There is no hiding from the fact that 2020 was a difficult year for boxing. Aside from Tyson Fury’s historic knockout victory over Deontay Wilder in February, there have been very few fights that have captured the headlines. While there were some high-class matchups (Teofimo Lopez and Vasily Lomachenko come to mind), the kind of high-level 50/50 fight which captures the imagination of boxing fans proved elusive. However, the Coronavirus pandemic is not the only threat that boxing faces. The appeal of boxing has been chipped away at over the years and the rise of the UFC has stolen the limelight with its highlight-reel knockouts and best fight-the-best mentality. Many inside boxing have begun to look at the UFC’s model and question why boxing cannot adopt a similar approach. Yet, when you view the way the UFC is run, it becomes clear that the brutal efficacy comes at the expense of their most vital commodity, the fighters.
While boxers have promoters and managers, they have a degree of control over their own careers. Nobody can force them to take a particular matchup and if a fighter believes they are being paid less than their worth they can walk away from negotiations. This happens a lot, most recently Terrence Crawford and Errol Spence’s inability to reach an agreement stands out. In contrast, Dana White reigns over the UFC with a sinister dictator-like role which is often overlooked due to its fan-friendly upside. He has the ability to cut fighters at will and often exercises this power liberally. The issue here is that with the threat of being cut at any time and without the support of a union among fighters, there is little to nothing a fighter can do if they believe they are being lowballed by the UFC. The simple fact is that, often, the best don’t choose to fight the best in the UFC for financial benefits or simply to please the fans but because it is what will make Dana White the most money and thus if they refuse to accept, they are at risk of having their contracts terminated. There are numerous occasions where Dana White has threatened to cut fighters for refusing a fight which makes no logical sense to them. Leon Edwards being the most recent of a long list that contains big names like Yair Rodriguez and Colby Covington.
While the UFC puts on spectacular and competitive fights nearly every weekend, Dana White’s tight control over his fighter’s contracts has the inevitable conclusion of lower fighter pay when compared to boxing. Take Conor Mcgregor and Dustin Poirier’s rematch as an example, this fight which took place earlier this year, was a massive PPV event with an estimated 1.2 million PPV buys. Yet, Dustin Poirier, an established star of the UFC only received a guaranteed payout of $1million (a career-high). Meanwhile, in boxing the biggest star Canelo received a guarantee of around $20 million for his last fight with his opponent Callum Smith making around $7 million. Although this fight was broadcast on DAZN (a Netflix-style streaming service) and is thus hard to compare, there have been no boxing PPVs to break the one million mark since the Canelo GGG rematch in 2018. Therefore, how are we to explain the drastic disparity between fighter pay? The answer of course lies in the financial independence of boxers who can lobby for higher fees without fear of losing their career. This can be frustrating; everybody wants to see the best fight the best but being forced to take these fights is counterproductive to fighter welfare which everyone claims to care so much about. Perhaps being paid more to fight could help prevent fighters from prolonging their careers in a way that is often tragic and too often indulged by MMA franchises. It is distressing to see once-great fighters like BJ Penn and Diego Sanchez take unnecessary beatings when greater pay might have allowed them to retire earlier and thus reduce the amount of trauma their bodies receive.
Another point of attack aimed at boxing is its large number of weight classes and the number of belts per weight class. Although this is a very legitimate criticism, especially in light of the WBA’s ridiculous recent activity, the large number of weight classes help prevent massive weight cuts which are seen in the UFC. It is not unheard of for a UFC fighter to 10lbs on fight week which is incredibly dangerous and there have been several leaked videos of fighters cutting weight which are terrifying. Kevin Lee once claimed that he thought he was going to die. There is no reason for such a dangerous and unhealthy practice to continue and yet it does. After all, increasing the number of champions means increasing the number of fighters who need extra pay and PPV points. While boxing has its struggles, it is undeniable that by having more belts in each division there is a greater source of revenue for fighters. Title fights will earn more money and fighters have a greater chance of getting serious money by gaining a belt. Thus, while boxing fans might complain, there is no shortage of title fights and by unifying all four belts, boxers have a higher ceiling of achievement than their UFC counterparts.
Boxing is a flawed business. Without a doubt, there are ways that the sport can be improved and the rise of the UFC has only underlined this fact. However, boxing fans must be wary. While the UFC might look like a fight fans utopia, there are shortfalls that make it possible and while some have benefited massively from the UFC’s success, there are many others who are the victims of a ruthless franchise that has total control of their fates. so, if we really want a sport that cares about fighter safety and security, we must ensure that boxing remains a sport where boxers decide their worth and earn their own value and if that comes at the expense of constant 50/50 action, then that is the way it has to be. In other words, while we all want safe, well-paid fighters and exciting, meaningful title fights, you can’t always have your cake and eat it.