Saturday, October 29, 2011

Boxing and the Ultimate Fighting Championship

Mixed martial arts has soared in popularity in recent years, far surpassing, especially among young men, the venerable sport of boxing. Certainly some of the reason is the nature of the sport itself: fighters can kick, wrestle and elbow; there are fewer dull stretches of clinching; and the fighters are more limber than lumbering.

But FRB is more interested in structure; is there something about the way mixed martial arts is set up that gives it an advantage over boxing?

For all of recorded history, people have enjoyed watching other people fight, from gladiator fights to bare-knuckle brawling. But boxing as we know it first became popular when a coherent system was organized in the late 19th century. Unified rules and organized championships helped give the sport credibility with newspapers, and by the 20's and 30's even the austere New York Times covered its front page with boxing news.

The organization was quite straightforward: there were eight weight classes and a champion in each class who held the title until he was defeated. It was easy for fans to keep track of. Even non-fans knew the names of the heavyweight champion. Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and many others became among the most celebrated people in the world.

The problems started in the 1960's, when two competing organizations, the WBC and the WBA, began crowning separate champions. In the  1980's they were joined by the IBF and the WBO. Most weight classes now have four champions.


Do you even know who the heavyweight champion is now? Well, its either Wladimir Klitschko, or his brother Vitali Klitschko, or maybe someone named Alexander Povetkin. Here are some other current "champions": Tavoris Cloud, Hassan N'dam N'Jikam, and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam. It's a long way from Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott and Jake LaMotta. 

And those are only the champions in the traditional weight classes. Boxing organizations now recognize as many  as 17 weight classes, like cruiserweight, light welterweight, super featherweight, and strawweight. FRB tried counting the champions recognized by the four major organizations and came up with 82, counting interim champions and things like "superchampions" that he doesn't quite understand. But it's so confusing, FRB has no confidence that figure is correct.

Nothing endangers enjoyment of a sport quite like not knowing what the hell is going on. When even boxing nuts don't have a prayer of keeping track of all the champions, something is wrong.

Worse, the numerous championships and lack of organization allow the best boxers to avoid fighting each other. Floyd Mayweather is perhaps the biggest name in boxing right now, and many people would love to see him fight Manny Pacquiao. In the old days, one would be the welterweight champion and the other would work his way up until he got his shot at the title.  But in today's world both are champions, Mayweather with the WBC and Pacquiao with the WBO. So both men can fight whoever they want and lack incentive to fight each other.

In many ways, the Ultimate Fighting Championship reminds one of the glory days of boxing. While there are competing organizations like Bellator and Strikeforce, everyone knows that all the best fighters are in the UFC. There are just seven weight classes, with one more perhaps soon to be added.  And a central authority plans all the matches, so champions pretty must fight whomever the organizers choose. As a result, fans get an endless parade of attractive matchups.

There are perils to a single organization with so much power. If the UFC  were to be biased against a particular fighter, he might never get his deserved shot at a title. But there have been few complaints along these lines so far.

So next time someone tells you the reason the UFC is popular is its personalities, its showmanship, its fast action or the general barbarity of society, you can tell them the real reason. It's the way it is structured.

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