While boxing is arguably beginning to stagnate somewhat, one of its closest competitors, mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
Perhaps benefitting from having one dominant organisation in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as opposed to boxing’s ‘alphabet soup’ of titles, MMA is one of sports’ biggest successes in recent years.
But what are the differences between the two? Is MMA ‘better’ than boxing? And in a UFC vs boxing ratings match, who would come on top?
Differences between MMA and Boxing
First and foremost, boxing is the more restricted sport in terms of ruleset. You can only throw a selection of punches – and only above the belt. But that’s it – only punches. No grabbing, slapping or hammerfisting your opponent.
In MMA, by contrast, virtually nothing is off-limits. Elbows, chokes, joint locks – you name it. It involves a range of martial arts, as well as kicks, arm, elbow and hand strikes. Fighters also use techniques from the likes of boxing, wrestling, Sambo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Muay Thai and kickboxing, in order to create a well-rounded fighting style.
This disparity in what you can and can’t do might explain why the two sports see respective fighters stand differently, too. Boxers can stand with their hands near the head, but this isn’t always a good idea for MMA fighters, who need to also defend against take downs. Look at how how Khabib Nurmagomedov landed a right hand on Conor McGregor – who was expecting a takedown – in their October 2018 fight, for instance.
While the rules of boxing can vary between federations and boxing commissions, fights typically go on until a fighter can’t beat the 10-second “count” after being knocked down or, in some instances, if they are knocked down three times. This isn’t the case in MMA; if you’re knocked down, it is at the referee’s discretion whether or when to stop the fight. MMA fights are usually ended when a fighter can no longer defend themselves or they tap out after being submitted.
Boxing also takes place in a ring, as opposed to MMA fights, which are set in a cage (known as the “Octagon” in the UFC). A cage is needed to allow for the wrestling that goes on in MMA, whereas a boxing ring mainly enables the fight to stay concentrated in one area.
There’s also differences in the lengths of bouts. In a boxing title fight, there are between six to 12 three-minute rounds with a minutes’ rest between each. The fight can finish earlier, though, if one of the competitors is knocked out. The boxer with the most points wins if it goes all the way to 12 rounds.
But an MMA title fight will last for three or five rounds of five minutes, with 60 seconds’ rest between each round. This that while a boxing title fight can last up to 36 minutes, such events in UFC take no longer than 25 minutes to decide.
While it is like boxing in that a fighter can win through a knockout, technical knockout or on points, an UFC match can also be won using submissions (i.e. ‘tapping out’).
Another notable difference between the two involves the use of gloves. A typical MMA glove will weigh about 0.1 kg and will be much more flexible, with its exposed fingers enhancing the ability to complete takedowns and submissions.
Boxing gloves, though, are huge, weighing between 0.3kg and 0.5kg. Their size can be used for some defensive techniques – they are also cushioned for this exact reason, too.
A Brief History of MMA and Boxing
Mixed martial arts is said to have originated at the ancient Olympic Games in 648 BCE, with pankration, the martial training of Greek armies, which was considered the combat sport of ancient Greece.
It combined wrestling, boxing, and street fighting, and allowed kicking and beating your opponent while he was down, only drawing the line at biting and eye-gouging.
A match ended when a fighter admitted defeat or was left unconscious. At times, competitors died during matches. This became one of the ancient Olympics’ most popular events.
Understandably, this was seen as a barbaric, almost sub-human form of sport for centuries, and indeed, it was not until 1993 that the UFC formed. Initially, fighters of different styles battled each other, with the only limitations again being no biting or eye-gouging. Matches ended when a fighter submitted or one corner threw the towel in.
By the third event, the UFC was garnering an audience of 300,000, though did alter its rules in 2001 to make it less dangerous after backlash from certain sections of the public. It introduced weight classes, rounds, time limits and added to the list of fouls in the ring. Fighers also evolved, becoming more competent in multiple forms of martial arts in order to become true mixed martial artists.
The UFC made little money at first it soon developed into a hugely successful organisation. Between 2003 and 2006, three of fights between Randy ‘The Natural’ Couture and Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell, did wonders for enhancing its reputation. helped elevate MMA and the UFC. In 2015, its revenue totalled at a whopping $609 million, while its domestic media rights five-year agreement with ESPN was valued at $1.5 billion.
