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  • Writer's pictureJacob Goldstein

Why the Path from the UFC to Boxing is a One-Way Street: Tactical and Financial Incentives

Updated: Feb 22

Boxing has existed for thousands of years, becoming a formal Olympic event in 688 BCE.[1] However, the Olympics have since expanded to include combat sports such as Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle Wrestling, Judo, Taekwondo, and Karate. [2] Historically, the wide variety of techniques and fighting styles has created much debate over hypothetical interdisciplinary fights.[3] 


Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organizations like the UFC originated as tournaments featuring the best athletes in various disciplines of all martial arts, including boxing, wrestling, karate, jiu-jitsu, sumo, and other combat sports in an attempt to crown the “Ultimate Fighting Champion.”[4] At its core, the UFC’s goal was to settle interdisciplinary debates over which fighting styles were superior. The organization’s first-ever fight took place in 1993, and due to a lack of significant rules, it continued to host somewhat barbaric spectacles.[5] The new sport was banned in almost all fifty states until the organization implemented judges, weight classes, a boxing ten-point scoring system, and round as well as time limits.[6] Former CEO Lorenzo Fertitta credited these rule changes as the reason that the sport survived.[7] 


Rules Are Rules

Compared to MMA, boxing is relatively simple. The only method of attack is punching with a clenched fist; punches below the belt and to the back of the head are not allowed, and fighters cannot hit one another once they fall to the ground.[8] There are three ways to win a boxing match: Knockout, which is when a fighter is knocked to the floor and cannot get up within ten seconds; Technical Knockout, which is when a referee or medical staff member deems a fighter unable to protect themselves; or by Judges Decision, which happens when both fighters remain willing and able to fight once the designated round limit is met.[9] 


Building an arsenal for MMA fighting, including grappling skills like takedowns and chokeholds, as well as the strikes prohibited in boxing, such as kicks, knees, and elbows, requires countless hours of extensive training.[10] While almost every MMA fighter prepares for the types of striking needed for a boxing match, even the best boxers in the world will likely never train for the kinds of striking needed for an MMA fight. The sheer time required for a boxing champion to introduce the skills necessary for an MMA fight is simply not feasible and could be a significant reason boxers rarely try their luck in the UFC.[11] While former professional boxers like Milo Savage and James Toney have attempted the transition into MMA, their lack of success proved to be ample warning to fellow boxers about the dangers of getting out of the ring and into the octagon.[12]


Money Talks

Compared to the UFC, boxing is a longer-standing, more established sport with a loyal fanbase and rich history of mainstream prominence.[13] Several established organizations in boxing, like the World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA) and International Boxing Federation (IBF) mean bidding wars can tremendously increase pay for fighters.[14] Dominant boxers like Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. have made over $100 million for one fight on multiple occasions.[15] According to a 2017 Forbes report, Mayweather earned more in one night than Lebron James, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo collectively earned all year, receiving $275 million for his fight against Conor McGregor.[16]


Conversely, while the UFC has seen tremendous growth, a lack of genuine competitors allows the organization to negotiate rosters and pay schemes with ease.[17] Approximately 1,200 former UFC fighters recently won class-action status in a high-stakes anti-trust suit accusing the organization of confining fighters to cyclical contracts paying far less than what should be in a competitive market.[18] Judge Richard Boulware of the US District Court for the District of Nevada affirmed in the suit’s 80-page class certification that the UFC used a “variety of ruthless coercive techniques to prevent fighters from becoming free agents—rendering these contracts effectively perpetual.”[19] Judge Boulware described how the UFC controlled fighters’ opponents, their discretionary bonuses, the timing of their bouts, the placement on fight cards, whether fights were pay-per-view or televised, and the overall promotion of a fighter’s career.[20] 


Consequently, UFC fighters who accumulate immense fame have an obvious incentive to venture into the boxing world once their contracts with the UFC are satisfied. Fighters with household names like Conor McGregor and Francis Ngannou exceed the confines of the UFC and no longer need the organization to promote their fights. Unsealed court documents from the class-action suit revealed that the UFC paid McGregor a combined $31 million for his participation in nine fights.[21] Comparatively, in his one boxing match against Mayweather, McGregor made roughly $100 million.[22] Similarly, Ngannou’s estimated $10 million payday for his first-ever professional boxing match put his largest UFC payout of $600k to shame.[23]

Furthermore, the most profitable crossover fights include storylines of genuine curiosity regarding the outcome of two fighters at the top of their respective fields colliding. Rarely have UFC fighters “call[ed] out Olympic taekwondo champs, even though the underlying concept …remains the same.”[24] These fights don't actualize because contests between unsung fighters have low prospective viewership and are unlikely to yield profitable pay-per-view numbers.[25] This potential financial disparity is precisely why famous UFC fighters challenge famous boxers instead of gold medalists in the four other Olympic combat sports.[26]


Future Fights

Whether it’s because boxers are afraid to wrestle or because UFC stars are attracted to boxing’s deep pockets, the blockbuster crossover fights of recent have primarily taken place in the boxing ring instead of the octagon, and it seems unlikely that will change anytime soon. And, while some boxing purists may question the integrity of these fights, they can find solace in knowing that their favorite boxers will likely retain home-field advantage in the boxing ring.


