A look into the fading popularity of boxing


by Dylan Axsom
West Campus Associate Editor

As the recent fight between boxing legend Floyd Mayweather and mixed martial arts (MMA) superstar Conor McGregor has shown, boxing is a dying sport.

Everyone from those who only watch pay-per-view events to the oldest analysts agree that the sport is in demise, but not many understand why this is true. There are several possible factors at play, ranging from how boxing has set itself up as an organization to having new combat sports emerge.

Boxing viewership has been on a decline ever since the 20th century. In the first half of the 1900s and before, the three main past times were horse racing, baseball, and boxing.
Soon enough, other sports like basketball and football gained popularity and pushed horse racing and boxing to the side. Boxing did not take an enormous hit because of this, as it was still the main combat sport, but it did begin the downward trend that the sport is experiencing.

The real popularity loss happened with the emergence of televised MMA around 20 years ago, starting with the PRIDE Fighting Championship founded in 1997.

PRIDE started in Tokyo, Japan and featured fighters from all different backgrounds. The fighters usually specialized in one area, such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, taekwondo, wrestling, etc., while some specialized in multiple areas. MMA brought quick pace and more action to viewers than boxing did, with the latter being slower and more methodical. MMA also spoke, and still speaks, to the modern world of instant gratification and shortened attention spans with its hundreds of methods to defeating an opponent. These fights also typically have five, three minute rounds, whereas boxing matches can have anywhere from eight to 12 rounds of the same length.

This shorter but more diverse sport brought out some of the world’s best athletes, many of which first showcased their abilities during their time at PRIDE. A few of the most famous fighters to have fought in PRIDE include Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Mauricia “Shogun” Rua, Anderson Silva, and many others.

After PRIDE merged with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2007, most of the popular fighters followed and became UFC champions. With the continuation of popularity in MMA moving to a new organization, boxing sustained its viewership loss to a more diverse and exciting sport that was only able to grow.

With names like Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson no longer in the limelight, boxing struggled to stay relevant with only a handful of household names. The sport became more reliant on Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to reel in pay-per-view dollars and in-arena spectators.

Many of these facts are still true today in boxing, exemplified by the Mayweather-McGregor bout on Aug. 26. The fight had almost five million pay-per-view viewers, with an estimated three million illegal streams, according to Fox News, and the preliminary fights, which aired for free on Fox Sports, had just over three million viewers.

These are extremely good ratings for a fight of any sort, so they do not make much sense to see in a sport that is long past its peak. The numbers make more sense when considering a couple of factors.

For one, this fight took both boxing and MMA’s two biggest stars, and trash-talkers, and pitted them against each other in a highly advertised fight. The crossover of a superstar into another sport is always sure to generate tons of publicity, as was recently seen with former quarterback Tim Tebow making a run in minor league baseball.

The other part is that this fight, in comparison with others, is not even close enough in terms of viewership to compare to each of the two sports. The one exception is the match between Mayweather and Pacquiao, which saw 4.6 million pay-per-view purchases, but that fight had five years of build up, compared to Mayweather-McGregor being thrown together in several months.

To compare with other big fights, the Sept. 16 bout between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, two of boxing’s current brightest stars, only collected 1.3 million pay-per-view spectators, according to the Los Angeles Times. In similar fashion, one the most viewed UFC fights – between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz – only gathered around 1.3 million viewers as well. These numbers pale in comparison to the August bout between McGregor and Mayweather, and move the conversation to another point: boxing’s lack of superstars.

While the sport of boxing has no shortage of talent, it does have a serious shortfall in the stardom department. The world of boxing lacks personalities that make people want to watch. Personas like Floyd Mayweather or Mike Tyson, and even as far back as Muhammad Ali, would grab headlines with strong social statements, outbursts at press conferences, or shenanigans in the ring.

Now with Mayweather retired for good, boxing has a great void to fill. Not only must the sport have great fighters, but it must also have those who can double as media moguls in order to build interest in fights and the sport in general.

And even this issue stems from another one: a lack of unity in both the world of boxing itself and its relationship to other combat sports.

Boxing in itself is a structurally divided sport. There are four main sanctioning bodies, which are the organizations that sponsor championship bouts and award belts. There is the World Boxing Association (WBA), which is the oldest of the four, the World Boxing Council (WBC), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and the World Boxing Organization (WBO). These groups are the only ones recognized by the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Having this many organizations to compete under makes it hard for the casual fan to stay focused on one main organization like MMA does with UFC. There are other MMA organizations, like Bellator Fighting Championship, but rare is a time that the two overlap. In boxing however, organizations overlapping is quite regular and is seen as a key marketing point for the bodies involved.

In fact, a recent fight between Nebraska native Terence Crawford and Namibian Julius Indongo saw a unification bout of all four junior welterweight belts go to Crawford by way of a third round body shot that led to a TKO. Though he later had to forfeit one belt because of a mandatory title fight conflict, Crawford became only the second male boxer to unify all four belts in a single weight division.

But unifying belts is much easier to do than it would be to unify the sanctioning bodies. The issue lies within the politics of the boxing, making it very difficult to even approach the idea.

“What boxing as an industry should do, is say, … ‘hey,
combat sports fans, MMA fans’ … ‘you like combat sports? Come check us out, we think you would like us too.’”

“What boxing as an industry should do, is say, … ‘hey,
combat sports fans, MMA fans’ … ‘you like combat sports? Come check us out, we think you would like us too.’”

A less complicated form of unity lies within the ridding of cross-sport arguments. The discussion between fans usually ends up being “boxing versus UFC,” with Mayweather-McGregor serving as a key example once again.

Max Kellerman, sports analyst and commentator for ESPN and HBO Boxing, says, “I think what [the Mayweather-McGregor fight] shows is that you’ve combined two audiences here, [and] it’s brought the combat sports world together.”

He says that neither the UFC or boxing could have done so well in sales by themselves, and adds, “I’ve always thought that what boxing as an industry should do, is say, ‘hey, combat sports fans, MMA fans’ – this young demo[graphic] that everyone’s coveting, that the UFC has – ‘you like combat sports? Come check us out, we think you would like us too.’ It’s ridiculous that this [crossing-over] doesn’t already happen [regularly].”