As for boxing, the earliest evidence of the sport is in about 3000 BC in ancient Egypt. It was brought in to the ancient Olympics by the Greeks in the late 7th century BC, with strips of leather used to protect fighters’ hands and forearms.
Fighters would hit each other until one fell unconscious or even dead. Roman boxers would wear cestuses – leather straps plated with metal – to shorten the length of the bouts. Shortly before the birth of Christ, Romans banned the sport due to just how savage they felt it had become.
Boxing did not make a return until the late 1600s in England, which laid the groundwork for ‘modern boxing’ the following century. Initially restarting as bare-knuckle fighting that continued until one fighter could not, boxing was made less brutal in 1743 through the London Prize Ring Rules. Bouts were still continuous, but a fight ended when one competitor was knocked down and could not get up after 30 seconds.
By the mid-1850s, many Americans still opposed bare-knuckle fighting, and new professional tournament rules in which boxers were required to wear gloves and fight three-minute rounds with a one-minute rest period between rounds came into effect soon after.
America’s golden age of boxing didn’t really began until 1920 in New York, with permitted public prizefighting between such iconic competitors as Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Though, attendances fell during the 1950s following the arrival of television.
Interest in the sport only truly returned once more showmen arrived on the scene; you Cassius Clays, your Muhammad Alis, as well a new generation of fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson, in the 1980s.
Which Do The Numbers Suggest Is The More Popular Sport?
The biggest boxing matches and UFC fights are invariably shown on pay-per-view television (i.e. where you must pay a certain fee to watch a specific event – pretty self-explanatory, really).
And according to Business Insider, as of January 2020, the best-selling fight night in history was Floyd Mayweather’s boxing match with Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas in May 2015. With an estimated 4.6 million PPV buys for ‘The Fight of the Century’, it smashed revenue records in the United States, making roughly $410 million in PPV sales alone.
In fact, seven of the top ten best-sellers are boxing matches; including Mayweather’s tenth-round triumph over UFC superstar Conor McGregor in 2017 and Evander Holyfield’s ear-biting rematch with Mike Tyson in 1997.
Indeed, Khabib vs McGregor in 2018 is the highest-ranking UFC event, which raked in 2.5 million buys for a fight that will likely be remembered more for the cage-side riot which soon followed.
So, while MMA is certainly growing more popular at breakneck speed, aided by their much more centralised, direct business model, is it a stretch to say it’s ‘bigger’ or more popular than boxing yet? On this evidence, it would appear so.
How Well-Paid are MMA and Boxing?
For starters, let’s get one thing clear – neither sport’s A-listers are likely to be short of a few bob any time soon.
The ten biggest earners in MMA, past or present, range from the reported net worth of $8 million of Nate Diaz and Dan Henderson, to the $14 million of Ronda Rousey, now with the WWE, to the peak of an eye-watering $120 million of McGregor, undoubtedly the sport’s star name. Even second-placed Georges St. Pierres’ reported net worth is a quarter of McGregor’s at $30 million.
Yet even that can’t compare to the some of boxing’s headline acts. The tenth-highest net worth of any boxer past or present is still an incredible $40 million, belonging to Bernard Hopkins, who retired in 2016.
Elsewhere, Wladimir Klitschko is worth a reported $65 million yet still ranks just seventh-highest, while sixth-placed Leonard equals McGregor’s $120 million value. Some way out at the top is, inevitably, Mayweather, supposedly a fortune of $560 million. In other words, boxing rather trounces MMA in this department, too.
Having said that, UFC prelims tend to earn much more than similarly lowly-ranked boxers. Journeymen boxers could earn from £250 to £1,000 per bout, while a top prospect may rake in between £2,500 to £5,000 each outing. By comparison, preliminary competitors in MMA may earn between £10,000 and £20,000 on fight night.
That boxing is the more established sport is the real reason why it still eclipses MMA in terms of popularity and monetary value. Then again, PPV sales in particular are as much about how well the fight is sold by the fighters – which perhaps is what McGregor should attribute at least some of his success to.