Las Vegas - For fans of mixed martial arts, Floyd Mayweather
and Conor McGregor's super fight represents a battle between the past and future
of combat sports.
The powerful economic forces that made Saturday's bout
inevitable are testimony to the remarkable rise of the Ultimate Fighting
Championship at a time when boxing has faced a steady decline.
Boxing has more than a century of history to fall back on, a
rich heritage of pugilistic endeavour with a cast of iconic names such as Jack
Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis to name but a few.
But if boxing was reinvented today, there's every chance its
business model would mirror the strategy that has seen the UFC go from niche
sport to money-spinning monster inside of two decades.
Boxing's struggle to maintain a foothold in the mainstream
can be attributed to its gradual fragmentation since its post-war golden age,
when there were only eight world champions from flyweight to heavyweight.
Today casual boxing fans are asked to make sense of an
alphabet soup of four different sanctioning bodies governing 17 different
weight classes, which mean that theoretically there could be as many as 68
world champions at any one time.
By contrast, the UFC, universally regarded as the
pre-eminent mixed martial arts body, enjoys monopoly control of its sport.
Eight divisions, eight world champions and the freedom to
make the fights that its audience wants to see have given the UFC's owners the
ability to create rivalries and narratives that are instantly recognisable.
"The way I've built this business, the model I've used
is the exact opposite of everything boxing has done over the last 20-25
years," Dana White, the UFC's chief executive said in an interview.
The growing prominence of UFC is best reflected in its
steady growth of pay-per-view television buys over the past 15 years.
Boxing continues to hold the biggest records for
pay-per-view events - with a mammoth $4.6 million people purchasing
Mayweather's fight with Manny Pacquiao in 2015.
But the UFC has put on events generating over one million
sales with increasing frequency since 2010, suggesting a closing of the gap.
In 2016, UFC staged five events which broke the one million
pay-per-view barrier; boxing had none.
Those kinds of numbers explain why a consortium led by
talent agency WME-IMG last year paid a staggering $4 billion for the UFC, just
15 years after casino operators Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta paid $2 million to
own the sport.
The UFC is now spreading its influence across the globe,
regularly holding events in Asia and Australia while broadcasting to more than
Saturday's super fight will be broadcast in at least 200
countries and territories, according to Showtime television executive Stephen
Espinoza however challenges the view that a victory for the
UFC's standard-bearer, McGregor, will be seen as a damaging blow for boxing.
"It will be taken by the UFC's fans as a victory over
boxing, a sign that their sport is the superior sport, that it is the future of
sports entertainment," Espinoza said. "But they have been proclaiming
for the past 15 years that boxing is dead. And it is not true."
Conversely, UFC chief executive White rejects suggestions
that an emphatic win by Mayweather over McGregor could somehow reflect
negatively on mixed martial arts.
"Absolutely not," White said recently. "At
the end of the day, these two guys wanted this fight, the fans wanted this
fight, and Conor is a mixed martial artist going into a boxing match with
arguably the greatest boxer of all time.
"I don't think it damages the brand or Conor McGregor
at all, I think it actually elevates Conor McGregor. Win, lose or draw people
will continue to love Conor McGregor."