at featherweight in the form of Alexander Volkanovski.
You can be sure though that UFC is coming for boxing though, quicker than the right-hand McGregor dropped Jose Aldo with.
“I’m the fucking future,” said McGregor when he was still a fresh-faced Dubliner, fighting for a few quid. Again, he could have been talking about his sport, as much as himself.