It’s not often that Scotland can claim to be better than Brazil, but for one night this past July, we were. The crowd at UFC’s recent Glasgow event are still being talked about as one of the best in the company’s history.
That’s right, better than Brazil, widely renowned as the best MMA crowd in the world.
“I looked at my corner and said that crowd is the loudest I’ve ever heard in my life.” – UFC Lightweight Paul Felder.
The former Lightweight champion is just one of many fighters and journalists to heap praise on the raucous Glasgow audience. The 10,500 + that packed into The Hydro were loud and excited the entire evening, into almost every bout from bell to bell. They added to what was already an entertaining card, and made for one of the most enjoyable UFC events in recent years.
Just down the road at Braehead Arena a couple of weeks before, Josh Taylor added the WBC Silver belt to his Commonwealth title in a pulsating contest with Ohara Davies, in front of a considerably smaller crowd, however.
Taylor isn’t a massive name, though he is one of the brightest prospects in British boxing, and he’s Scottish. There wasn’t enough of a demand to see him at The Hydro though. Ricky Burns is about the only fighter to get that privilege in Scotland, but there were plenty of empty seats at his last bout.
The question must be asked then, is there more interest in UFC now than there is boxing?
Social media figures would back that up. UFC enjoys a healthy Twitter following of almost 6 million and wipes the floor with boxing when it comes to searches online. PPV numbers are up and mainstream attention in UFC and mixed martial arts as a whole has never been higher.
What sparked this though?
UFC itself has been around since the 1990s, why is it only now getting recognition? Connor McGregor is a very big part of it. He’s the promotion’s first real crossover star, attracting mainstream media attention wherever he goes, just as Muhammad Ali did for boxing. McGregor will never be as famous, or as talented as Ali, but he’s having the same effect.
People who had no prior interest in combat sports beforehand go out of their way to see his fights. It could be argued he’s become bigger than the sport itself, his fight with Floyd Mayweather just one example of him outgrowing the octagon.
It’s not all on McGregor though. Ronda Rousey drew a lot of eyes to UFC during her undefeated run, her clashes with Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes in particular. The entire women’s division and the legitimisation of it was a real step forward for the company, spearheaded by Rousey.
What represented real progress for UFC though was their event at Madison Square Garden in 2016. Not only had they managed to overturn a 20+ year ban on MMA in New York, but they ran the world’s most famous arena.
MSG is an old building and for TV broadcasts requires the use of its own production company, which comes at a significant price. It is rarely a money-making exercise for those running it, but it’s a statement. Performing at MSG shows that you’ve arrived, and you are legitimate, and that’s exactly what it did for UFC.
Boxing doesn’t have someone with the star power of Connor McGregor or the aura of Ronda Rousey. It’s not in a bad way though. Boxing still has the capacity to sell out venues and super fights can still pack out Wembley like Joshua vs Klitschko did.
Anthony Joshua himself will be one of the biggest names in boxing for years to come, but he won’t get near McGregor’s level of popularity.
UFC has borrowed a lot from WWE in recent years when it comes to promotion and storytelling. They have the ability to make even the most unknown fighter matter by telling his backstory and getting the audience invested in him.
Their on-demand service, UFC Fightpass, has allowed them to generate content which showcases their fighters’ personalities and character traits, though the video packages on their PPV events have done this excellently for years. Boxing struggles with this. It doesn’t have the stars and it doesn’t have as many opportunities to develop them.
Money and politics have also made it more difficult to arrange particularly bigger fights in recent years. Boxing isn’t on the ropes, but it’s locked in a never-ending contest with its toughest opponent, itself.
As boxing promoters squabble amongst themselves over money, venues, fighters and pretty much anything else, the UFC juggernaut rolls on. Rousey and McGregor’s MMA days might be behind them, but someone else will come along.
Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones have them covered for now anyway. There’s unlikely to be anyone on the same level of popularity as McGregor, but that doesn’t matter as much now. The sport and spectacle that is UFC has finally been recognised and embraced. It is no longer exclusively American, it is a worldwide entity.
UFC will continue to pack out The Hydro, Wembley Arena and Madison Square Garden. It will attract the biggest names from showbusiness, the biggest advertisers in the world, but so too will boxing.
Boxing isn’t going away, but for the first time, it has legitimate competition. UFC is here to stay, and there’s not a lot the world of boxing can do about it.
Featured photo credit – Flickr user adrianpua