References:

[1] Colins, Nigel. “Boxing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 21 Dec. 2023, www.britannica.com/sports/boxing

[2] Wray, David. “Which Martial Arts Are in the Olympics?” LowKickMMA.Com, 14 Nov. 2022, www.lowkickmma.com/which-martial-arts-are-in-the-olympics/.

[3] Wagenheim, Jeff. “From Fury vs. Ngannou All the Way Back to Ali vs. Inoki, Here Are the Biggest Crossover Fights Ever.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 30 Oct. 2023, www.espn.com/boxing/story/_/id/38718926/highlighting-biggest-crossover-fights-all-tyson-fury-vs-francis-ngannou.

[4] “History of UFC.” UFC, 23 July 2021, www.ufc.com/history-ufc.

[5] “The History and Evolution of MMA.” Diaz Combat Sports, 22 May 2020, diazcombatsports.com/2020/05/the-history-and-evolution-of-mma/.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Astbury, Matt. “What Are the Rules of Boxing? How Does It Work?: DAZN News Us.” DAZN, DAZN News United States, 7 Apr. 2023, www.dazn.com/en-US/news/boxing/what-are-the-rules-of-boxing-how-does-it-work/19zl38ud4e22s1edomo7u9lm7f.

[9] Id.

[10] ​​Dike, Jason. “Why Is the World so Obsessed with MMA vs Boxing, and How Do They Move On?” Hypebeast, Hypebeast, 16 Mar. 2017, hypebeast.com/2017/3/mma-versus-boxing-comparisons-history-mcgregor-mayweather.

[11] Id.

[12] Rondina, Steven. “Before Mayweather-McGregor: History’s Most Famous, Notorious Crossover Fights.” Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 5 Nov. 2017, bleacherreport.com/articles/2724947-before-mayweather-mcgregor-historys-most-famous-notorious-crossover-fights.

[13] Gormley, Lee. “Why Do Boxers Make More than MMA Fighters?” Casino.Org Blog, 22 Mar. 2023, www.casino.org/blog/boxers-vs-mma-fighters/.

[14] Id.

[15] Kenyon, David. “The 6 Biggest Boxing Paychecks in History.” Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 7 May 2022, bleacherreport.com/articles/2955966-the-6-biggest-boxing-paychecks-in-history.

[16] Badenhausen, Kurt. “How Floyd Mayweather Made a Record $275 Million for One Night of Work.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 June 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2018/06/05/how-floyd-mayweather-earned-275-million-for-one-night-of-work/?sh=1c26d8b86e4d.

[17] Gormley, supra

[18] Arcieri, Katie. “UFC Fighters Test Antitrust Law to Escape ‘Perpetual’ Contracts.” Bloomberg Law, 20 Sept. 2023, news.bloomberglaw.com/antitrust/ufc-fighters-test-antitrust-law-to-escape-perpetual-contracts.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] “‘$31M for Nine Bouts’: Conor McGregor’s Biggest UFC Paydays Revealed in Lawsuit Documents.” Fox Sports, FOX SPORTS Australia, 3 Nov. 2023, www.foxsports.com.au/ufc/31m-for-nine-bouts-conor-mcgregors-biggest-ufc-paydays-revealed-in-lawsuit-documents/news-story/533a06ed2ac7a85ab0ab50373b3e2c49

[22] Reinsmith, Trent. “Conor McGregor Made ‘Around’ $100 Million for Floyd Mayweather Fight, Knows He Would Win Rematch.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Nov. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/trentreinsmith/2017/11/01/conor-mcgregor-made-around-100-million-for-floyd-mayweather-fight-knows-he-would-win-rematch/?sh=67df7dfd1d13.

[23] Turay, Mike. “How Much Are Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou Getting Paid for Saturday’s Heavyweight Crossover Bout.” DraftKings Network, DraftKings Network, 28 Oct. 2023, dknetwork.draftkings.com/2023/10/28/23927741/tyson-fury-francis-ngannou-money-purse-how-much-are-they-getting-paid-salaries-ppv-percentage.

[24] Dike, supra.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

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