Walker: The Uphill and Unnecessary Battle for Zuffa Boxing

By: Anthony Walker
Jan 10, 2018
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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When the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor World Tour rolled into Toronto for its second stop, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White used the stage to show off the latest addition to his famed T-shirt collection. His red Zuffa Boxing shirt turned heads and began speculation. Much like the Saturday Night Live shirt White wore when rumors of an NBC deal were circulating, it meant something. Months later, the Boston native confirmed that Zuffa Boxing was indeed a real thing and his ambitions to sign heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua were made public.

Fresh into 2018, we have very little official indication of what is going on with the new brand name. What will Zuffa Boxing look like? Is this even a worthy pursuit for the UFC brass?

The decline of boxing has been well documented. What was once primetime viewing that consistently electrified the sports world had been reduced to delayed matchups and rare television appearances held up by high-priced pay-per-view events featuring the few stars that remained. As the UFC made its rise, mixed martial arts began to slowly but surely take away some of the territory once firmly occupied by the Sweet Science. However, that tide has been changing recently. Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Championships came along at just the right time with just the right talent to keep the combat sports door ajar. Great bouts featuring top-tier talent like Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, Deontay Wilder and Danny Jacobs were getting shine on multiple television platforms without the paywall. Although this approach has had numerous flaws from the business side and hasn’t resulted in a huge impact on the pay-per-view market in relation to the UFC, it has without a doubt sparked a resurgence. Adding McGregor, the biggest star in MMA, to the mix in what resulted in the most significant financial return in 2017 certainly complicates things. Undoubtedly, White and new UFC parent company Endeavor have been taking notes.

The most obvious way Zuffa Boxing can take shape is through its online streaming platform. UFC Fight Pass not only hosts the entire library of fights owned by the company but also serves as a broadcast partner for other promotions. While Invicta Fighting Championships and Cage Warriors Fighting Championship hold down the MMA side, the Eddie Bravo Invitational and Glory Kickboxing explore different areas of combat sports. With submission grappling and kickboxing already in the fold, boxing is the glaring omission.

Where the new venture would differ from the other live events on Fight Pass is the commitment from the UFC itself. The aforementioned promotions are not owned by Endeavor. They simply rely on the streaming service to distribute their content. Aside from a minimum of production staff compared to UFC-branded events and a few commercials and live reads from the play-by-play commentator, the company does not exercise much promotional muscle for them. Even the marketing of Fight Pass has been largely based on the database of owned properties, with the others used as extra incentives to subscribe. The only exception would be Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, which solely exists to find talent for the UFC and squeeze some more use out of “The Ultimate Fighter” gym between seasons of the long-running reality show.

Fight Pass would not be a platform big enough to host one of Joshua’s championship bouts without Endeavor taking a substantial risk of adding to its already monumental debt. What would be likely in this scenario is the creation of a home for established mid-tier talent and a showcase for up and comers. While that could certainly be entertaining, boxing fans would be much less likely to shell out the monthly subscription fee on the hopes of watching talent levels akin to undercards on the numerous free TV offerings boxing has as a result of promotions like PBC. The diehard MMA fans that make up the Fight Pass subscriber base would be unlikely to sustain ongoing boxing efforts in sheer volume and interest level.

Even with a spot on UFC Fight Pass, Zuffa Boxing would without a doubt seem to be a destination for the company’s established MMA talent. Notable names like Jose Aldo and Cristiane Justino have expressed interest in competing in boxing. Naturally, having their promotional home facilitate this, much like it did for McGregor, would be the logical next step. However, Aldo, “Cyborg” and others, like Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz, have used the idea of boxing as leverage for negotiations. While potentially taking that leverage off the table would be attractive to White and ownership, they would be unlikely to convince any noteworthy members of the UFC roster to dip in that side of the pool for similar paydays that are offered in their MMA bouts without simply increasing their purses overall. Perhaps those making a name for themselves outside of the top ranks would be more interested. Once again, there would be little incentive for Endeavor to pay more on the boxing side and, in turn, less incentive for talent to go there. Save for a few vanity projects or grapplers looking to more seriously develop their striking skills, Zuffa Boxing may not make much sense for the current UFC roster. That potential landing point for MMA fighters could wind up being nothing more than a brief talking point.

Zuffa Boxing could live in a hybrid setting. We’ve seen Bellator MMA integrate its newly minted kickboxing branch with some financial success through its Dynamite series. However, the cage being positioned next to the ring caused some difficulties for the live-audience experience. Also, the puzzlingly decision to have action going on in both simultaneously took away from the possibility of using fights in either sport to draw attention to the other. It’s unlikely that the UFC, which has historically been keenly aware of both its television and live audiences, would go that route.

Of course, there’s the option of using the same fighting surface for both boxing and MMA. After all, the early days of MMA featured plenty of action in a ring, and Japanese promotions like the Rizin Fighting Federation have still not adopted the cage. Stateside, athletic commission rules prohibit boxing from taking place anywhere outside of a ring. This would rule out something similar to Australian kickboxer John Wayne Parr’s Caged Muay Thai, with striking-only contests taking place inside of an MMA cage. Aside from changes to the rules, the only other option would be to have UFC action take place inside of a ring. While this is something that is allowed by most stateside athletic commissions, it would require a cultural departure from the UFC’s well-established practice of branding the Octagon. When the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its return to Japan for UFC 144, White insisted nothing be different, opting not to capitalize on Pride Fighting Championships nostalgia with a ring and choosing instead to showcase the standard product.

White’s efforts to explore the world should have seemed inevitable. He began his journey in the fight world in the Boston area, where he ran a boxing program while managing fighters. The receipts from Mayweather-McGregor raised eyebrows at Endeavor. This doesn’t mean a move into boxing makes any sense.

While last summer’s circus let White cozy up to Haymon and Leonard Ellerbe, he furthered the divide with his recent comments about Showtime Sports executive Stephen Espinoza and managed to throw fuel on his simmering feuds with Bob Arum and Oscar De La Hoya -- the respective heads of Top Rank Boxing and Golden Boy Promotions. Lou DiBella, once a vocal critic of MMA, has a forged a loose partnership with Bellator that saw Heather Hardy put her boxing career on hold to make her MMA debut in 2017. If there’s anything legally binding in that arrangement, it means there’s one less ally or pool of talent from which to draw. With Haymon’s support, a PBC-UFC alliance would be nice in name, but considering the reportedly unsustainable business model, it may not make much financial sense. After paying out $4 billion to buy the UFC, it seems doubtful that Endeavor would be eager to make another major investment. This does not even mention that it would come at the expense of the UFC, which is still the top PPV draw in combat sports. The expanded UFC schedule has already stretched the resources of the promotion to the detriment of many fight cards. Adding an entirely different entity that requires its own staff, roster and resources would be an uphill battle to say the least. Sacrificing the well-being of your flagship property for a marginally important boxing project would be counterproductive in almost every sense of the word.

The inclusion of Zuffa Boxing to the already busy schedule presents more problems, and the new ownership group would be wise to steer clear of it. Furthermore, the efforts of Congressman Markwayne Mullin to expand the Muhammad Ali Act to include MMA would be magnified if the UFC pursues boxing as its next cash cow and fighters find themselves being used in both sports. The ongoing antitrust lawsuit will have new ammunition, as the UFC will make a play at exerting influence in MMA’s sister sport. With all the negatives associated with this move, why would White risk his bread and butter? If this is nothing more than a middle finger to his enemies in the boxing world or an attempt to capture Mayweather-McGregor lightning in a bottle, Zuffa Boxing can do much more harm than good. We have to ask ourselves, what’s the point?
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