How the UFC overtook boxing in the popularity stakes in 2020

How the UFC overtook boxing in the popularity stakes: Making the best fight the best, Dana White’s rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the move to Fight Island has seen the UFC take the edge over boxing

  • The UFC has emerged as a serious rival to boxing thanks to a successful 2020 
  • UFC supremo Dana White reacted swiftly to ensure the sport could continue
  • The simplicity of the UFC has seen it gain in popularity over the past year
  • Boxing could benefit from learning from its rival sport if it is to win back fans 

Boxing has long regarded the UFC as its very own ‘noisy neighbour’, but 2020 has seen mixed martial arts surpass its combat sports rival in a massive shift in the dynamics of the two sports.

While boxing has floundered in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the UFC has ridden with the punches and in so doing enter 2021 on the ascendency. 

Three of the top five pay-per-view buys this year were UFC events, a figure that will surely ring loud alarm bells among boxing chiefs. 

But how has the UFC overtaken boxing in terms of popularity among fans? Sportsmail breaks down the key talking points.   

The UFC has enjoyed a successful 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc

The sport has won a number of fans from its nearest rival boxing. Sportsmail takes a look at the reasons why swathes of fans are being drawn to the UFC

Cutting through the politics to make the biggest fights

This is where the UFC has the edge over the boxing, and a large reason as to why fans are flocking to mixed martial arts over the famous old sport. 

There is no doubt that boxing politics is preventing the biggest fights from being made. The numerous belts available from the various organisations, who each have their own stipulations as to what the champion must do, serves to confuse and bewilder fans who just want to see the best fight the best.

The UFC has won favour with fans due to its simplicity: the best must fight against the best

With only one belt per division, fighters cannot duck challenges if they want to win the title


1. Mike Tyson v Roy Jones Jr: 1.6m

2. UFC 251 – Usman v Masvidal: 1.3m

3. Deontay Wilder v Tyson Fury II: 1.2m

4. UFC 246 – McGregor v Cerrone: 1m

5. UFC 253 – Adesanya v Costa: 700k  


Calls for Anthony Joshua to take on Tyson Fury next following his impressive win over Kubrat Pulev grew louder this month, with fans desperate to see the heavyweight division unified for the first time in over 20 years.

However, WBO president Paco Valcarcel has suggested AJ must fight mandatory challenger Oleksandr Usyk before facing Fury, throwing a major spanner in the works for a Fury fight in the first half of 2021.

Eddie Hearn has described the need to appease various organisations as ‘spinning plates’ in the past, and must surely have an envious eye when looking at how the UFC does things. 

The UFC keeps it simple, and fans like it that way. Having one belt per division means there is just one champion per division. It means the best have to fight the best if they want to first win the belt and second, defend the belt.  

Moreover, there are no avenues available for champions who are looking to avoid a dangerous opponent. 

There would be absolutely no chance that the No 1 contender in a UFC division will have to wait over 1,000 days to get a shot at the champion, as Dillian Whyte was forced to do by the WBC who pandered to champion Deontay Wilder. 

It is that sort of elusiveness that has provided the source for much frustration among boxing fans, and the simplicity of the UFC has proved refreshing for new fans.  

Boxing is flooded with lots of belts and the politics of different organisations denies fans of the biggest and most exciting fights

Rapid response to Covid-19

While virtually every sport ground to a halt back in March, Dana White strove to ensure the UFC was not stuck in the mud for longer than necessary.

With venue options in the United States becoming limited by the hour, the UFC supremo set about plans to get the show back up and running.

Dana White backed his pledge to make the UFC the first sport back on TV at the outset of Covid

The UFC supremo did land himself in hot water in attempting to host an event on tribal land 

This did not come without controversy, though, with ESPN’s partners, Disney, forced to step in to stop plans for UFC 249 to go ahead on tribal land in California Central Valley in a bid to get around coronavirus restrictions. 

