Is the Sport of Boxing on the Ropes?
Boxing was once a well-respected sport filled with household names such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Crowned Heavyweight Champions were admired for their skills within the boxing community and instantly became some of the world's most famous figures. However, in recent years, boxing has experienced a drastic decline in popularity and cultural significance within the United States.  While Mike Tyson credits YouTube sensations like Jake Paul for reviving the sport with viewership surges, much more is needed if boxing wants to compete against its most recent challenger.
The rising popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has significantly contributed to boxing's recent downfall. The world’s largest MMA organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has grown exponentially in recent years. In addition to a revenue increase of 35% between 2016 ($690m) and 2021 ($930m), the UFC has signed a five-year broadcasting deal with ESPN worth $350m+ annually, a five-year contract to make DraftKings its official sportsbook worth $350m+, and a 10-year kit deal with Crypto.com worth $175m+.
The organization has no plans to slow down, as evidenced by its most recent merger with World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE). After its merger with the UFC, WWE’s executive chairmen declared, “Together, we will be a $21+ billion live sports and entertainment powerhouse with a collective fanbase of more than a billion people and an exciting growth opportunity.”
A Puncher’s Chance: Unite or Die
While there isn’t one clear and definitive reason for the UFC’s success, there is one clear and definitive champion in each weight class. UFC Champions like Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, and Conor McGregor have become cultural icons through pure domination coupled with powerful personas. The ability to name a singular, charismatic champion is what boxing greatly misses. Proof of this is evidenced by asking a straightforward question: Who is the world's heavyweight boxing champion right now? Odds are the average person won't know, and the reason is because there isn’t one. There are actually two: Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury.
Unlike most sports, including the UFC, boxing lacks a unified organization and instead has four distinct governing bodies. The World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Organisation (WBO), and the International Boxing Federation (IBF) all award their own championship belts, which means there can be four world champions in each of the seventeen weight divisions at any given time. With so many organizations awarding belts, the sport’s decentralized nature makes it difficult for fans to determine which titles hold the most prestige. More importantly, this confusion can also lead to discrepancies about the best fighter in each weight class. The fragmented and inconsistent nature of the sport has been an apparent factor in its declination of prominence.
Boxing has been a popular sport since the 1700s, and it's unlikely to go down without a fight; however, the multiple champions format has created cynical fans and a shortage of passionate writers and broadcasters. While the practicality of four separate entities putting their differences aside may be unlikely, if the sport of boxing hopes to go the distance in a 12-round bout with the UFC, it will need to adapt and emulate its opponent's willingness to merge and unify to survive. A single governing body could be the sport's last chance to regain its title.
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