Like many boxing fans, Dana White was looking forward, in early May, to the so-called Fight of the Century—Floyd Mayweather, Jr., vs. Manny Pacquiao. Reached by phone, a couple of days before the bout took place, White called it a “massive mega-fight”; he had bought his own tickets, for seventy-five hundred dollars apiece, even though he doesn’t typically attend fights as a paying customer. White is the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or U.F.C., the leading organization in mixed martial arts, a cage-bound entertainment that has, over the past two decades, become a worthy competitor to boxing in the battle for the affections of America’s combat-sport fans.
White has a longstanding interest in boxing, as well as in M.M.A.: one of his early ventures was a clothing line, Bullenbeiser Boxing Gear, that sponsoredMayweather for his first professional fight, in 1996. So when he discusses boxing these days, he speaks equally as a long-suffering fan and as a business rival. As Mayweather vs. Pacquiao loomed, White’s excitement was tempered by frustration and amazement at the chaotic way the match had been promoted; behind-the-scenes disagreements delayed the release of tickets, which weren’t put on sale until nine days before the fight. “As usual, the boxing guys get so greedy,” White said—by ruthlessly angling for maximum profit, the promoters and other organizers had alienated the fans, and each other. “I think this thing will break the pay-per-view record,” he said. “And once the fight’s over, it’s going to break the lawsuit record.”
As it happened, the fight, which Mayweather won easily, was both an impressive display of boxing technique and, most fans seemed to agree, a disappointment. (A story in this week’s magazine, “The Best Defense,” tells the tale.) Just as White predicted, it was a pay-per-view smash, with at least 4.4 million buys, a new record, bringing in triple the amount of revenue as the previous record-holder. And there were lawsuits, too: dozens of them, filed by fans who accused Pacquiao of misleading them by not disclosing a shoulder injury that, he said, prevented him from being his best. Not long after the fight, White was interviewed on Power 106, the Los Angeles hip-hop station. Jeff G., one of the hosts, noted that the fight had been “lacklustre” and said, “You know who really won that? U.F.C.” He said that compared to boxing, with its anticlimactic mega-fight, U.F.C. had “crazy momentum.”
“Thanks—everybody’s saying that,” White responded, now sounding much more like a rival than a fan. “You know where I didn’t win? I bought eight tickets to that fight.”
Other observers, however, suggested that, because it drew such a huge paying audience, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao could hurt the U.F.C., at least in the short term. The U.F.C. is promoting an enticing pay-per-view broadcast for Saturday night, U.F.C. 187, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, in the same arena that hosted Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. Kevin Iole, who covers both boxing and M.M.A. for Yahoo Sports, suggested that the executives at U.F.C. had already lowered their expectations. “The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight will hurt them badly,” he wrote, predicting that only about three hundred thousand people would order the broadcast. (That would be a relatively low number, considering the relatively high profile of the fighters involved.)
Boxing and M.M.A. have often been viewed as competitors—sometimes by the principals themselves—even though it seems plain that the two sports are not, in fact, engaged in a zero-sum battle for fans. Plenty of fans enjoy both, and plenty enjoy one while finding the other barbaric (in M.M.A., you are allowed—encouraged—to hit your opponent when he or she is down), or distasteful (think of the brutally repetitive nature of some boxing matches, with opponents exchanging hundreds of blows to the head). Fight fans, keenly aware of the wider world’s general disapproval and disdain, can be surprisingly censorious when drawing fine distinctions between different forms of unarmed combat. But because boxing and M.M.A. are run so differently, comparisons can also help fans of each sport appreciate what they’ve got, and what they lack.