White was made to wait another month before the event could take place, this time in Jacksonville, as Justin Gaethje booked his place to challenge for the lightweight title after comprehensively beating Tony Ferguson. 

The UFC chief planned to make his sport the ‘first back on television’ in the US, and in so doing managed to attract a massive number of boxing fans starved of any action.

What remained unclear, though, was how White would stage fights for his international stars who could not gain entry to the States due to coronavirus travel restrictions… 

However, staging fights in early May gave sports fans something to watch and drew more fans

Fight Island

Throughout White’s media briefings amid the chaos of the pandemic, the UFC boss made countless mention of a mysterious ‘Fight Island’ – a location in which fighters from around the globe could travel to and compete at. 

That location turned out to be Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, where the UFC has a five-year deal to stage one event a year. The UAE were happy to host more events than agreed and so the UFC’s options opened considerably. 

Ironically, Fight Island’s debut saw two Americans – Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal – compete for the welterweight title after a dramatic week in which ‘Gamebred’ was roped in as a last minute replacement to take on the champion.

The move to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi allowed for international fighters to compete 

The exotic location proved a hit among fans and there are plans to fight beyond the pandemic

UFC 251 was a huge success, with the most PPV buys for a UFC event this year with 1.3m, eclipsing the 1.2m buys for Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury II. 

The UFC returned to the island in October as Israel Adesanya defended his middleweight crown against Paulo Costa while Khabib Nurmagomedov retired after his dominant win over Justin Gaethje. It is fair to say the new venue was a big hit among fans.  

White has labelled Fight Island the ‘new fight capital’ and Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor are reportedly fighting at a brand new 18,000-seat arena with a beach club and boardwalk pier to boot in January.  

Can boxing claw back its popularity in 2021? 

So, given the circumstances, the UFC has had a very good 2020 indeed in drawing fresh eyes to the sport. But can boxing ensure normal service is resumed in 2021 and claw back its popularity?

Well, yes. There is a certain two-fight deal that is so big it could blow the rest of the competition out of the water, and if it promises to be as enthralling as we all think it will be, then boxing could get the shot in the arm it so desperately needs.

There is one mega-fight that could see boxing claw back its popularity from the UFC

A unification bout between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua could win over swathes of fans 

Bob Arum has described Anthony Joshua vs. Tyson Fury as the ‘biggest fight since Ali-Frazier’ and it would certainly be the biggest fight in British boxing history.

The noises coming from both parties are very positive indeed, but this is boxing, and fans are all too used to seeing talks stall as a result of the politics.

While we don’t yet know whether AJ and Fury will meet next year, there is one confirmed fight that could spell disaster for boxing if it does not get its act together fast.

Floyd Mayweather, a five-weight champion considered one of the greatest fighters to grace the sport, takes on YouTuber Logan Paul in February. 50 wins, zero defeats meets zero wins, one defeat in a very controversial exhibition bout.

However, another mega-money fight could spell disaster for the standing of boxing next year 

Floyd Mayweather will fight YouTuber Logan Paul in a controversial exhibition in 2021 

The Mayweather – Paul exhibition will no doubt earn a lot of PPV buys, but it speaks to the dire state of boxing that a retired former champion taking on an internet sensation could register the most PPV buys in the sport next year. 

‘The reason you’ve never seen me do anything [in boxing] is because that’s how screwed up and broken it is,’ White said this month. ‘That’s what a mess it is. It’s gonna require so much time, money, and the whole thing needs to be rebuilt and restructured.

‘You know, this (Floyd) Mayweather (exhibition fight with Logan Paul) does more buys than (Tyson) Fury versus (Deontay) Wilder or, you know, some of these legitimate big fights, it’s pretty scary.’  

They may be the new kid on the block, but boxing could well benefit with taking a leaf from the UFC’s book if they want to gain ground in the popularity race.   

Boxing could learn a thing or two from the UFC if they want to claw back its popularity in 2021

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