Boxing Needs To Un-tuck Its Shirt

9.22.08 – by Amir Peay - This past week I was watching some MMA programming and I took note of how the marketing for mixed martial arts is in many ways different from that of boxing. In particular, MMA has done a good job of marketing their product to younger men, ages 18-34.

I am a fan of MMA, although boxing has always been a bigger part of my life, and when the PPV dollars are on the line, I go with the sweet science.. I do have a lot of respect for the athletes competing in MMA and I believe that some of them are top tier, world-class athletes. You cannot deny that an athlete, who has competed in the Olympics, or a division one wrestling program, or an international martial arts competition, is a caliber athlete.

That said, a large part of the marketing and branding behind MMA and the UFC is that of street fighting, lawlessness, and a youth oriented party culture.

Take for example the reality show ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, which puts 16 fighters together under one roof while they train and fight each other for an opportunity to become a UFC fighter. When promoter Dana White chooses to discipline the fighters for certain infractions (fighting in house, leaving the house, kicking out the windows in limos, etc), he often refers to them tarnishing image of MMA that he has worked so hard to establish. This is a reference to the struggle to gain sanctioning by the athletic commissions and acceptance by the general public as not, as John McCain once called it, being ‘human cockfighting’.

However, the house in which the fighters stay in is constantly stocked with alcohol and every season portrays its share of drunken debauchery. In addition, the fighters towards the end of the season traditionally destroy the house, as they break holes in the walls, throw furniture into the pool, and do whatever else comes to mind. There have never been any (at least to my knowledge) ramifications for this behavior, which would seem to encourage it in my mind. And that is part of the success of the show. Isolating 16 combative young men into a house stocked to the gills with booze, and giving a free pass to destroy the house and settle beefs in the cage, is a marketing goldmine.

I have no problem with this set up and I enjoy very much watching the show unfold. But the other day I asked myself, ‘Would the reality show, ‘The Contender’ ever take the same path?’ The answer was an immediate, and resounding ‘No.’

First off, if you stocked the Contender house full of booze, I don’t think the guys would drink any of it. Maybe a guy would have a beer after a win, but as far as getting wasted, I just can’t see it. Also, would the producers even want to portray boxing and boxers in that light? The theme music from both shows is a testament to the fact that I don’t think they would. The Contender’s theme music is a heroic, orchestrated piece, and the Ultimate Fighter is some sort of heavy metal.

Another reality show on MMA follows the lives of the founders of the clothing brand, ‘Tap Out’. The intro to that show is an animated sequence of the main characters involved in alley fights with various hoodlums toting broken bottles, etc., etc. Not the stuff of representing a sacred, old tradition of martial arts and athletic competition.

While MMA markets the crazy, street fighting side of its sport in order to appeal to younger demographics, other sports like basketball and football do the same, albeit in a more toned down manner. If you attend an NBA game you are almost sure to hear the latest hip-hop songs blaring from the sound system and the stars themselves are wearing baggy shorts and are adorned with tattoos. The NBA walks a fine line, having to remain appealing to the younger audience, while at the same time remain a family friendly institution. David Stern recently required all players to wear suits at certain times and monitors the conduct of their players very closely.

Sometimes it seems that boxing is too scared to upset the old guard and try new things. While I have nothing but respect for the tradition and history of boxing, it often feels like the powers that be won’t get off of that page and insist on marketing the past, instead of looking to the future. I’ve heard that HBO does not like promoters to play music because it interferes with their broadcasting. They also wear tuxedos to every fight. I like how people used to get dressed up for the big fights, but when they force all of that stuff without any other options, it kind of feels like the old man screaming at those young kids to get off of his yard.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. received a lot of hate from boxing fans, and part of it was because of his flashy talk and dress, his affiliation with hip hop culture, and his demeaning talk towards his opponents. Apparently, when he was in the early stages of his career, promoter Bob Arum and him disagreed about how to best market him to fans. Arum wanted him to take the Oscar De La Hoya route, you know, big smile, say nice things, etc. But Floyd felt that that was not him, and he wanted to market himself as is. Turns out Floyd was right, because after the De La Hoya fight, Mayweather was able to generate over 1 million PPV buys in his fight with Ricky Hatton. ‘Money’ Mayweather was building his own following, and doing it just like Muhammad Ali.

When Muhammad Ali was young he watched a wrestler named Gorgeous George sell out stadiums by insulting his opponents, raving about his own beauty & skills, and making the fans hate him. Ali saw that he was making good money, and took the same path. Much of the bravado and character of Ali came from Gorgeous George. Mayweather has always basically said the same kind of things Ali said, just in his own way. He’s brash, cocky, and flies in the face of the institution of the old men in America. In addition, the cultural movement for young, black, and urban Americans during Ali’s day was the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Those causes today are almost universally looked at as good causes to be a part of, but at the time they were controversial and did not make Ali popular across the board.

For today’s youth, especially the black and urban youth, the hip-hop culture is the movement of the day. Not quite the same as the civil rights and anti-war movements, but it is what it is. By embracing that movement, by hanging out with 50 Cent, and by flashing big wads of money and diamond chains, Floyd Mayweather Jr. appealed to a younger demographic of fans. He started to bring to boxing what it desperately needs, and in my opinion it is unfortunate that he retired right after crossing over into the arena of superstardom.

I don’t think that boxing needs to have Larry Merchant start wearing baggy jeans, but I do think that it needs to start allowing change to take hold and exploring ways to develop it. The NBA doesn’t force its players to wear short shorts just because the Hoosiers did, and so if a promoter wants to let a DJ play music for the crowd, then please, for the sake of the sport let him play some Lil’ Wayne. Considering that most boxers today are black and Latino maybe it is time to have some younger, black and Latino commentators on TV. Perhaps, they could be allowed to wear button up shirts, without a tie. Maybe there could be more cross marketing into the hip-hop world from the powers that be in boxing. Hip-hop is the most popular form of music for today’s youth around the world, regardless of race. Hip-hop was originated by the same culture in America that produces the most of its fighters, so why are we not exploring ways in which to cross-market the two? Keep in mind while hip-hop originated in the young black and Latino cultures of America, the number one consumer of it is the young white culture.

For all you old timers who want nothing but tradition, let me say this: The tradition of great fights in boxing is disappearing because the amount of kids watching boxing and participating in boxing keeps going lower and lower. We need to embrace the future of the sport in order to maintain the past.

Amir Peay is the owner of a boxing inspired line of t-shirts that sponsors boxers. ,

Article posted on 23.09.2008

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