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Fight Opinion Weekly: How boxing should respond to the rise of MMA

By Zach Arnold | May 27, 2007

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Joe Rogan on Sportscenter
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Printable version of article here. Plus, David P. Greisman has an excellent article called “Fighting Words” – Four Crucial Weeks for Boxing, Mixed Martial Arts that I highly recommend everyone to read.

By Zach Arnold

Last week, ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd observed that UFC had reached the ‘tipping point’ with the mainstream media by gaining national coverage for their product in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN The Magazine. That boost in media coverage propelled UFC 71 (Chuck Liddell vs. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) into a mega-event. So much so, that in an ESPN.com SportsNation poll, 37% of voters chose UFC 71 as the sporting event they were looking forward to the most on Memorial Day weekend.

Bigger than the NBA. Bigger than the Indy 500. Bigger than NASCAR.

ESPN’s capitulation on promoting “ultimate fighting” (MMA) this past week was a growing sign that they see a future for the sport and MMA-type programming on its network. It pulls in sexy demographics (both men and women 18-34 with disposable income) that boxing dreams of but cannot achieve in 2007. The beneficiary of the ‘MMA boom’ is UFC and not anyone else in the MMA industry. Make no mistake about it, UFC is the only winner here. “Ultimate Fighting” is a proprietary term trademarked by UFC and is said by every media joe blow in America. Not mixed martial arts. “Ultimate Fighting.”

UFC’s strategy to challenge boxing and to challenge boxers is nothing new. Antonio Inoki used it in the 1970s to play off of Muhammad Ali’s star power to catapult the credibility of Japanese professional wrestling.

So why does the strategy of challenging boxing work? Because people in the boxing industry allow it to happen.

If there is a collective group of more non-media savvy people in another sector of the fight industry outside of Toughman, please let me know. Even professional wrestling gets more positive coverage than boxing does these days.

And boxing has no one to blame but itself.

For every Teddy Atlas and Oscar De La Hoya, you have 20 guys who have no idea what message to say or how to say it in the press. When presented with an outside challenge to the industry, people in boxing would rather throw gasoline on the situation than attempt to appropriately diffuse it. Whenever boxing is challenged by another sport, boxing never wins the PR battle.

This was perfectly demonstrated last Friday on ESPN’s SportsCenter program. Host Brian Kenny (a boxing ally) hosted a 15-minute segment between UFC commentator Joe Rogan and boxing promoter Lou DiBella. For UFC, they couldn’t have scripted the media situation any better. DiBella looked and acted exactly like a stereotype and a parody of someone associated in boxing – cock-headed, smug, thuggish, not prepared, arrogant, and angry. Rogan came off as a maniac for his sport, but was more than willing to debate his points and mix it up verbally. DiBella had no clue how to handle Rogan or his statements. Rather than praise MMA, DiBella went right into the anti-MMA playbook of “MMA is human cockfighting” and “MMA is pitbull fighting.” On a week when UFC reached critical mass in mainstream media coverage, this was absolutely the worst tactic for DiBella to take in the media.

The one valid point DiBella tried to make was that comparing MMA to boxing is like comparing apples to oranges. However, he made this point far too late in the SportsCenter segment. The damage was already done.

Just like Dana White played off of Floyd Mayweather, Joe Rogan toyed around with Lou DiBella on national TV. It was devastating PR for boxing.

Veteran boxing writer Charles Jay stated to me a few weeks ago that boxing’s biggest problem PR-wise is that nobody is ever on the same message. Everyone has their own agenda and has their own spin on things. In other words, there is no united front.

A united front is desparately needed for boxing now to handle public relations on behalf of this great sport.

What message should everyone in boxing take in regards to challenges being thrown at the sport by UFC and MMA fighters?

  1. Ignore the challenges. Do not respond back with your own challenge.
  2. Praise UFC for how they have been able to successfully build their company, but at the same time praise what you’ve accomplished.
  3. State that there is room for competition between MMA, boxing, and professional wrestling for the average fan’s entertainment dollar.

Rather than play defense in the media, people in boxing need to start defining and shaping the terms of the public debate. The message should be loud and clear — boxing is good and MMA is gaining respectability.

If a united front in the media isn’t created on behalf of the boxing industry, boxing will suffer permanent damage in the eyes of a sports audience that is growing more and more fickle each day.

Topics: Boxing, Fight Opinion Weekly, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 1 Comment » | Permalink | Trackback |

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