The Fight of the Century
Conor McGregor was talking about himself and the Irish nation he represents, after an emotional victory in the octagon back in 2014. But he could well have been talking about the sport he long competed in.
In less than three decades, the UFC has gone from being perceived as a bloodbath freak show, to a highly popular sport with a regular global TV audience. Of the ten highest pay-per-view audiences of all time, there are already three UFC contests — two involving McGregor. While boxing still leads the way, it is worth noting three of those ten are Mike Tyson fights from back in the day. The recent Khabib Nurmagomedov versus McGregor fight is ranked third of all time, with only Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao ahead of it as a pure boxing title fight.
At No. 2 is Mayweather and McGregor, when the two richest fighters in their respective sports met on Mayweather’s terms. If McGregor was to rematch with either Mayweather or Nurmagomedov, then a new record might be set.
McGregor has taken UFC to a new level. But Dana White is the man who gave him the platform and has set up the sport for success.
It’s as if White brought a communist ethic to boxing when he reimagined the UFC. No more maverick promoters, individual fiefdoms, breakaway organizations and economic divide. Just one dictator, largely working for the greater good — as well as himself.
Yes, you can still make far more money as a top boxer. Heavyweights Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder all earned as much as McGregor, if not more in 2019 — with far less fanfare. But the fighters on the undercards of UFC make more than journeyman boxers.
There is also only one organization in the UFC and one main promoter, and the events are organized and regular. Boxing tends to feel sporadic and random — big when a fight is being promoted, but you’re never sure when that’s happening next.
Dana just decides to get it on for the good of the sport and, of course, himself and his fighters. Eddie Hearn, Frank Warren, Al Haymon, Bob Arum, Don King, et al., shadowbox in business for their own ends.
Boxing is also more confusing than ever to the average gambler when it comes to who is the best.
In boxing, there is the WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF. Only dedicated boxing fans could tell you which is the most important. Throw in 17 weight divisions for the boxers, and that’s a hell of a lot of world champions. In the prized middleweight division, there are currently four different titleholders.
Watching Fury beat Wilder for the heavyweight title was exciting, but he’s only got one of the belts. He needs to fight Joshua for a couple of the others. Again, the promoters will decide if and when that happens.
UFC has eight weight divisions and eight champions — nine if you count Justin Gaethje, who has Nurmagomedov’s lightweight belt on an interim basis. It’s regular and pragmatic. More of a democratic feel to it, despite Dana the Despot.
There are even famous women in UFC. Most sports fans have heard of Ronda Rousey but would struggle to name a female boxer. Muhammed Ali’s daughter Laila doesn’t count.
The only thing UFC truly lacks is a longer-term narrative, with drama and characters.
Boxing has a legacy — from Tyson to Rocky Marciano and the middleweights of the ‘80s, Thomas Hearns, Larry Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán, Oscar De La Hoya. Characters like King. Legendary stories like the Rumble in the Jungle. Even fictional heroes in the form of Rocky and Creed.
That will come for UFC, though. In relative terms, it’s a baby. The man in the street knows McGregor. He might know Nurmagomedov, the ferocious Russian grappler undefeated in 28 fights. But he probably couldn’t name Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre unless he was a UFC fan. Even Aussies might not know they have a world champ at featherweight in the form of Alexander Volkanovski.
You can be sure, though, that UFC is coming for boxing, quicker than the right hand McGregor used to drop José Aldo.
“I’m the fucking future,” said McGregor when he was still a fresh-faced Dubliner, fighting for a few quid. Again, he could have been talking about his sport.
Should you wish to stay current on the athlete née medium, Mr. McGregor maintains a web presence as well.