Is MMA Growing? Is It Bigger Than Boxing?

The world of sports is constantly expanding with new, innovative events meant to test humanity to its absolute limits.

In recent years, Mix Martial Arts has become more and more present in the public eye despite the fact that the more modern version of this sport has been around since about the mid-1900s. So why the sudden reappearance, and what does this mean for the trajectory of the MMA’s popularity?

Is MMA Growing?

MMA is a growing sport and has been increasing in popularity over the past few years. It’s popular both as a spectator sport but also a popular sport amongst fighters. Today, the sport is still prominent in the public eye and growing at an exponential rate due to increased exposure and its relationship with the UFC. 

Read on to learn about the growth of MMA in popularity and participants in recent years. This article will detail when this shift occurred, where the sport is most popular now and will analyze various reasons why this growth is occurring. 

Although MMA as a sport has been around since the mid-1900s, you can also make a solid argument that elements of the sport can be seen dating back to ancient Greece and the Olympic games. However, the sport didn’t really grow in popularity until 1993, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was created.

The more modern version of MMA was established in 1980, but because of the sport’s highly controversial reception by the public, it didn’t gain much traction or popularity until the UFC came into the picture and played a significant role in the sport’s sponsorship, public presence, and structure. 

The controversy surrounding some of the sport’s rules and techniques has slightly stunted its growth, but a resurgence in popularity has occurred in recent years as some of the sport’s rules have been altered, states have released bans, and other factors we’ll discuss further later on. 

As a sport, MMA is growing swiftly on a global, not only in popularity but in participants as well, leading to an increase in highly skilled professionals. If you’re searching for the country where MMA is most popular and produces many of the toughest, most talented fighters, look no further than the United States of America. 

As home to the most significant MMA promotional company, the UFC, it isn’t surprising that the sport’s rise in popularity is so significant here. The fact that the U.S. is also the third-largest nation population-wise doesn’t hurt either. 

On a state level, most MMA talents and support comes from:

  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Rhode Island

However, if you’re considering the sport’s popularity on more of a global scale, you’ll find a significant number of MMA fans and fighters in Brazil, Japan, and the United Kingdom. As the controversy surrounding the sport dissipates, it can only be expected that this rise in popularity will only grow in time. 

Is UFC Growing in Popularity?

As MMA grows in popularity, so, in a way, does the UFC. Now, to be clear, the UFC is to MMA as the NFL is to football. It isn’t a sport in itself, so it doesn’t necessarily grow in popularity the same way that MMA does. 

However, like MMA, the UFC’s promotional sport grows, so too does the support from consumers for the company that more or less brought this fiery sport out of the ashes. The company itself has grown significantly since its purchase by Zuffa in 2001, and today, it has never been stronger.

Unlike other sports, the UFC can run MMA events year-round, which pleases the ever-growing number of fans ready to see yet another epic month after month. 

The matches might not occur multiple times a week like other popular sports, such as American football or ice hockey, but there’s no such thing as an “off-season” when it comes to MMA, which the UFC takes full advantage of. 

The UFC undoubtedly hosts the best MMA fights, and fans are all too ready to support the company by purchasing their pay-per-view (PPV) passes to watch the action.   

Is MMA Bigger Than Boxing?

If there’s any hand-to-hand combat sport that rivals MMA in popularity, it’s boxing. As a sport, boxing has a deep, rich history in many countries and was particularly popular in the 1920s when bets were high, and the fights were intense.

A little less than a century later, the sport was still widely supported by fans from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

However, some speculate that boxing’s popularity is waning as top-tier boxers, like Lennox Lewis, are retiring, and the industry has shifted its focus more towards money rather than displaying highly competitive matches. 

These points might be true in a sense and could account for some of the rise in MMA’s popularity as alienated boxing fans search for the next best contact sport. Nevertheless, if the claim is that MMA is now more popular than boxing, then the numbers simply don’t support it. 

Its possible popularity in boxing is decreasing, but MMA needs to come a long way before it can breach the gap to even touch the level of support boxing still has. 

When Martial Arts Unleashed investigated the same claim, they discovered that:

“The largest MMA event was the memorable UFC 229 that sold around 2.4 million pay-per-view buys. Boxing owns four events that had higher PPV sales than UFC 229, and many more events that sold over 1 million + buys.”

