MMA, thanks largely to the UFC, has established a strong global fanbase over the past few decades as it attempts to dethrone boxing as the top combat sport.
Boxing is undoubtedly the bigger sport at present but MMA is closing the gap and has the potential to move ahead over the next few years.
It’s hardly surprising when you consider the dedication and commitment required to become a professional mixed martial artist.
Boxing, of course, is an Olympic sport, but MMA consists of six Olympic disciplines and although each fighter isn’t a specialist in all of them, they certainly need to have a firm grasp on the majority to avoid being picked apart.
History Favours the Squared Circle
The first recorded boxing match took place in Britain on January 6th, 1681, although the sport was a world away from how we recognise it now.
There were no weight divisions or round limits and incredibly no referee, leading to some very chaotic contests.
Over the centuries, it has become a much better organised spectacle, however, mixed martial arts has attempted to rival its popularity more recently.
The UFC made its debut in November 1993 and, much like boxing, it was vastly different to the product we now see broadcast on a weekly basis.
UFC 1 took place in Colorado with 7,800 spectators and was an open-weight single-elimination tournament.
There weren’t any rounds or judges and bouts could only end by submission, knockout or the fighter’s corners throwing in the towel.
Royce Gracie, who won UFC 1, UFC 2 and UFC 4, helped to popularise Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, revolutionised MMA and played a big role in bringing more fans on board.
Boxing Starting to Stagnate
It’s fair to say that boxing has struggled to attract new fans over recent years and there are several reasons to highlight.
Firstly, the sport can be extremely complicated. There are four central sanctioning bodies – WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO – each boasting a champion and there are 17 weight classes.
In short, that means there could be a potential 68 world champions at any one time.
Each weight division can have four different world champions, somewhat diminishing the honour, and it can be difficult keep up with the vast number of belts.
Fans have also often vented their frustration, and rightly so, at the fact that the best athletes rarely meet – something demonstrated recently with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua.
Switching the focus to the UFC, there are eight male weight classes and three female. Each division has one champion and match-making is much easier.
Fighters aren’t allowed to swerve difficult fights to compete under another organisation or governing body and fans are often treated to some incredible contests.
UFC in Good Hands
UFC president Dana White has done a fine job of growing the company and ensuring it has an appeal worldwide.
The first 17 events all took place on US soil before eventually heading overseas to Yokohama Japan in 1997.
At the time of writing, 599 events have taken place across 26 countries, including England, Brazil, China, Russia, New Zealand and Japan.
White worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic when boxing and most others sports were forced to go into hiatus, keeping the UFC running on a weekly basis behind closed doors.
Big arena events had to be shelved and it was certainly a different experience watching fights play out in almost silence, but there’s no doubting White seized the opportunity.
Now the world has reopened, for the most part, the UFC has already travelled across to London and there are plans afoot for another card in the UK later in 2022.
MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports with Bellator and ONE Championship also attracting large audiences.
There’s still a long way to go but boxing’s governing bodies may soon need a rethink to avoid being eclipsed by MMA.