The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Back Atcha, Bob

Bob Arum on MMA fans, fighters

Look: you, me, any serious MMA fan really could do a point by point deconstruction of this invoking the hate of MMA fans for Brock Lesnar, the buyrates drawn by Quinton Jackson and the way he and Rashad Evans are UFC’s two most featured fighters right now with next week’s TUF 10 debut, etc. etc. But it really wouldn’t be worth it- Arum is a promoter, and only a fool takes anything said by a promoter at face value. Arum recognizes that right now boxing has been run out of a multitude of its traditional drawing bases by MMA and is having to rely ever more on the Hispanic audience, so he likely feels that if he can paint MMA as effeminate and racist it will solidify boxing in the one North American demographic it currently dominates. It’s what I would expect from the 78 year old promoter of the Latin Fury PPV cards, who’s based the vast majority of his career on promoting- or exploiting- ethnic pride and ethnic hatreds. Anything a good promoter says should be about making money, and whatever else Bob may be he’s often a fantastic promoter.

But if you’re solely an MMA fan you should be thrilled to hear this from Bob. These are desperate words from an old man in retreat, who’s watching the sport he devoted his life to slowly shrivel up and die to be replaced by something he doesn’t understand or respect. It says everything that the best promoter in his sport of his era isn’t challenging MMA in its demographics, isn’t trying to expand the appeal of his sport, isn’t even (over)confidently dismissing MMA as a fad the way he might have 5 years ago; he’s trying only to hold on to what little he has left even at the risk of pissing off scads of potential customers, the same sorts of people who loved boxing when Arum got into the game and who now after 25+ years of Arum’s promoting can’t stand the sport. His words would be offensive if they came from a position of power and influence, but as things are now they do nothing more than reveal just how scared the man is of the growth of MMA. They say living well is the best revenge; MMA fans are going to get the chance to find out how true that is.

The sad thing about this is that it’s been so utterly unnecessary. I’m a fan of both sports; I probably wouldn’t be a fan of MMA if I hadn’t been a fan of boxing first, a sport my father got me into by showing me the George Foreman/Michael Moorer fight- a Bob Arum card. The sports seem so close to me that it’s sometimes difficult for me to figure out why there’s often such antipathy between the strongest adherents of each. And then I remember things like the decision in the first Holyfield/Lewis fight, or Mike Tyson’s string of bullshit PPV fights at $55 for 2 minutes’ work, or Roy Jones’ version of the same, or the current embarrassing uselessness of the heavyweight division or the inability to make new stars in the sport or the god-awfulness of most PPV undercards or the inability to identify who the actual champions are or Arum’s own over the top defense of Antonio Margarito, and think: oh yeah, that’s why. Because boxing, a great sport with a great history, has somehow for the last 20 years been mismanaged worse than ever before in its history with the lone exception of the color-line years, worse even than back in the 50’s when the mob ran the sport as an tool for gambling. Who but a fan could defend or ignore these things? Who could tolerate them who isn’t already a fan? And so for most of an entire generation of non-Hispanic fans the idea of following this corrupt shambles of an industry was a joke, and the urge to watch violent sports was shifted over to hockey or football- until the rise of UFC.

After 20 years of taking the short term payoff, accepting casino money and HBO money and PPV money for shitty shows, allowing the fanbase to erode and the number of stars to decline as the amateur roots of the sport died and network clearances ended, boxing finally had a challenger to deal with which sold another version of the same product. Not necessarily a better one especially in the early days; but a different one. Like most hidebound monopolists their reaction was not to learn from competition but to try and kill it, and they nearly succeeded; but in the end the damage was greater to them than to MMA- the peak of UFC may have been delayed by 10 years, but boxing’s powerbrokers lost probably the best and perhaps last chance they had to reverse the plunge towards late-night pay cable irrelevance they’ve been on for the best part of my lifetime. Instead a 60-something senator and 60-something promoters teamed up with 40-something and 50-something lawmakers to pressure and legislate UFC nearly completely out of the market, once again making the PPV and cable-TV world safe for terrible undercards, overmatched mandatory challengers, purely ethnic draws and casino site fees. The most hollow of victories.

All good ideas have their time though and while boxing spent the last 15 years doing more of the same, MMA has changed, improved, learned from mistakes and successes alike and done the hard work of rebuilding a fanbase composed almost entirely of the sorts of people boxing spent so long running off out of pure venal stupidity and promotional laziness. And so in 2009 those fans have finally found something in MMA which simply- sorry boxing fans, it’s true- isn’t as fucked up as boxing is. UFC doesn’t have Anderson Silva fighting the equivalent of Richard Frazier or Brock Lesnar taking on Peter McNeeley’s, UFC doesn’t have undercards composed entirely of fights between has-been’s and never-will-be’s selected largely based on how cheap they’ll work, and UFC doesn’t generally have the specter hanging over it of big fights commonly being decided based on cards that seem to have been filled out before a punch is thrown. UFC is now a pretty close approximation of what many fans wanted all along from boxing, and what they were never able to get. And so in 2009 the same 60-something promoter who helped in the effort to strangle MMA in the cradle is now a 70-something promoter who’s reduced to calling MMA a sport for skinhead white homosexuals with tattoos because he’s lost the ability to do anything more substantial- UFC’s revenue generation means the political whip-hand is with them now, as are the younger generation of fans who’ll determine where this market goes in the future. 10 million people watched UFC 100 in Mexico, and one of UFC’s best prospects has a “Brown Pride” tattoo. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

In a business full of champions time is the only real conqueror. In a few years Bob will be an 80-something promoter; and right around that time Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Ricky Hatton, Marco Antonio Barrerra, Miguel Cotto, Bernard Hopkins, Erik Morales, Roy Jones, Shane Mosley and both Klitschkos (average age: 35) will be following Joe Calzaghe, Tito Trinidad and Oscar de la Hoya into retirement. Who will replace them for boxing? Who are the new stars to carry the flag and draw interest, to represent the sport in the public eye? There’s almost no one, and that isn’t the fault of MMA. That falls on Golden Boy, HBO, Showtime, Don King, Bob Arum and every other decision maker for the sweet science who’s taken out more than they’ve put into the sport for decades, who’ve drawn more than their share of water from the well. No amount of promotional bluster or witless allegations will change that, and retreating to the Hispanic markets will only increase the rate at which they’re burnt out as the legendary patience and fervor of those audiences are tasked for more money more often for worse shows.

But hey, I’m white, I have tattoos, and I’m bisexual- what do I know? I started out as a boxing fan, and now I’m an MMA fan. You got that one right, Bob- another good call.

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September 13, 2009 - Posted by | Boxing, MMA

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