x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UFC popularity fills void left by boxing

Mudslinging is the traditional prelude to combat sport. It furthers brinksmanship and piques spectator interest. Fighters lay it on thick, and fans soak it up.

Mudslinging is the traditional prelude to combat sport. It furthers brinksmanship and piques spectator interest. Fighters lay it on thick, and fans soak it up. "If you dream of beating me," Muhammad Ali taunted George Foreman ahead of their Rumble in the Jungle clash, "you'd better wake up and apologise." Slandering opponents helps lure in audiences, and fighters and promoters use verbal sideshows to embellish main events, stoking the action spectators clamour to see.

The public's lust for violence is programmed in their DNA. Worship of professional combatants dates back to the Ancient Greeks - boxing's romantic forefathers. Gladiators and generals, however, are long gone. In recent times, from Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano, Ali to Mike Tyson, heavyweights have ruled the roost. Equal measures of revere and fear traditionally bestowed on the immortal ring kings. But since "Iron" Mike devastation ended in the early 1990s, boxing has lacked momentum; fans failing to resonate with new trash-talking wannabes.

Led by the UFC and its visionary president Dana White, mixed martial arts (MMA) has stepped into the void. Astute marketing and promotion strategies have their enhanced competition showcases, and the UFC's popularity is growing globally. "We have different audiences," said boxer-turned-promoter Oscar De La Hoya on the UFC recently. "We're in our own worlds. Let them do great, we're gonna do great and everybody wins."

Except not all parties are. The UFC, offering several clashes per show, is leading MMA to the mainstream, while boxing, with one main event heading fight night bills, is regressing. With a dearth of heavyweight contenders, it cannot compete and is waning. The heavyweight champion is Nikolay Valuev but the purists are lamenting the 7ft 2in Russian's reign. His main rival is David Haye, the former undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world who faces Valuev on November 7. Haye is an artisan of verbal and physical jousts, and could be the division's Lazarus. It badly needs him.

In truth, only the ultra-competitive welterweights are saving boxing from oblivion. Despite being described by White as: "horrendous ... boring," Floyd Mayweather Jr's victory over Juan Manual Marquez should set-up a best pound-for-pound encounter with Manny Pacquiao. As a match-up, it will trounce any corresponding UFC bill. But it is a one-off. White's regular UFC shows - one every four-to-five weeks - are winning the pay-per-view television battle. An absence of reputable pugilists is damning, as is UFC events' frequency.

Unlike boxing, poor contests are quickly forgotten. Not for promoter Bob Arum. "The majority of my generation agree it's junk," said the 77-year-old. It is understandable. Arum's generation watched Ali and the 1960s golden era; this generation has no such equivalents. Ultimately, pre-fight wars of words are no longer solely enjoyed by fighters. Opposing combat forms, jostling for superiority, are in on the act. The joy for the audience, is that it is yet to turn truly vicious.

emegson@thenational.ae