What boxing can learn from UFC

Dana White’s outfit has shown how combat sports can move forward in these troubling times, writes Graham Houston.

I don’t follow MMA, but in the past week I took a look at the UFC’s first two shows in what is now the Covid-19 era. I never thought I would find myself saying this, but I think boxing can learn from UFC here.

Dana White’s May 9 and May 13 shows featured a PPV event that was followed by a card televised on ESPN+ (also picked up by the Canadian TSN network). Another show is scheduled for Saturday.

Even though I am not an MMA aficionado, I did find the events entertaining, even dramatic in a couple of instances.

The only voices that could be heard in the arena were those of the boxers’ trainers. Apart from people directly involved in the event, the arena in Jacksonville, FL, was empty. However, the venue was darkened so that the viewers at home weren’t looking at rows of empty seats.

The boxers’ handlers wore protective masks. I believe all the necessary protective measures were taken: the arena thoroughly sanitised, the combatants given temperature checks to make sure no one was running a fever, and so on.

In short, the UFC made the event work. 

A boxing show in Nicaragua on April 25 allowed spectators, but all wore protective masks and the arena seating was set up for social distancing. The boxers’ cornermen, the MC, the ring-card girl and one of the referees wore face masks. The spectators were temperature-checked before entering the venue. The show went off okay.

So, the boxing tournament in Nicaragua and the UFC events showed that there is a way forward for combat sports. 

However, we are going to have to do without crowd noise. The ‘roar of the crowd’ days are behind us, maybe for a very long time. We will have to get used to this.

But is this really such a terrible thing? In the UFC fights, the impact of blows and kicks being landed came across loud and clear and gave a sense of damage inflicted. The instructions shouted by the trainers to the fighters – which, of course, could be heard by both contestants – was interesting. So there were compensatory factors for lack of crowd noise; a different type of viewer involvement. 

And the crowd’s cheers isn’t essential to the enjoyment of a boxing match (or UFC fight, come to that). It’s as if the fight takes over. The boxers are locked in a world of their own.

The famous National Sporting Club in London had a ‘silence rule’ in which the dinner-jacketed members (no women allowed) were asked to save their applause till the end of a round. If members broke the rule and started to cheer, a stern reminder of “silence, gentlemen, please” would be issued.

I was able to cover a number of fights at the final iteration of the NSC, at the Cafe Royal in London’s West End, and I can remember some exciting evenings of boxing. The superb Welsh featherweight Howard Winstone defended his title there, outpointing a tough Scottish boxer, John O’Brien. One of Britain’s greatest boxers, the Scot Ken Buchanan, outpointed a world-class Puerto Rican lightweight named Frankie Narvaez in another NSC fight I saw. These were excellent, absorbing bouts that produced a high standard of boxing. Two welterweight fights between stylish Johnny Kramer and pressure-fighter Peter McLaren (one win each) were bitter battles that stick in my memory.

Ken Buchanan (left) boxed in silence in a different era, for different reasons. Photo: WBC.

When I was a regular at the Las Vegas boxing shows I was sometimes one of the few members of the press on hand for the early preliminary bouts. Some of these fights were contested in front of a scattering of onlookers. But the boxers fought hard and gave their all, even without the urgings of spectators. In one of those early afternoon prelims, at the Mandalay Bay, future champion Steve Cunningham survived a shock first-round knockdown to outpoint Joseph Awinongya, of Ghana, in a cruiserweight eight-rounder.

Boxing  matches held without the clamour of a crowd will not have the big-event atmosphere, true, but this need not mean the fights will be lacking in excitement and tension.

One element of no-crowds boxing that could be a cause of concern is that the ringside commentary is likely to be audible to the referee and judges (an MMA bettor alerted me to this).

If the commentary crew has a contestant winning – especially with punch stats announced – could this influence the way the judges score a bout? It has to be considered a possibility.

But, all in all, crowd noise isn’t that big a deal. 

So, the UFC is up and running but when will we see boxing again?

Top Rank is talking about a tentative date on June 9. That would be the first US show since March 13.

In the UK, the British Boxing Board’s guidelines for a return to boxing put an emphasis on safety. General secretary Robert Smith has outlined a careful, phased return to boxing in Britain. Initially, fights will be without crowds, with revenues coming from TV/streaming coverage. Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn was planning a series of four shows to be held on the Matchroom grounds in Essex.

Everywhere, it’s a policy of safety first, with caution the watchword.

Fighters are going to have to be realistic about purses because promoters will not have revenue from a live gate. No boxer is bigger than the sport. There are many fighters who simply want to get back in the ring. 

If a big-name fighter declines to box because he or she feels entitled to a bigger slice of the pie, well, that’s just too bad in this new, uncertain era. Many others will be willing to fill the gap.

In a time such as this it seems wrong to worry overmuch about when boxing will start up again. But, start up it will.

Bottom line: It’s a new world we’re living in. We just have to be patient and get through this.