While most of the sports world is anticipating the return of major sports at the end of July, the combat sports train is still rolling along, and I wanted to talk about the highs, lows, and anticipation surrounding boxing and mixed martial arts the past month. 

I will absolutely be providing a preview for UFC 251 on fight island as well, but that will likely come fairly close to the event. Between COVID testing and weight cuts – I hate to be the bad news bear but I have to assume this card won’t stay completely in tact. Let’s dive into some topics.

A Hot June From The UFC Likely To Help Their Popularity Surge

As soon as the door was slammed shut on sports a few months ago, Dana White and the UFC had made it their mission to be the first sport back, and to take advantage of the slow sports media cycle to gain buzz. It appears as if that method of attack has been pretty successful.

For reference, UFC 249 was the first event back, and 700k PPV’s were sold. That might not be a good point of reference for many, but keep in mind headliners Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson have had limited experience on the PPV stage, yet the pre-event buys had exceeded every 2020 event besides McGregor vs Cerrone.

Since then, each of the ESPN televised cards have finished top 5 in cable ratings each week. To what  can we attribute the success of the UFC? The level of competition and matchmaking stand out to me. The UFC has not cowered away from title fights, contender matchups at the top of PPV’s and Cable TV Events alike, and unpredictable battles from the main card down to the prelims. Heading to Fight Island this weekend, the UFC has a real opportunity to push this momentum and gain even more fan exposure – earning a relationship with young fans and veteran sports fanatics alike.

Boxing Missing a Huge Opportunity To Grow During a Time To Maximize Exposure

I have been a boxing fan longer than I have been a fan of MMA. I have always felt that the two sports, despite involving combat, are way too different to be compared and can be enjoyed equally.

However, where I feel comparisons are fair, is how each sport markets their product to earn their keep with more popular American sports like football, basketball, and baseball. As the UFC has leveraged the absence of sports to their advantage, boxing has fumbled.

If you aren’t aware, Top Rank Boxing has been running 2-3 events a week since early June. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, Top Rank has ran cards on ESPN, and with three times the amount of fights, are producing about a 1/3 of the excitement the UFC has.

Where has it gone wrong? Matchmaking is the key flaw. I personally believe that it isn’t so much about how Top Rank is booking fights specifically in the time of pandemic, but moreso highlighting the problem with boxing’s traditional model of promoting rising and established talent compared to MMA.

Listen, I completely understand why promotions aren’t rushing to book fights that would set record numbers at the gate. It’s the same reason the UFC will keep mega stars like Conor McGregor on the bench until we go back to filling arenas: they’re too valuable at filling seats and can cost promotions a lot of money.

What separates MMA from boxing, however, is how boxing protects and pads records of rising stars and contenders until they can secure a following, booking tough fights only if it is extremely lucrative. We have seen fighters like Shakur Stevenson, Miguel Berchelt, and Julio Zepeda, all world class talent, take the stage for Top Rank this past month, only to fight opponents that had no business being in the ring with them. 

I’m not sure if Top Rank had some idea that using this time as virtually a sparring showcase for their hot talent was going to attract fans who weren’t familiar with the sport, perhaps tricking a new audience into believing that these were dynamic performances over top talent? As a lifelong fan, it just creates predisposition that when I tune in to Top Rank cards, to expect predictable fights with recognizable names. I’m hopeful we can see some excitement when Super Featherweight WBO Champ Jamel Herring fights journeyman Jonathan Oquendo next week. However, I’m predicting a glorified sparring session for Herring in another uneventful evening. I love you boxing, please do better.

Time For Fight Island 

The UFC is finally headed tto the anticipated fight island this weekend, where there will be four events in two weekS, showcasing top talent in the organization.

For those unfamiliar, “Fight Island” is actually Yas Island, an island in Abu Dhabi, UAE. While the island has almost been marketed as an uninhabited oasis of combat, this will actually be the fourth time the UFC has held an event on Yas Island – UFC 112, Noguiera vs Nelson and UFC 242 last year.

The reason the UFC needed Yas Island, is because fighters who reside outside of the United States had complications entering the country, a neutral location where the UFC could create a “bubble” and lasso fighters from the whole globe served as a workaround to get the UFC’s international stars back in the mix.

The first of four events on fight island is set to take place this Saturday. UFC 251 will feature three UFC Championships on the line and arguably one of the most stacked cards they have ever produced. I will dive deeper into UFC 251 before the event takes place Saturday.