The argument regarding how much of a crossover audience exists between boxing and MMA will probably continue for years. All the research we've ever been presented with would suggest a fairly low number. That being said, the huge egos possessed by men such as Dana White, Bob Arum, Gary Shaw, or any other combat promoter of any success mean that even the slightest move of aggression will almost always be responded to in an extreme way.
That isn't to say that having a huge ego is bad, it is a necessity in the world of promotion. The business of telling the world that your product is better than the other guy's is no place for humility.
So, when the UFC's debut on Fox was scheduled for the same night as Manny Pacquiao's third fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, it didn't take a genius to figure out that Top Rank's Arum and the UFC's White would exchange words.
It started with Bob Arum's response to the news of the Fox show going somewhat "head-to-head" with his cash cow (via ESPN):
There is no competition. If Fox was to put on a top movie that night, it might be more competition. If Fox put on Manchester United that night, it would be more competition.
Dana's response was predictable as he framed Arum and his son-in-law Todd duBoef as jealous before really getting personal when talking with Yahoo! Sports:
You had the ability, Bob Arum, to make boxing great. But the problem was, you were greedy. You're a greedy pig, just like all the other guys who were involved in boxing. All you ever did was try to rip money out of it. You never invested a dime into the sport of boxing to make it great, to make it last, to create a future for boxing. He's nothing but a greedy pig and his jealousy shows non-stop.
White's comments were harsh but as Scott Christ of Bad Left Hook pointed out, they were far from completely off the mark:
Does Bob Arum invest and risk money? Of course he does. But has he helped grow the sport any in recent years? Has anyone in boxing really tried to grow the sport? I don't think you can say that they really have. I don't think that, with the way they've operated the last 20+ years, they even really have the chance with the way they currently do business. The way they do business has to change. Not because they can't co-exist with UFC forever, because they can. But because boxing can't stay stagnant forever. Eventually it's either going to get better or get worse, and when you compare TV ratings from even eight years ago to what they are now, it's alarming how far the sport of boxing has dropped in terms of public appeal in the United States. That they've stabilized recently is nice, but it just means the ship isn't leaking anymore. Now it's time to get the water out of there.
What Scott and Dana both point out is true and is the larger issue at play.
When Arum was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1999, he talked at length about how he needed to justify his receipt of the award. He framed the way of going about earning it as protecting boxers both current via pushing the government to create a commission to oversee boxing, and past via a pension for retired fighters.
It was nice talk in a public forum but in the twelve years since that day, what has Bob done to make it a reality? It's the exact thing that Lou DiBella pointed out to ESPN in response to the public battle between White and Arum:
There's no question that when Don [King] and Bob [Arum] dominated this business for literally generations, that not a lot was invested back in the business. Frankly, Bob Arum admitted as much at his Hall of Fame induction. And the sport is in worse condition today than it's ever been. ... I'm not out there hating on [UFC]; I don't think they're trying to hurt boxing. ... Boxing has lost sight of the fact that it's a subset of the entertainment business. And Dana has not forgotten that.
Ignoring that one could claim DiBella is just as guilty as Bob of making no effort to produce long-term changes, he makes valid points about the UFC's ability to connect with new and younger fans.
It's that connection that sets up chances at growth and a move to network television.
While Arum took shots at the Fox deal because a network deal "doesn't pay them nearly as much as premium television does," the UFC saw it as a chance to grow the brand (and the sport) which will pay off much larger dividends down the road while not abandoning the pay-per-view model that has been the backbone of UFC business for years.
The entire reason that premium television pays more than network deals is that HBO broke the entire setup for the sport. They overpaid for years for fights with low levels of interest, in effect bidding against themselves at every turn. Showtime had to follow suit, although to a less ridiculous degree, and now no fighter or manager will take deals that are more in the realm of reason for a fight to be broadcast. HBO has done as much damage to the sport of boxing through their pay model than any one individual.
I talked at length with Steve Kim of MaxBoxing.com for his recent article about the differences that are becoming more apparent between the sports in the wake of the Fox deal. Steve made some very valid points throughout the article, but this really captures the difference in attitude:
It's telling that while boxing now celebrates fights that have audiences of just over 1.5 million and more recently, the fact that pay-per-view infomercials (in the form of either "24/7" or "Fight Camp 360") will get seen outside of the relatively small reach of HBO and Showtime and that the participants in pay-per-view bouts might get booked for appearances on "The Piers Morgan Show," the actual UFC product is on Fox. When Pacquiao was taken over to CBS/Showtime by Top Rank earlier this year for his bout against Shane Mosley, it was hoped that it would lead to a return of boxing on CBS's airwaves down the line. However, it seems as though all that was gained over HBO was leverage by Arum and his company in future dealings.
Arum was bragging about things like the Piers Morgan Show appearances and the fact that 24/7 replays would show on CNN as part of Pacquiao's return to HBO, and he had the audacity to take shots at the UFC taking a network TV deal?
What percentage of boxing's audience is going to be watching CNN to catch 24/7? And what percentage of the potential undecided public will randomly catch the replays while watching the lowest rated cable news network and be influenced to purchase the pay-per-view?
Now compare that to the potential audience and casual viewers who will see the UFC on Fox broadcast and have the chance to be swayed to purchase the UFC 139 PPV the following weekend?
It's the short-term "money now" approach that has led to men like Arum sending the sport of boxing from a place where it could do over seven million viewers for a fight on HBO to bragging in public about 1.5 million just a few years later.
Maybe the UFC isn't in direct "competition" with boxing, but the failures of Arum and others to learn from the long term, sport-first strategizing of the UFC are hurting it anyway.