The chase for a record buy rate
In decisioning Shane Mosley on Saturday, Floyd Mayweather managed to preserve the idea of his much-discussed mega-fight with Manny Pacquiao. If their egos can be left off the bargaining table, the men have set themselves up for what would almost certainly be the highest-grossing pay-per-view event in the history of the medium.
It would not come as any surprise if promoters decided to tack a premium price on the promise of such a spectacle: 15 percent of respondents to a December Los Angeles Times poll said they'd pay upward of $100 for the fight. (Gouging customers is not good business in the long term, but boxing rarely ever considers tomorrow.)
Saying this is boxing's last big fight is like saying you've got only one piece of ammunition left --- and it's a cannonball. Since it will obviously be competitive, a rematch or two is inevitable, and both men will likely stick around for future fights.
So long as Mayweather and Pacquiao linger, they will continue to prove boxing's last great bit of bragging: For as much progress as MMA has made in the past five years, it's clear that the biggest boxing fights almost completely bury the biggest MMA bouts, and by a considerable margin. The UFC had a rumored 1.5 million household rate for UFC 100, which was due in majority part to the considerable drawing power of Brock Lesnar. Boxing still holds the record for purchases with a 2007 bout between Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya: 2.4 million. Both Pacquiao and Mayweather have broken the 1 million mark independent of one another.
So what's missing from MMA's reputation when boxing -- which otherwise coughs and wheezes along -- can completely sprint past it on certain nights?
Tenure, for one. The pay-per-view as a social gathering event for those otherwise uninterested in combat sports is a powerful pull. Men of a certain age who were born too early to be attracted to MMA still consider boxing "the fight." Their demographic may not look at an MMA event in such essential terms.
Better: Most everyone enjoys raised stakes. MMA fighters, by virtue of being steered by promotions and finding themselves with too many ways to lose, often shoot for a 75 percent win percentage. That Brock Lesnar once lost to Frank Mir makes him look (almost) human; Mayweather has yet to be defeated. Paying to see him potentially discover his mortality is a lure, especially since Pacquiao represents the best chance for that to happen.
The UFC hardly considers these pops of interest to be that discouraging: Boxing can pull itself together only long enough to deliver one to three big fights a year, while the UFC does a steady business all the way around the calendar. And consumers who coughed up for the Mosley-Mayweather event likely weren't looking at a cable bill full of other major boxing attractions. Boxing goes big, but it doesn't go often.
That frequency makes for an assembly-line situation in MMA, but there are still bouts that could fill bigger arenas. Had Anderson Silva not whiffed against Demian Maia in Abu Dhabi last month, the UFC might have drawn their largest home revenue gate ever in a super-fight with Georges St. Pierre: It's this sport's closest equivalent to Mayweather-Pacquiao, with two seemingly invulnerable forces going at it. Silva will need a fight or two of pure domination to light that fire again; Brock Lesnar versus Fedor Emelianenko would draw more than 1 million buys with no blinking. It also seems unlikely until one or both men are past the point of backing up their reputations.
In the end, the UFC's greatest opportunity of seeing a buy rate comparable to boxing's at the highest level is collusion: So long as he remains undefeated, Mayweather versus a mixed martial artist would be the kind of spectacle that would infect every conceivable demographic out there. (It's also virtually bootleg-proof: You'd have to have leprosy to feel satisfied watching it alone on a 13-inch screen.) And unlike Emelianenko, St. Pierre or Silva, Mayweather can do something none of them has any cross-training in: talking.
Of course, it's a nonsensical thought. In addition to requiring co-promotion and revenue splits, it would demand Mayweather to take the biggest risk of his career. But if a non-starter like James Toney draws even a fraction of interest in the UFC, it's one that could be worth discussing.