Has MMA’s popularity surpassed Boxing in the UK and Ireland?

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A feature by John MCGovern


Mixed Martial Arts has gained monumental popularity and grown rapidly in recent years through the innovations and global outreach of the sport’s leading organisation, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The August 2017 bout between MMA world champion Conor McGregor and undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather presented itself as one of the most anticipated spectacles in sports history, with a reported 4.4 million pay-per-view purchases. This record-breaking boxing contest serves as an enlightening indication of the UFC’s marketing and branding prowess. It has proved to be an organisation capable of declaring a Mixed Martial Artist, Conor McGregor, with no professional boxing wins or loses to his name, as a feasible and plausible threat to boxing’s arguably greatest competitor of all-time in Floyd Mayweather.

The Journal.ie’s 2016 article condemns the apparent media bias against MMA in Ireland which presented the sport as barbaric and gruesome by outlining the brutality of other sports. Despite potential attempts of British and Irish media to undermine MMA’s growth, it is clear that two years on, MMA has been cemented as a credible sport and a direct competitor to the popularity of boxing. This is proven by Conor McGregor’s ability to be judged as a potential threat to boxing’s greatest star. The UK and Ireland have embraced MMA during a period of dwindling British boxing headliners due to the presence of brash local MMA competitors such as Conor McGregor which has lead to a surge of British and Irish pursuing various forms of mixed martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kickboxing and Muay Thai. It is important to explore how the UFC has succeeded in globally reforming the perception of MMA in public opinion to eventually compete with boxing as the most popular combat sport in the UK and Ireland.

Rough Beginnings

Royce Gracie (pictured right) vs Gerard Gordeau (left) at UFC 1

UFCs exceptional growth and recent sale of $4 billion to William Morris Endeavor in July 2016 serves as a testament to the organisation’s substantial popularity and the marketing capabilities of the previous owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. Prior to the UFC, Mixed Martial Arts was an obscure concept with little to no financial support. Martial Arts such as karate, judo and kickboxing attained minimal public exposure in the early 1990s. Exceptional athletes performing in credible, competitive combat sports depended on local tournaments and the quadrennial summer Olympic games for financial recompense and international recognition for their talent and years of arduous physical training.

Since the early 1900s boxing has maintained a reputation as the pinnacle of combat sports and is perceived as the most reputable martial art by contemporary audiences throughout Western Europe and the United States. In 1993, came the inception of what would eventually become the first significant challenge to boxing’s dominance in the combat sports sphere, the UFC. The first UFC event marketed itself on the concept of seeking the most effective martial art and sought to pit renowned and adept representatives from individual combat sports against each other in a sanctioned, competitive environment.

However, Mixed Martial Arts struggled to appeal to a wider audience and was met with extreme scrutiny and opposition during its early tenure. Various public figures belittled the UFC, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, who in 1996 described the sport as “human cockfighting”. The current structure of the organization was not achieving significant strides in contradicting such comments as early UFC events outlined a distinct lack of direction and safe and effective ruling. Groin punches, strikes to the back of the head, and hair pulling present a few examples of why early Mixed Martial Arts received widespread resentment and was generally perceived as abhorrent and gruesome.

Prior to the twenty-first century, Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC had developed various negative connotations and generalizations of what they represented. Many contemporaries regarded the sport as an uncoordinated and appalling display of brutality and violence which only appealed to a niche, unsophisticated audience and would fail to amass any credibility as a sport. Given the organisation’s current structure, it would be difficult to argue otherwise.

New Ownership

Zuffa Limited Liability Company, owned by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, became the parent entity of the UFC after a meagre $2 million purchase in 2001. Mixed Martial Arts was entering a new era, adhering to key principles which had made boxing so successful. With strict rules and an increasing focus on fighter safety, boxing achieved an aura of tact and sophistication. The UFC proceeded accordingly by introducing strict weight classes, an overhaul of the outdated and barbaric ruleset and strict enforcement of drug control with the assistance of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The UFC’s new ownership had taken crucial steps to present Mixed Martial Arts as a reputable sport and offered substantial financial opportunities to athletes failing to support themselves financially within their specialized combat sport.

However, despite these necessary changes, Lorenzo Fertitta recognized the key factor to exponentially increase MMA’s popularity and prevent a struggling sport from ceasing to exist, informing Fighter’s Magazine in 2001 “I’m getting the most valuable thing that I could possibly have, which is those three letters: UFC. That is what’s going to make this thing work. Everybody knows that brand, whether they like it or they don’t like it, they react to it.”. Zuffa owned a recognized and controversial brand and the owners acknowledged the company’s notoriety served as a platform to ensure an international brand. Branding became an instrumental necessity for growing MMA as an established and reputable sport, as evidenced by UFC’s $70 million deal with Reebok, a move which gained both organisations major exposure to an international audience.

Creation of Stars

Ronda Rousey was one of the UFC’s most influential figures for appealing to a wider demographic of fans

MMA’s strenuous tenure managed to reach its current prosperity through the representation and exposure of massive UFC fighters such as Ronda Rousey, who became an empowering figure to women as an undefeated champion. The UFC capitalized on an opportunity boxing failed to by representing women as formidable role models capable of headlining events over men.

The $4 million purchase of the UFC demonstrates the growth of a polarizing concept in the twenty-first century which has inspired various other MMA organisations such as Bellator MMA to emerge. MMA testifies that young sports can still persevere extreme scrutiny and develop into a reputable and adored source of entertainment.

UFC and MMA’s most recognizable and polarizing figure, Conor McGregor has served as the greatest source of the company and sport’s growth in public appeal. McGregor serves as an example in sports that entertainment value and immense skill are equally important to garnering public attention and demand. MMA has created stars in the sport arguably as recognisable as Muhammad Ali and Roger Federer, which immensely increases the credibility of a sport which was met with disdain and disgust 20 years ago.

mcgregor 2.jpg
Conor McGregor is an instantly recognisable sports star in the UK and Ireland

The $4 million purchase of the UFC demonstrates the growth of a polarizing concept in the twenty-first century which has inspired various other MMA organisations such as Bellator MMA to emerge. MMA testifies that young sports can still persevere extreme scrutiny and develop into a reputable and adored source of entertainment. MMA is a persistently growing combat sport which has finally caught up to the stifled sport of boxing which was formerly perceived as sophisticated and refined, however, it now garners attention as dull and simple when contrasted with MMA in the UK and Ireland.

With this growing interest in the sport, there has been a consequential rise of various martial arts clubs and gyms within Northern Ireland, including various Brazilian Jiu Jitsu clubs such as Causeway Combatants in Coleraine and multiple SBG (Straight Blast Gym) and RMNU (Robson Moura Nations United) gyms scattered around the country, as well as an emergence of other popular martial arts clubs appearing such as the 1-4-1 Muay Thai Gym in Antrim and the newly formed OMAGH MMA club. The consistent rise of these new martial arts facilities may suggest a gradual changing of the guard of UK and Ireland’s most popular combat sport.

Former UFC fighter Norman Parke is a head coach at Omagh MMA

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