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Fight Opinion Weekly: Boxing’s all Mixed up in Martial Arts

By Zach Arnold | May 6, 2007

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By Zach Arnold

Printable version of article here.

In the mid-1970s, Japanese pro-wrestling legend Antonio Inoki had a plan to make himself and his company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, famous worldwide. Inoki embarked on a series of worked fights against martial artists called the “world of kakutougi (fight skill)” series. The goal of the program was to create an image that pro-wrestlers were the strongest athletes in the world and that New Japan Pro-Wrestling was the “King of Sports.”

It took years to negotiate a match between Inoki and Muhammad Ali, but a contract was ultimately signed and a 15-round shoot fight (with all sorts of modified rules) with “Judo” Gene LeBell as referee took place in Tokyo at Nippon Budokan on June 25th, 1976. The fight was broadcast on closed circuit television throughout various outlets in the United States, with Vince McMahon Sr. helping out with promotion. Multiple wrestling cards were held in big cities (such as Boston, New York at Shea Stadium, etc.) with Ali vs. Inoki on CC as the top attraction.

While the Inoki/Ali fight ended up being a snoozefest, Inoki parlayed the outcome of the fight into one of the biggest pro-wrestling careers of all time. He was lauded as a worldwide hero who maintained the image of professional wrestlers as the strongest fighters in the world.

Inoki used the sport of boxing to positively propel the image of professional wrestlers as strong athletes. He was a master manipulator of public opinion.

Dana White is quickly following in Inoki’s foot steps.

White, a former amateur boxer, has made great strides in the last few years to court both boxing writers and fans to watch UFC. White planted the seeds of his plan by addressing boxing writers in 2006 in Las Vegas at the Boxing Writers Association of America dinner. With newspapers bleeding in bad circulation numbers, the sport of Mixed Martial Arts gives boxing writers a chance to serve fans who generally skew much younger than the average newspaper reader. With newspapers transforming from a print to a digital industry, covering a hot sport like MMA is certainly intriguing because of the amount of readers such coverage could generate.

Next, White hired Dr. Margaret Goodman and Marc Ratner from the Nevada State Athletic Commission to work on behalf of regulatory issues for UFC. Ratner’s departure from the NSAC scared a lot of people in boxing and raised significant doubt in the eyes as to what boxing’s future would be. The Ratner hiring was a major PR coup for UFC and lent the promotion mainstream credibility.

With UFC gaining momentum both on cable television and American PPV, there has been growing concern about the state of boxing’s health and how MMA’s growth plays into the equation. Many in boxing have responded publicly with vitriol and anger towards the sport of MMA. Jim Lampley has publicly stated his disdain towards MMA (more on him later in this article). Al Bernstein was quoted in a horrible Las Vegas Sun article about MMA, claiming that he couldn’t understand how MMA’s fanbase could be God-fearing conservatives.

Chuckling, Bernstein admits to being perplexed that the fan base seems to him to be the same people who vote into office conservatives who espouse belief in a peace-loving God.

While boxing insiders are bristling at the notion of MMA as a growing international sport, boxing promoters are reconsidering their options. Gary Shaw has made his entry in the MMA business through Pro Elite. Cedric Kushner was rumored to be working with Wallid Ismail of the Jungle Fight Championship promotion out of Brazil. Furthermore, regional and grass-roots boxing promoters are making the shift towards promoting local MMA shows that are drawing good-sized crowds.

With positive and building momentum on the side of UFC, Dana White was a happy camper.

Then, he caught a break of a lifetime.

Floyd Mayweather Jr., who was promoting his upcoming mega-fight against Oscar De La Hoya, opened his big mouth about UFC.

Mayweather started ripping on UFC as fighters who couldn’t make it in boxing, and also offered $1 million USD to Chuck Liddell to beat a heavyweight boxer in a boxing match. Mayweather also called UFC a ‘fad.’

Like mana from heaven, Dana White capitalized on Mayweather’s public relations mistake. He gave Mayweather an open challenge to face UFC 155-pound champion Sean Sherk in an MMA match. Sherk, the least-publicized of all of UFC’s champions, suddenly gained national media attention. White masterfully framed the terms of the PR war that Mayweather suddenly found himself in.

As boxing writer Charles Jay stated in a radio interview last week, Mayweather made a major PR gaffe. Jay also stated that Dana White knew more about the boxing industry than three-quarters of the people in the business. White was primed to be in a position to capitalize on Mayweather’s verbal blunder.

Soon, Mayweather’s comments were turned from a PR gaffe to an actual media storyline that dominated a lot of the conversation in the weeks of media coverage leading into the Mayweather/De La Hoya fight. UFC suddenly hijacked media attention away from the biggest boxing mega-fight in the last two years. Like a trojan horse infecting a computer, UFC penetrated much of the hype discussion leading into Mayweather’s fight. Dana White and Sean Sherk masterfully took advantage of all of the free publicity they were getting.

Both the boxing and mainstream media were all too willing to play into UFC’s hands.

In the last two weeks of media hype leading into the De La Hoya/Mayweather boxing match, readers continued to consume a tired and played out storyline of, “Will this fight save boxing?” The mainstream media all but proclaimed the mega-fight as boxing’s funeral. Mayweather and De La Hoya found themselves playing defense to media writers asking them about MMA surpassing boxing.

The media scrutiny would not stop any time soon.

