Is MMA Becoming More Like Boxing?
By Alex Conway
The UFC letting Sage Northcutt take his talents elsewhere got me thinking this week so allow me to ramble for a bit.
An MMA fan or even a casual sports fan who occasionally watches combat sports will look at the headline “MMA is becoming boxing” and assume the worst. Boxing has gotten pegged as a dying sport (it isn’t) and one that has cannibalized its own ability to be relevant.
For a while, that might have been true. Too many fights were on PPV, the biggest fights weren’t getting made in a proper fashion and fans of the sport tuned out, only coming back for truly special moments.
Along came MMA, and specifically the UFC, and the promise of “the best fighting the best” was seemingly being delivered on a more regular basis. This was in large part to one key dynamic, the promotion being front and centre and being the star of the show, allowing them to control everything instead of the fighters picking and choosing who they want to fight.
But today boxing is putting more fights in front of more eyeballs by utilizing the digital age of streaming we now live in. Sure, Wilder-Fury will be on PPV, but the biggest star in the game “Canelo” Alvarez will be fighting his next several fights for $9.99 a month as part of DAZN’s streaming platform.
Conversely, more MMA events and specifically the UFC are on PPV relative to how many events across the entire sport of boxing end up on PPV. And fans are beginning to rebel by picking and choosing which fights to buy instead of blindly purchasing anything that has the UFC brand behind, just like fans of boxing began to only shell out money for the fights that featured the biggest names in the game.
Which is exactly how MMA is turning into boxing. The power dynamic is shifting away from the promoters and leaning more towards the stars of the shows being the fighters. Eventually it won’t be about people asking are you going to watch some UFC this weekend. In boxing (unlike calling it UFC 231 or UFC 232), you have to refer to a fighters name when talking about the event (you watching “Wilder-Fury” this weekend?).
Take this year’s biggest event in boxing, the fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. Not a single fan tuned in to watch that event for any other reason than because of who was fighting in the main event. That the fight was promoted under the Golden Boy Banner was secondary and to some degree irrelevant. If Bob Arum or Eddie Hearn had been promoting the fight, it still would have been huge.
Over the years many fighters have come and gone from the UFC, but if you ask a random person on the street if they are interested in MMA, there is still a high probability they won’t understand what you’re asking until you utter the letters “U-F-C.” Then it kicks in because we still live in an age where in MMA, the brand of the promoter is everything.
That is the dilemma that non-UFC promotions still face today, but that could be changing and with it, the sport of MMA could begin to resemble the sport of boxing in the way it books fights and operates as a whole.
Sage Northcutt not getting resigned by the UFC is a key indicator of this change. In the past, the UFC would swallow up as much talent as possible because their goal was to make the claim that they put on the best fights, featuring the best fighters and that their fights would determine who the best in the world was.
That is still largely true, but letting go of a 21-year-old who has shown improvement in each of his last few fights indicates that they are willing to let talent walk if the money doesn’t look right to them.
The UFC not resigning Northcutt because they didn’t want to pay his asking price is secondary to Northcutt himself deciding that taking a little bit more money and fighting under a different promotion is better for his career than simply staying put on the UFC roster so that he could make the claim he was a UFC fighter.
Not since the days of Pride FC have we seen a true competitor capable of putting up a bidding war for fighter services and we still aren’t really there now, but let’s do a little thought experiment.
Let’s say Northcutt ends up signing with One Championship. He would be one of a handful of known commodities that promotion would have. They have a much smaller roster and would be able to promote him in a way that the UFC simply can’t. On One Championship’s roster Northcutt is front and centre and by the time his deal is done, let’s say around age 24 or 25 (the prime of his athletic career), and after years of getting favourable match-ups that will pad his record and make him feel like a true stud (another boxing tradition) he could be one of the biggest free agents in the game and hold a lot more power to make a lot more money.
On the UFC roster, while more popular than most, he’s sort of just a guy.
This could be a trend or it could be a one-off but if fighters begin exercising a willingness to allow other capable promoters to put them on more marquees across more global markets and market them as stars, rather than only wanting to sign with the UFC because the UFC claims that fighting for them will “prove they are the best,” you will see other promotions begin to get more competitive with UFC in the star development game.
There are more talented fighters in MMA than ever before, but only a handful at a time will become PPV draws. The UFC, while still clearly the best MMA promoter in the game, can only really highlight so many fighters at any given time. By having fighters spread out across more promotions that can devote their resources to doing the leg work of building stars, even if these fighters eventually work their way back to the UFC, the UFC is still better off for it because they will have signed a star instead of having to devote their resources to building a guy from the ground up. Why would the UFC want to do all the grunt work if they don’t have to?
Do yourself a favour and tune into the KSW show running this weekend. Watch the production value they bring to the game. Check out how the product is delivered to the fan and how crazy the fans in attendance are to watch that event. Now imagine they had a real talent they were turning into a star.
Imagine Sage Northcutt signs with them. Or better yet, let’s say the UFC goes crazy and books a Floyd Mayweather-Khabib Nurmagomedov boxing match and Tony Ferguson decides he’s tired of waiting for the UFC to give him his title shot and goes to Bellator.
Now imagine Bellator continues to show a willingness to cross-promote with promoters like “Rizin” (as they did by allowing Darion Caldwell to fight in Rizin on December 31) and an MMA sanctioning body comes along and creates a title that either fighter in either organization can take with them regardless of who primarily promotes their fights.
Now imagine a world where only the UFC isn’t cross-promoting in an era where fighters of a higher stature are more willing to work with non-UFC promotions and those promoters are willing to find an opponent anywhere in the world to showcase their talent, regardless if the opponent is also fighting under their banner.
Eventually the market corrects itself. The UFC will either have to pay so much more money than it is now to keep a stranglehold on having a roster that can claim to have 90 percent of the best talent in the world, or the fighters will eventually realize that the real glory in prize fighting is making the most money and not winning a UFC title (the realization that boxing has already come to realize and the reason that sport has a much more free market for fighters and promoters to shop around in).
But eventually changes are coming. The sport of MMA is on the brink of some sort of shift. Whether it’s government legislation like the “Ali Act” which centralizes titles so they are no longer controlled by MMA promoters, or fighters simply getting fed up and taking their talents to the highest bidders, or promotions becoming more of a globalized economy for fighter sharing and fight booking like boxing rather than the isolationists that they are now, it is coming.