Skip to main content

Can Boxing Get Its Legs Back?

Floyd Mayweather may have scored a split decision against Oscar De La Hoya in Saturday's big fight here, but the more important outcome for boxing is whether the sport can stand toe to toe with the upstart mixed martial arts genre and remain the pay-per-view category's undisputed, unscripted big-event revenue champion.

On that fight, a decision has yet to be rendered.

HBO clearly showed that a boxing match featuring two compelling fighters like De La Hoya and Mayweather can still draw the attention of the sports world. The fight, in which the undefeated Mayweather beat De La Hoya in a controversial split decision, is the undisputed PPV revenue champ, garnering 2.15 million buys and $120 million in revenue.

The problem is fights like De La Hoya-Mayweather are all too rare — the last fight to garner more than 1 million buys was the 2002 Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson heavyweight championship fight.

And unless there's a De La Hoya-Mayweather rematch, it's unlikely any other fight will reach that lofty pinnacle. Boxing has been unable to cultivate any new, marquee fighters that could carry the sport on PPV once De La Hoya, the current category king, retires. And the heavyweight division — historically the fight game's premiere draw — has failed to generate a marketable champion. (Bonus points if you can you name any of the four current heavyweight champions: Ruslan Chagaev, Oleg Maskaev, Wladimir Klitschko, or Shannon Briggs).

Boxing will always have 300,000 to 400,000 loyal fans that will be willing to pay $49 for top-level events. The sport needs to cultivate its next generation of fans who will support it over the next 20 years.

But a lot of those young viewers are instead doling out 40 bucks for mixed martial arts events, led by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The category, with its action-packed and often bloody matches, hasn't officially had a 1 million-buy night, but the UFC's Dec. 30 event certainly bumped up against the mark. [UFC refuses to release actual buy figures.]

Overall, executives close to UFC say the company's shows average between 400,000 to 500,000 buys and the category has a lot of momentum due to its cable and broadcast exposure on such networks as Spike TV (UFC), Showtime (Pro Fight League) and Fox Sports Net/My Network TV (International Fight League).

Compare that to the monthly boxing shows on pay TV networks HBO and Showtime which combined only reach around 40 million subscribers and the live, weekly ESPN fight cards featuring relatively unknown and up and coming boxers.

Even HBO is looking to get into the octagon ring: the network is expected to distribute UFC events later this summer.

But not everyone over at HBO is enamored with mixed martial arts. HBO boxing reporter Jim Lampley took aim at the mixed martial arts category after calling the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight.

“There's nothing in mixed martial arts which is within light years of what Mayweather and De La Hoya are able to do with their hands,” Lampley said.

UFC president Dana White and the more than 2 million mostly young male viewers who tune in to Spike TV's Ultimate Fighter reality series on a weekly basis would certainly differ.

Whether the UFC can wrestle the title of PPV revenue champion remains to be seen.

But if both sports can go toe to toe against each other with big-ticket PPV events — UFC's White has already challenged Mayweather to fight a mixed martial arts champion in a mega-event — the winner may ultimately be the PPV category, cable operators and sports fans.