Let’s not be deluded by thinking that the concept of box-office fighting events belongs to our era of mass media. A glance back to the ancient Greeks and their obsession with the Olympic Games indicates that, even then, there was a healthy appetite for big sporting occasions. And the old Greeks, just like us, also had a bit of a thing for combat sports. Pankration was a form that consisted of a blend of boxing and wrestling, much like techniques we see in present day MMA (mixed martial arts).
The word athlete comes from Greek and means ‘one who competes for a prize’, and prize fighting is an innovation that has been in combat sports for some time now. In professional boxing and MMA, the objective is clear and simple: incapacitate your opponent, hurt them bad. Knockouts are the silver linings. And for as long as silver linings have been spun from sweat and blood, there have been those reaping gold: promoters.
Mixed martial art fighting gained traction in Brazil in the 1950s in tournaments that predominantly featured capoeira, boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In 1980, the first regulated MMA league was founded in the US and in 1993, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was formed with a clear aim of developing the tournament into a television franchise. Thus heralded the dawn of MMA for entertainment sake. This, combined with the popularity of big ticket boxing and wrestling events, fortified the strength of the combat entertainment industry on the whole.
And that is precisely the key business involved: entertainment. Fat cheques have lured fighters to other codes under the glare of spotlights, cameras and pay per view eyes. Muhammed Ali versus Antonio Inoki in Wrestle Mania 1976 wasn’t an isolated case of boxer versus wrestler. Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather are among other big names to have since followed suit.
Conor McGregor left the octagon to play pugilist against Mayweather who came out of retirement to take the fight. Or should I say the money? Because that’s all there was to it, with both fighters pocketing record sums in pay per view and sponsorship earnings in addition to the purse. Last week Tyson Fury took to the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) stage to fight Braun Strowman. Fury is due a rematch with Deontay Wilder in February 2020, so the WWE gig is an exercise in pre-fight promotion, plus a handsome payday. But in sporting terms, it is like asking T.J. Reid to hurl with a lightsaber. It is not sport. It is fantasy.
Among the promoters to have benefited from the success of the combat entertainment business is Eddie Hearn. He came in for criticism recently when Saudi Arabia was announced as the venue for the former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua’s December rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr. Hearn responded by admitting that the money offered by the Arabs was simply “too much to turn down.” A purpose built 15,000 seater arena is under construction for what is being dubbed as the ‘Clash on the Dunes’ but given that AJ is expected to receive around $75M for the fight, one could be forgiven for mistaking it as ‘Cash on the Dunes’.
We know that men and women who are paid to beat each other up, aren’t always nice guys and girls, something that promoters believe enhances their market appeal. Sonny Liston, Prince Naseem Hamed, Mike Tyson: boxing has had its fair share of bad boys. The same goes for the octagon: Conor McGregor and Jon Jones, the highest paid UFC fighters, have had numerous bouts with the law. Jones has a number of convictions and was suspended twice from the UFC over failed drug tests, McGregor is racking up charges here and in the US for a variety of offences. But the King himself is no stranger to trouble.
The most famous promoter of all time, Don King, who oversaw ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ was twice charged with murder and faced many lawsuits by his former clients, one of whom was Mike Tyson, who claimed King had defrauded him of $100M during the course of his career. This is the stuff of gangster films and box-office productions. When it came to sport, the Greeks believed that a god or a hero was responsible for inventing the rules. In professional combat sports, promoters are gods. They make big bucks in the jungle, have built arenas in the desert. They turn a blind eye to bitten ears and drug abuse.
The fighter’s power: his fists… his feet…? The fighter’s greatest strength is his promotability. In the undisputed era of combat entertainment, showmanship not sportsmanship is the prized commodity.