Teddy Atlas played it honestly, but cautiously last Tuesday on Jim Rome’s nationally syndicated radio show. He credited MMA fighters as hard-working athletes while still defending the sport of boxing that he very much loves. A flurry of mainstream sports media writers continued to flood web sites and print newspapers with columns proclaiming the death of boxing at the hands of the more exciting sport of MMA.

ESPN was glad to carry the water on that message.

ESPN Radio hosts Colin Cowherd and Dan Patrick buried boxing profusely on their respective radio shows. Cowherd said that everyone is looking to invest money into Mixed Martial Arts and that nobody is looking to put money into boxing. He also claimed that Shaquille O’Neal’s agent, Perry Rodgers (based out of Las Vegas), was responsible for UFC getting onto Spike TV. Cowherd compared boxing to a one-night stand in relation to MMA, which develops relationships with its fans and gives fans every month the fights they want to see. On The Big Show, Dan Patrick talked about meeting with UFC Light Heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and how accomodating Liddell was to meet in person. Patrick practically took a verbal pitchfork and stuck it into boxing on his program.

On ESPN TV last Thursday on SportsCenter, host Brian Kenny narrated a video package discussing hype for Mayweather and De La Hoya’s upcoming fight. However, at least 30% of the air time on the video package was dedicated to the future of boxing and where MMA fit into the equation. Again, Mayweather took the time to trash MMA on national television. De La Hoya, as he had done so all week leading into the fight, played it cool and stated that boxing wasn’t a dying sport while praising those involved in MMA.

To see ESPN push the “boxing is dying, MMA is coming” storyline so hard on television was remarkable to watch. You could not put a price tag on this type of coverage if you were in UFC’s shoes.

Oh yeah, there also was a boxing fight this past weekend. Mayweather defeated De La Hoya in a good, but not great 12-round split decision encounter. DirecTV was overflooded with customer orders and cable outlets throughout the States were experiencing heavy customer traffic.

The fallout from the aftermath of the fight, however, was not about the fight itself.

After defeating Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. half-heartedly announced his retirement from boxing. De La Hoya indicated that he might fight again. The mainstream media covered the fight, but once the fight was over so was the interest from the casual fan towards boxing.

However, there was one incident on the De La Hoya/Mayweather telecast that struck a chord with MMA fans. After the boxing fight, play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley took time to get a shot in against MMA. He stated that you would not find a MMA fighter with the kind of hands (for boxing) like you would with either Mayweather or De La Hoya. Max Kellerman jumped into the conversational fray after Lampley’s comment and told Lampley that MMA fighters are every bit the athletes that Mayweather and De La Hoya were. There were some writers who defended Lampley for his comments (which technically are right), but Lampley’s defenders are missing the bigger picture.

Why did Jim Lampley feel insecure enough to try to take a gratuitous cheap shot at MMA during boxing’s biggest mega-fight PPV telecast? He clearly aimed to intentionally make this provocative comment — but why? What purpose did it serve? Was it to strike back at HBO executives who are rumoredly going to start airing UFC shows on the network? Was it to strike back at the mainstream media and the constant “boxing is dying, MMA is taking over” storyline?

Whatever Lampley’s intentions were, it backfired. It made many MMA fans angry. On the FightOpinion.com site, we had a correspondent at the fight in Las Vegas who heard about Lampley’s comments — which supposedly raised a stir live at the arena.

Of all of the blunders from those in boxing playing right into Dana White’s media wheelhouse, Lampley’s comments were by far the most egregious of them all. Yes, he is technically 100% right with his comments. However, there was no impetus for him to make those comments other than to stir up trouble.

On the day of the Mayweather/De La Hoya mega-fight, UFC issued a press release for their July 7th card at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. The press release practically read like a laundry list of arguments against boxing PPVs and where disgruntled boxing fans should be turning their eyes to for spending their hard-earned money on PPV.

After winning his fight against Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. found himself making some interesting comments about MMA. After spending weeks trashing UFC and giving UFC an amazing amount of free media coverage, Mayweather was quoted by FightNews.com as saying the following in a post-fight media session:

“I apologize to the UFC, sometimes we say things that we shouldn’t have said and I’m man enough to admit that. I apologize to the Fertittas, Lorenzo and Dana White (UFC owners). I respect MMA fighters and what they do in the UFC. I have no plans of fighting in mixed martial arts.”

For Floyd Mayweather Jr., his comments came way too late. The damage to his sport in media circles by his anti-MMA comments was already complete. There was no going back. The genie was let out of the bottle. UFC was (pardon the pun) the ultimate victor coming out of this past weekend’s activities in Las Vegas.

For those thinking that UFC’s onslaught against boxing is about to stop, think again. On June 21st, UFC will be holding a breakfast at the AP Sports editors convention in St. Louis, Missouri. White will continue to aggressively court media writers to invest more time and money into covering MMA.

There is a growing chorus of sportswriters who see where the money and eyeballs are shifting to, and it’s not boxing. It’s mixed martial arts. Floyd Mayweather Jr. only managed to highlight this fact with his loud mouth and even louder anti-MMA statements.

Dana White played off of Floyd Mayweather Jr. like Antonio Inoki played off of Muhammad Ali. Boxing, once again, loses.

Topics: Boxing, Fight Opinion Weekly, Japan, Media, MMA, Pro-Wrestling, UFC, Zach Arnold | 2 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

2 Responses to “Fight Opinion Weekly: Boxing’s all Mixed up in Martial Arts”

  1. […] You can check out the entire article here. […]

  2. […] Here’s how Boxing Scene readers reacted to my column on the boxing/MMA situation. […]