As MMA’s presence continues to increase in the public eye and controversy diminishes, it is certainly possible that its overall popularity could surpass that of the historic favorite contact sport, boxing. But for now, the padded leather gloves still reign supreme.

Regardless of whether it was invented in ancient Greece or its origins really date to the mid-1900s, MMA has become far more popular in the past decade than ever before. The question is, why?

We’ve already briefly touched on some of the most significant reasons for MMA’s rise in popularity, but here we’re going to dive a bit deeper into several other contributing factors. 

Creation of the UFC

Although we touched on this point already, it would be an injustice not to clearly state it here. One could make a strong argument that MMA owes all of its current popularity and influence to its relationship with the UFC.

Historically, MMA struggled to find its own identity as a sport for quite some time. It wasn’t until the 1980s that rare, one-off matches between fighters really started to evolve into a sport’s league where fans could watch multiple organized fights a year. 

Unfortunately, not long after this organization occurred, states started banning the sport for its brutal nature and apparent lack of rules. And this ideology against MMA didn’t really change until 1993 when the UFC was created and eventually started providing more structure for the sport through:

  • New rules and regulations
  • Organized events
  • Alterations to fight techniques
  • A scoring system

These structural elements helped MMA shed its grungy alley-way persona and enter the public light as a legitimate, organized sport. And with these significant changes came an increase in exposure.

Ban on Betting Sports Lifted

In 1992, right around when MMA was trying to make a real go at being a legitimate sport, the Federal government in the United States banned sports betting in nearly every state.

As you can imagine, this significantly hindered fan interests and support in many sports, especially one-on-one combat sports, where betting is pretty straightforward and can have a huge payoff. 

Luckily, in May of 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed this ban unconstitutional and once again legalized sports betting. This has had a significant effect on MMA’s popularity because the sport lends itself well to betting.

Compared to team sports, like football and ice hockey, MMA fights are always 1 vs. 1, and so, even the underdog of the match can win with the right skills, determination, and a lucky swing or two. This makes the sport highly entertaining and intriguing for betters. 

In terms of betting volume, boxing has always raked in significant amounts of dough for their big prizefights. In Nevada alone, the boxing betting in 2017 for the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight totaled more than $100 million

This demonstrates that the interest is clearly there for a similarly structured sport, so it stands to reason that it will transfer over to MMA fights and continue to increase the sports popularity over time. 

Connor McGregor

Every sport has its icons. For baseball, you have sluggers and speedsters like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. In ice hockey, you have snipers and tricksters like Wayne Gretzky and Sydney Crosby, and in American football, you have beasts and GOATs like Tom Brady and Jerry Rice. 

However, sports don’t usually have one single individual that can be accredited with its overall rise in popularity, unless that individual is Connor McGregor. 

Although MMA had some quality fighters before McGregor, they never had someone with even an ounce of his personality and skill. 

McGregor started his MMA journey in 2008 and amassed a significant following in Ireland for his raw talent. His popularity increased in 2012 when he won both the Cage Warriors Featherweight and Lightweight Championships.

When he signed with the UFC in 2013, McGregor started captivating U.S. audiences with his abrasive and sometimes comical press conferences where he frequently and mercilessly trash-talked his adversaries. But this Irish giant wasn’t just all talk. 

McGregor also proved he was a significant force to be reckoned with in the cage. He earned the title for fastest victory in UFC title fight history in 2015 at UFC 194 against Jose Aldo and then became the first fighter in the UFC’s history to simultaneously hold titles in two divisions the following year. 

Before long, new MMA fans started watching matches just to see McGregor demonstrate his impeccable skill. The Dublin-born fighter quickly became MMA and the UFC’s biggest superstar, not to mention their biggest PPV draw. 

His influence was so impactful that it spread on a global scale, and soon enough, fans everywhere were flocking to follow him on social media, pay to watch his fights, and start their own MMA journey hoping to follow their icon’s footsteps. 

Final Thoughts

In short, MMA is undoubtedly one of the fastest-growing and increasingly popular sports, especially in the United States.

Although the sport has had a rough start with frequent bans and a heavily disapproving social stigma, things are looking up for MMA as it continues to gain public exposure and become more accessible nationwide for new fighters to enter and follow the sport’s progression.

MMA still has a ways to go before it is the most popular sport in the nation, but many believe it is well on its way and might even beat out some favorites, like boxing, within the decade.

Some are bold enough even to believe that it might budge against the shining star of American football someday. Of course, only time will tell. 

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