Should Boxing Follow the UFC Model? No, Thanks.

by Damon Ealy (aka PghWindmill)

At the Blue Corner, our big-brother site (http://boxingtimes.com/bluecorner), the boxing v. mixed martial arts talk has come to a boil over the last couple of days. I don’t have much interest in getting into the tired and irresolvable internet conflict about whether MMA could kick boxing’s ass. I just prefer boxing, and I’ve never been into karate, kickboxing, MMA, whatever. I won’t change my mind, and I won’t change any minds.

But I think I’m like a lot of people-fans of boxing and mixed martial arts alike-in that I find the UFC off-putting and corny. The public persona of Dana White and Co. is unapologetically “in-your-face” and “extreme,” but there’s a Mountain Dew-commercial kind of superficiality there. Get much beyond the promos and window dressing, and the UFC is as corporate and controlled as Disney or GM. It’s product; calculated self-perpetuation is written into its design.


And sometimes it seems the UFC is almost all hype. Former devotees of the UFC have told me that they got tired of the fights not living up to the hype they received. And how could they possibly? To hear the UFC tell it, every pay-per-view main event is the ultimate. Every up-and-comer is the baddest-ass, most scariest badass ever. Just like the WWF of the ’80s, where every couple of months brought a new and ever more dangerous threat to the Hulkster, in the UFC there’s another guy who’s going to make you forget all about the last guy. (That guy with the scary pointy-tooth gum shield. The Croatian guy. That tall, paunchy guy with the skinny sideburns.) I don’t begrudge Dana White and the UFC promoting their product, and I don’t mean to question the fighters’ talents or courage. But hype is the opposite of substance. Piled up without some reality for support, it starts to crumble in on itself. It works okay when you’re Vince McMahon pitching fiction, but when you’re Dana White, you’re losing credibility with people who don’t appreciate the shill every time your badass du jour suddenly looks a little bit human.

White does seem particularly keen on badasses, baddassery, badassology and all other things generally “badass.” His quotes in a recent Rolling Stone profile included four or five uses of the term. And White got huffy about being compared to Don King in a Las Vegas Review-Journal headline and called the column’s author a “moron reporter. … This guy’s probably never seen a fight in his life.” He threatened to head-butt him.

Bad-talking White and the big-money UFC are that kind of chintzy: common capitalism with a machismo candy shell. It’s right there in the constant schlocky cheerleading of the announcers (including suspiciously overenthusiastic “Fear Factor” dude Joe Rogan). Every fight ends with Mike Goldberg braying, “It is ALL over!” three or four times. (Really, Mike? Yet another UFC epic has come to its conclusion? It’s ALL over? Wow.) It’s in their storied stinginess with their talent, top to bottom, something White always seems he’s trying to spin in print. (As when he bristled at being compared to Don King because King will promise a fighter a million dollars and not deliver. The implication is that White just tells you he’s not going to pay you that much, doesn’t pay you what you’re worth, and at least he’s a man of his word.)

And if I were badass enough to ask Dana White one question, it’d be this: What’s up with having Bruce Buffer as your ring announcer? That’s like booking Roger Clinton to do your school’s commencement speech. Bruce Buffer is like Gallagher II, the little brother of prop comedian Gallagher, who tours doing a cheaper version of his brother’s act at Holiday Inns. Somehow Original Gallagher owns the rights to smashing watermelons with an oversized sledgehammer, though, so Gallagher II can’t do that. “Let’s get ready to rumble” is Michael Buffer’s coup de grâce, his finishing move, his watermelon smash, and no one can duplicate it for commercial purposes. Not even little half brother Bruce. (The two did actually collaborate on trademarking and marketing the catchphrase.)

Bruce and the UFC have come up with a watered-down stand-in phrase (“It’s ti-i-i-i-i-me!”). But that’s not the problem with Bruce Buffer as a ring announcer. It’s that when you’re watching the guy, it’s impossible not to think of him as Michael Buffer’s less-sonorous, stumpier brother: the slightly cheaper version. The Fredo to Michael Buffer’s Michael Corleone. He’s theatrical and forced, even for a ring announcer, and he sounds like he’s trying to sound stout and comically bombastic, like some robber-baron cartoon villain from the 1920s.

MMA fans often point out that theirs is an all-encompassing, more highly evolved sport and describe boxing as “limited,” as if boxing would take their Great Leap Forward if fighters shed their gloves and kicked each other. While the UFC may have started out in the spirit of finding the superior fighting form, it is and always has been a for-profit business. It’s not as if the UFC is out there conducting a noble field experiment. It’s no more a means to an end than boxing is.

But the UFC has created revenue, so it’s gospel among sportswriters that boxing needs to follow a UFC-style business and organizational model to flourish. But boxing under one powerful promotional and organizational influence would become homogenized, corporatized, more driven by keeping the machine going than anything else. Professional boxing has issues, but it also has, along with baseball, the richest, deepest heritage of any of our sports. If the cost of a few quick fixes is becoming more like the UFC, I’ll pass.

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