It’s fair to say this is the ‘Ronaldo vs Messi’ debate of combat sports. Both fighting styles have bolstered in popularity over the years for different reasons, Boxing being one of Britain’s trademark sports while MMA has expanded its brand awareness overseas very quickly ever since the establishment of The UFC. Despite the ongoing rivalry, both sports have worked together to raise the profile of combat sports to a mass-sporting market. 2018 saw one of the most revolutionary fights of all-time with undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather battle it out against The Notorious Conor McGregor in the ring. This weeks blog will explore which sport is better equipped for future sports industry success.
The UFC has been the largest tournament in MMA to put the sport on the map, particularly with the rise of Ireland’s Conor McGregor. The controversial star brought a new attitude and culture to MMA which is fuelled by trash talk, polarising comments and bringing a new definition to, ‘getting underneath your opponent’s skin’. The results speak for itself, 5 of the highest PPV buys in the UFC has been a McGregor featured event. Although, ever since Conor lost Russian starlet Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018, the Dagestan born has become the poster boy of MMA’s leading competition, until he recently announced retirement last weekend after beating Justin Gaethje. Despite McGregor also being retired, he’s currently entertaining a rematch against US competitor Dustin Porier early next year for UFC257. McGregor could also be highly-anticipated to fight welterweight Manny Pacquiao in a boxing match as the Philippine international has coincidentally partnered with Paradigm Sports, who also manage Conor McGregor.
Boxing has also made a lot of noise over the years, particularly with some of the diverse characters they have punching their weight in the heavyweight division. Tyson Fury’s comeback since 2018 has drawn strong media attention not only due to his exceptional boxing resume, but also his resilience in overcoming mental health struggles. Watford local Anthony Joshua becoming the two-time world heavyweight champion has been instrumental to turbocharging attention to his division. Plenty other hot prospects are looking to make boxing history including Billy Joe Saunders, Devin Haney, Ryan Garcia, Katie Taylor and Canelo Alvarez. One event that fans are licking their lips about is the British heavyweight clash between Fury and Joshua, which could happen next year. Aside from this, the sport has recently taken a unique incentive to unlock its connection with Gen Z audiences by hosting ‘YouTube boxing’ events which have included KSI vs Logan Paul 2, Jake Paul vs AnesonGib and Jake Paul vs Nate Robinson next month.
MMA’s edge over Boxing
The MMA landscape is a fast-growing industry. Asian tournament ONE Championship has skyrocketed in commercial success particularly with it’s recent reality TV show ‘The Apprentice’, ONE Championship edition. The show provides a life-changing opportunity for a lucky contestant to work under CEO, Chatri Sityodtong. The organisation also has an esports championship series called ONE Esports. Initiatives like this keep MMA ahead of the curve, demonstrating there’s more to their brand than the end-product itself. The results speak for themselves; ONE Championship is the hottest sports property in Asia with 2.7bn potential global viewers, 563m international fans while the tournament is broadcasted in over 150 different countries.
US Sports property, The Professional Fighters League (PFL), is another tournament making every effort to captivate brand growth through immaculate fan engagement. The organisation released a new free streaming service called the PFL MMA app where fans can view classic match-ups alongside never-seen-before content. The PFL also struck a deal with sport & entertainment service, Wave.tv where the league will be broadcasted to a new demographic, Generation Y, who also have a 200m social media reach. Plus, the tournament has partnered with Socios.com to produce a ground-breaking initiative to optimise combat sports fan engagement. The US property has released blockchain fan tokens where consumers can be enticed into special prizes by directly engaging with PFL content.
The UFC has applied aggressive marketing tactics to grow its global empire to what it is today. The organisation always focused on its presence outside of the Octagon, which found UFC related events delivered in major cities like London and Tokyo. The UFC also identified the power that technology can bring to their fan experience when they went under a re-brand in 2015. This grew the brand’s popularity with younger audiences which gradually found big broadcasting deals with global sports networks ESPN, FOX Sports and BT Sport wanting a slice of the cake. The UFC has partnered with ACX music to engage their fanbase through streaming.
MMA has remained proactive throughout COVID19. UFC Fight Island has transformed into a significant success with viewership figures rising enormously, fighters were kept safe, and it kept its viewers content with sports content! What sets MMA apart from the traditional combat sports landscape is the evolution towards becoming a global entertainment business, with ventures being pursued out of the sector and in areas that are optimised with younger audiences who hold phenomenal leverage to generating results.
Boxing’s edge over MMA
Boxing has one of the most illustrious sporting histories in the world, and arguably, legends such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather are athletes with much more significant profiles than UFC fighters across mainstream media. Global promotion company Matchroom Boxing has played an instrumental role in revolutionising the sport into a commercial enterprise which draws multiple audiences from different walks of life, challenging the status quo of the traditional sport.
Similarly to UFC Fight Island, Matchroom Boxing put on a world-class display in August by hosting Matchroom Fight Camp. This was a lockdown initiative to continue Boxing in an isolated environment which has culminated high-volumes of commercial interest across The Middle East and the USA. This incentive to continue sport keeps viewership figures afloat in the sport as the only way consumers can tune in is by purchasing PPV rather than buying a ticket, meaning broadcasting revenue has been a significant contributor to keeping the sport operating.
The boxing world hasn’t been afraid to keep its fan engagement model unorthodox. November 2019 saw a new dawn in combat sports entertainment where two global entertainers, KSI and Logan Paul, walked into the Staples Center in LA to bat six bells out of each other in front of millions online. The project polarised the general boxing audience but proved to be a game-changer at accumulating mainstream success in a way that hasn’t been experimented in combat sport. The trend continued with US creator Jake Paul take on UK YouTuber AnesonGib in Miami Fight night, and now see’s the US personality take on former NBA player Nate Robinson on the Tyson vs Jones undercard this November. This is sustainable for the sport on a sporadic occasion as it entices young tech-savvy audiences to buy subscriptions, PPV and streams to engage with their favourite personalities.
Boxers tend to receive greater media attention and commercial value than MMA fighters due to their contractual obligations. When boxers sign a deal with a significant promotion company, they have the right to explore other sponsor or brand opportunities to maximise their commercial income. However, in The UFC, their fighters are limited to exploring sponsorship opportunities solely with brands that the tournament are exclusively affiliated with. This has caused substantial distraught amongst the MMA community as it can put upcoming fighters off with competing in the UFC. Funnily enough, 50-0 Floyd Mayweather made more money between 2010-2017 than the entire UFC roster.
So, which sport has a more robust business model? Currently standing, it’s MMA. The sport has scored some unthinkable wins pre and post-pandemic, including phenomenal social media reach, a prosperous international exposure, an aggressive marketing strategy and the attitude to be more than just a sport but instead a media business. Boxing has thought similarly, but it hasn’t quite hit the right tone of proactivity in the way the UFC has.