LAS VEGAS – Contrary to a popular opinion in the MMA community, boxing most certainly is not dead.
The 16,412 fans that packed Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena – nearly 1,600 more enthusiasts than the UFC has ever drawn to the venue – for Saturday's Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley event proved that at boxing's highest level, the sport still is financially viable.
Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't glaring opportunities for the sport to improve and evolve. Nevertheless, UFC president Dana White, who was among the sellout crowd on Saturday night, believes boxing can survive. His organization is not in a competition with boxing, White said, and both fight sports can flourish.
"I think boxing and the UFC can coexist," White told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
) after the pay-per-view show. "I'm a big fight fan. When there's a good boxing match, I want to see it."
White wasn't the only prominent UFC official in attendance; co-owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta were seated alongside him. It's no conflict of interest, the crew insisted. There's no competition between the UFC and "The Sweet Science."
"Hell, no," White said. "We don't look at it like we're in competition. People who are real fight fans are [expletive] fight fans, whether it's MMA or it's boxing."
A matter of supply and demand?
As with UFC events, this past weekend's fan-driven experiences began with Friday's weigh-in ceremonies. More than two full hours before Pacquiao and Mosley were scheduled to hit the scales, the MGM Grand Garden Arena was packed with more than 6,000 flag-waving, banner-bearing, enthusiastic fans.
This was different than a UFC crowd – similar in size, yes, but resembling some sort of international soccer match or neutral-site college football rivalry game. The ceremony for 2009's "UFC 94: St-Pierre vs. Penn" event, held in the same venue, came close, but the passion filling the building this past weekend felt deeper in nature.
But when the ceremonies began, the UFC's expertise in this field became immediately evident. The music that had kept energy high for the previous two hours stopped, and broadcaster James Brown took the stage to emcee the events. Cutting to promos and packages designed for an online audience, the air of the building rushed quickly out during periods of confusing silence.
Pacquiao and Mosley hit the scales before the remaining 14 fighters on the card, and when the main-event participants had made their bout official, the crowd began heading for the doors.
In short, the other seven fights essentially were meaningless to the fans, a fact that was emphatically highlighted Saturday night when lightweight Karl Dargan kicked off the fight card with a decision win over Randy Arrellin. The bout bout was witnessed by no more than a few dozen family members and friends.
It's a stark contrast to the UFC's events in the building. While not always full from the opening bell, the UFC consistently scores at least a few thousand people for the first fight of the night. In newer markets, the venues often are close to capacity for the first preliminary-card bout.
"It's because all the fights are good," White said. "You can't say you've never had a moment where we've got a fight going on and you say, '[Expletive], that Nate Diaz fight goes off at 5:30. I've got to be there for that fight.' There's so many good fights on the card, and you want to see them.
"The thing is with boxing that's different than us, they don't market their preliminary-card fighters. They don't promote the undercard."
Top Rank Boxing president Todd duBoef, who promoted Saturday's event, doesn't believe that's entirely the case. Instead, he holds an interesting pair of theories to explain boxing's late-arriving crowd. The first involves supply and demand, and it's an intriguing point as some MMA pundits discuss the "saturation point" of the sport.
"I think the supply of content for MMA or UFC was so limited early on that the fans used to want to see all of the fights, so they used to come early," duBoef said. "They didn't have all these platforms to see it. That's No. 1. All the MMA fans would get there early because they were enthusiasts, passionate and connected to the product. They had been watching online. They had been reading about it, and they didn't have this enormous amount of content that was available to them on a weekly basis, so those matches were so unique – supply and demand. I think each exciting event was like, 'Yes, I'm watching live. I'm at the show,' and each thing was significant.
"Boxing is distributed on Hispanic channels, ESPN, and all over. You have tons of content out there. The uniqueness of each match is lost."
It's an unfortunate reality for boxing, especially considering super-lightweight prospects such as Canadian Pier Oliver Cote (16-0), who delivered a third-round TKO of Aris Ambriz, and 18-year-old Jose Benavidez Jr. (11-0), who outclassed James Hope en route to a fifth-round TKO, went unnoticed by thousands of fight fans who had not yet entered the building.
duBoef admits it's unfortunate those preliminary-card fighters didn't get more live-audience attention but insists it's all by design and but a small piece of the overall puzzle.
"When a fight is in Las Vegas, the casinos want the players at the tables," duBoef said. "Those guys are going to gamble, and about 7 o'clock, the casino goes, 'Let's go. We're about an hour from the main event,' and they're going to pull them off those baccarat tables and craps tables. They have it timed to a tee. They know I'm not going to walk main event before 8 p.m. local time, and they understand that they'll fill the time before that with gambling because that's massive business for them. The customer, the high-end player that's being brought here for these events, are very high rollers.
