Is the Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC) about to edge out traditional professional boxing from the popularity stakes in the country?
The EFC, a leading mixed martial arts (MMA) organisation in Africa, has taken South Africa by storm after a partnership with the SABC.
The conclusion of the agreement is a groundbreaking and historic moment for MMA in Mzansi.
This gesture allows the combat sport to enjoy massive viewership and it seemingly threatens to take the shine out of boxing.
Boxing has been enjoying coverage from the public broadcaster since 2015 after a three-year blackout, which barred scores of fans from watching their heroes in action from the comfort of their living rooms.
The championship has had continued growth since inception, from a local MMA promotion to one of the world leaders, reaching 600 million homes in 110 countries throughout the world daily.
The SABC has now teamed up with the championship to bring the sport closer to South Africans.
The first programmes were broadcast last month.
Headquartered in Johannesburg, the championship produces 10 live events a year at sold-out venues. With 120 athletes exclusively contracted to the body, it showcases the greatest warriors on the planet.
South African viewers can now enjoy two pulsating hours of action every Saturday on their small screens, where martial artists grapple with each other in top-class contests across the country.
Interest in the sport among fans is growing in leaps and bounds as the championship gains momentum.
What makes this phenomenon a hit in South Africa is that, compared with boxing, where fighters only throw punches, martial artists wrestle inside a cage, where they lock one another in combat.
The fighter who scores the most points is declared the winner.
EFC Africa president Cairo Howarth says the sport is more exciting that boxing to watch from a fan’s point of view.
“There is non-stop action during our competitions, which keeps fans on the edge of their seats.
“Unlike in boxing, where most fighters usually get concussions as a result of absorbing too much punishment, our bouts are mostly stopped whenever one of the contestants raises his hand when he is being overpowered during a bout. This may be when he is being choked, for instance. This is a safety gesture for a martial artist,” says Howarth.
He says that what makes the championship tick is also the fact that it produces world-class champions.
At the moment, there are six titleholders from different weight divisions.
There are also former boxers who have crossed over to this sport (see graphic). They include Elvis Moyo, Francois “White Buffalo” Botha and Michael Schultz.
Commentators from the US
Botha, the erstwhile International Boxing Federation heavyweight titleholder, once competed in mixed martial arts and is now involved in kick boxing.
Howarth cites Nkazimulo “Zuluboy” Zulu, the reigning flyweight global titlist from Johannesburg, as one of the organisation’s top competitors.
“EFC sent Zulu to Las Vegas in the US last year to compete and train there for six months. He made his mark there.”
Howarth says what makes the show appealing on television is that some commentators from the US are being flown to South Africa.
“So those who are watching EFC on SABC feel like they are watching something in the US.
“That is why tickets to our shows in South Africa are always sold out,” says Howarth.
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago says the broadcaster added mixed martial arts to its coverage because it is a growing sport in the country.
“Our partnership with EFC was the right decision to make because we are able to expose the sport to more people, especially the youth,” says Kganyago.
“We are not putting the EFC on television to replace anything else. It is a sport on its own.”
Kganyago says the SABC broadcasts a magazine programme related to the burgeoning sport every Saturday.
Boxing SA board chairperson Muditambi Ravele believes boxing is firmly entrenched in the country and that it will not be upstaged by EFC.
“As far as we’re concerned, EFC is not a member of the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee and does not even compete in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, which boxing does. EFC is a high-risk sport because it’s not regulated.”
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula declined to comment on the matter.
Australian promoter Phillip Silver of Knockout Boxing Promotions says: “EFC has made great strides in Australia and the world as a whole. It’s becoming the most watched sport and is threatening to outclass boxing.”