Boxing vs. MMA: A contrast of styles

LAS VEGAS – Oscar De La Hoya’s one-sided loss to Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night once again raises questions about the future of the boxing business.

Was Saturday night the last night that a boxing event can capture the interest of the general public and become the center-stage event on the sports calendar?

And is the rise of mixed martial arts a threat to boxing?

De Le Hoya stopped short of announcing his retirement in the ring, but he spoke in terms of the body being unable to do what the mind is willing it to do.

“If it’s the end of Oscar De La Hoya, it’s the beginning of the superstardom of Manny Pacquiao,” said HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, insisting boxing is alive and healthy. “In my eyes it’s just the passing of the baton, like when Marciano beat Louis and Holmes beat Ali.”

Greenburg admits there will have to be some business tweaks made due to the state of the economy, such as lowering ticket prices to major events, and he foresees more major fights on HBO next year instead of pay-per-view.

While there are plenty of big matches in 2009, it’s been years since a crossover drawing card like De La Hoya, or Mike Tyson before him, has been created.

“Someone like that may be a 16-year-old kid today hitting a speedbag in the gym,” Greenburg said.

But which fighting sport will that kid decide to pursue?

“When I got here in Las Vegas, there had to be 15 boxing gyms,” said Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, who attended Saturday night’s card. “Now there are two. We own one and Bob Arum owns the other.”

Attending a major boxing event and a UFC event just a few weeks apart at the same MGM Grand Garden Arena doesn’t seem to support the notion that boxing fans will abandon the sport in favor of MMA.

MMA major events, like the Brock Lesnar-Randy Couture match Nov. 15 in the same venue, draws predominately white men, with a decent smattering of women, mostly between the ages of 20-35, and very few minorities.

Saturday night’s show drew a decidedly older crowd, and for the most part, the younger fans in the crowd were nationalistic, with Latinos supporting De La Hoya and Filipinos backing Pacquiao.

Boxing’s advantages are based on its longevity as a major sport, with a media contingent that dwarfs even the biggest UFC event, and a list of celebrities that seemed to take forever to run down. UFC major events have some well-known celebrities but nothing comparable.

And interestingly, one not mentioned by Michael Buffer but shown earlier in the night on the screen making a prediction (for De La Hoya), was former UFC star Tito Ortiz. Ortiz was not only recognized instantly but booed heavily, almost like he was an intruder.

“MMA doesn’t affect the popularity of boxing,” said Greenburg. “They are two entirely different sports. It would be like saying basketball affects the popularity of baseball.”

But when it comes to the show itself, pacing and live-event production, the edge clearly goes to MMA, which even Ricky Hatton noted when he attended the Lesnar-Couture match.

“The presentation and general approach of the UFC is something that boxing can learn a great deal from,” Hatton told Sky Sports. “For instance, they have big screens around the arena with pre-fight interviews which really get the crowd involved. Why can’t we do that at boxing matches?”

This didn’t go unnoticed by White. “Did you see the production? And that was HBO. Maybe they should give us some of their Emmys. The pacing was awful. There was no energy in the crowd. They had to loop Pacquiao’s music when he came out because he had to walk so far.”

At MMA events, the crowd arrives early and they get into almost every fight on the show. There isn’t nearly the amount of dead time between matches as in boxing. There are more screens set up in the arena to give spectators a better view.

While Saturday’s main event was as exciting as the best UFC main event, most of the crowd had no interest in anyone on the undercard.

Another positive on the UFC end is that it has only have five championships, and most fans know every champion, similar to boxing in a previous generation. Boxing destroyed the value of championships with so many titles that even the most ardent fans can’t keep them all straight.

While Greenburg thinks you can only ask fans to put down $50 a few times a year for the biggest fights in 2009, White doesn’t think the economy is going to make a difference in pay-per-view numbers, citing his audience will get together in big groups and chip in to buy the show about once a month.

But he does concede they also are going to have to lower the ticket prices to the live events.

“I love boxing as a sport and I came from boxing, but this was a bad day for boxing,” White said. “[Floyd] Mayweather’s probably running out of money and will probably return to face Pacquiao, and I’d pick Mayweather in that one, but nobody is going to draw like De La Hoya does.”

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Dec 7, 2008