"And remember, you're only talking about 16,000 people. We've got global distribution. I'm in 170 different countries and over one billion homes. Yes, from a live perspective, of those 16,000 people, if only 5,000 people see Benavidez, and I'm losing 11,000 viewers; I get it. But I'm distributing it vis-à-vis through online mechanisms, through my international television mechanisms and all that stuff. It still gets broad distribution, but not through the butts in the seats of the arena."
But the main-event-only approach of boxing seems to be a risky approach. Like the previous week's record-breaking UFC 129 event, in which Georges St-Pierre's decision win over Jake Shield's proved less than thrilling, Pacquiao's victory over a backpedaling Mosely left fans wanting more.
Yet UFC 129 previews also heavily promoted a title fight between featherweight champ Jose Aldo and Mark Hominick, as well as the retirement fight of Randy Couture. Both of those fights delivered, which tempered the criticism for the card as a whole.
Meanwhile, the boxing event's co-feature saw Jorge Arce survive an early knockdown to come back and score a dramatic final-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Wilfredo Vazquez. The fight ended with Vazquez's father and trainer tossing a water bottle into the ring to halt Arce's final-round flurry in a scene that rivaled the drama of Hominick – massive hematoma be damned – desperately hunting for a fifth-round finish of Aldo in front of 55,000 screaming fans.
Unfortunately, the thrilling battle merited little more than a footnote in comparison to Pacquiao-Mosley.
No more boxing businessmen
duBoef believes its fighters such as Arce and Vazquez – coupled with a mindset more similar to that of most MMA fighters – that will ensure the sport remains relevant.
"I think one of the things that I really like about Dana is that he has a real black-and-white perspective, which I think is really good," duBoef said. "I actually like when he has a stance and takes a position like, 'Hey, if you're going to fight for me, you're going to fight and put on a show. You're going to give it your all.' I think that perspective is really good. When you see a guy like Jorge Arce banging away and banging away, staying in there as much as he was out of the fight, and you think he's going to lose to the bigger guy, and he comes back in rounds 10, 11 and 12 and knocks the guy out, it's fantastic. I think those types of guys that give back to the fans are what I want to get back to.
"I think we ended up a little bit with boxing businessmen and annuity fighters. I think that model has to get back to prizefighting. Our sport was called prizefighting, and those guys gave it their all and gave fans a show. That's important to me. That's what you see a lot in the UFC. It's what Dana has ingrained in the fanbase, and it's what they expect the fighter to do."
White stands steadfastly by his claim that MMA will someday be the most popular sport in the world. He admits he's not exactly sure where his organization currently stands in relation to boxing, but he knows he's well on the way of supplanting it as the world's combat sport of choice. Nevertheless, he's not one of those who believes boxing eventually will disappear completely.
"I think we've gotten to a place now where we've gained respect from people," White said. "For instance, I bumped into (boxing writer) Bert Sugar. Bert Sugar told me, 'I hate your sport, but I appreciate what you've done. You guys are incredible marketers.' I get it. This guy is a huge boxing guy, but to get the respect from these guys? We're in a place now where we're a major sports league, and people respect us. Are we bigger than boxing? Are we bigger than something else? Listen, in the next 10 years, it's common sense.
"Right now, we're in a half-billion homes worldwide. We'll be in over a billion homes worldwide in the next few months. What's that going to do over the next 10 years? It's going to be a massive, huge sport. I always talk about the troubles boxing has. Boxing has a lot of problems and a lot of trouble. But whenever there's a big fight, and it happens, I'll be there to watch."
And duBoef says he'll be there to entertain. His promotion looks to evolve along with its audience, and the Top Rank Boxing executive has stepped up his game with improved lighting, "Baba O'Riley"-esque video montages, live DJs and cylindrical video boards inspired by U2's historic 360° tour.
In duBoef's eyes, boxing is not dying. It's not on life support. It's not even considering a trip to the emergency room.
And the rivalry with the UFC, with its inferior strikers and crowd-baffling ground game, that's a thing of the past, too. duBoef realizes MMA is here to stay, and he respects the leaders of the new movement.
"There's mutual respect between Dana, Lorenzo, Frank and myself," duBoef said. "We know each other, and we have a relationship. I think we kind of learn from each other. I think we kind of pick up on ideas that we're doing.
"We're all in the entertainment business."
And that's just fine with White. The UFC is unquestionably the hot ticket in town, but the promotion's boss believes there's enough room in Sin City – not to mention the world – for both to thrive.
"I don't disagree," White said. "The last time I went to the Pacquiao fight in Dallas, I tweeted that I was going to watch Pacquiao. I've got Pacquiao [expletive] tennis shoes. I've worn Pacquiao jackets. You've never seen me be afraid to promote boxing. I love watching Pacquiao fight.
"Boxing is a fun sport. When the right guys are fighting, you're going to want to watch it. When boxing has exciting fighters, boxing will do well."