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COVID CONFESSIONS: LOVING UFC IN LOCKDOWN 

Ste Turton

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Forgive me, fight fans. I’ve sinned. 

At a time when individuals and institutions are owning up to some hard truths, it’s time to come clean: I’ve spent the last four months in bed with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. 

British boxing, so you know, is my first love. But with UFC’s Fight Island launching, I’m struggling to get MMA off my mind. 

UFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal is a mixed martial arts event from Ultimate Fighting Championship running July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Boxing lifer Ste Turton used to dismiss MMA. But now he’s gotten a proper taste of the product, and he’s doing a compare and contrast with pugilism.

It was supposed to be a harmless fling; a stop-gap to fill the void with my long-term combat partner out of town. But the cage has opened me up to a whole new world of skills and violence, acts I never thought I’d enjoy or appreciate. Now I’m not sure I can walk away. 

It’d be easy to solely blame lockdown. Boxing’s coronavirus-induced absence left me unfulfilled, no doubt. But my eye has been wandering for alternative action some time. On those lonely, weekend nights, the Octagon proved too persuasive a mistress to turn down.

From Jacksonville to Vegas, the UFC has been there in my late-night hours of need. First round one-bombs. Arm-bars and guillotines. Explosive female fighters. I’ve been thrilled in ways I’d never imagined possible.

Giga Chikadze put on some Van Damme shit I’d only previously seen in movies. The Georgian ex kick-boxing champ bamboozling his Mexican opponent with an array of kinky footwork, and that deepened the attraction. And the walk-off KO from rainbow-‘fro sporting Sean O’Malley.

Sublime.

Most of those highlights came during prelim build-ups. Dana White would be first to admit his main events have been hit and miss so-far behind closed doors. Yet Justin Gaethje’s punch-perfect dismantling of Tony Ferguson was as good as anything Canelo’s done for me lately.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IB8PRuPD5E

Dustin Poirier vs Dan Hooker, animalistic savagery at its finest. 

With both sport’s now live, I’m faced with some tough viewing and lifestyle decisions in the near future.

Raised in a monogamous home, where parties often centred around Chris Eubank fights or Naseem Hamed title defences, MMA’s emergence always felt like a dirty threat to the sport we loved as a family.

Ours was a boxing house, the caged stuff deemed too brutal, too chavvy. 

Remember Bernard Hopkins’ anti-MMA rant back in 2009? “Everybody is different,” Hopkins told Boxing Scene. “I don’t want to watch two grown men wrestling with panties on. I’m from the hood, we don’t play that. To me, I’m not buying a ticket to watch two grown men with panties on, sweating, [with] nuts in their face. That’s not me. To compare that to boxing is ludicrous. It’s a porno. It’s an entertainment porno.”

I’d take to social media to mock the sport at any given chance, often without seeing complete cards or even full fights. Hopkins changed his stance by 2011. Likewise, it’s been a few years since I’ve fired an uneducated Facebook shot from the comfort of a keyboard. 

Having enjoyed dipping into UFC cards for Conor McGregor fights or to catch local Liverpool lads, the recent marathon of quality shows has got me questioning how much enjoyment I’ve been getting from inside the ropes in recent years. Is my stray to the cage as much boxing’s fault, for becoming an abusive partner? 

In his latest mailbag article for The Athletic, Eddie Hearn piled praise on Dana White and his company, expressing how he hopes to, one-day, replicate their business model. Then details surfaced of Matchroom’s underwhelming August Fight Camp; 4x five-fight cards from Eddie Hearns’ garden at his Essex Matchroom headquarters.

The uninspiring matchups only highlight the widening incapability of one of boxing’s top stables to match their mixed martial art rival for excitement. 

According to Eddie, the ‘first rule’ of his Fight Camp is ‘no bad fights’. As Dana this week managed to rescue Saturday’s Fight Island headline bout from the flames with an astounding replacement in Jorge Masvidal, Eddie plans to conclude his outdoor summer showpiece next month with a Dillian Whyte- Alexander Povetkin match. To add insult to injury, Sky Sports customers – starved of boxing action during lockdown – will have to fork out extra PPV money on top of their subscription for the privilege. Nice one, Ed.

Hearn looks pleased here. Makes sense, he’s made immense revenue with his DAZN deal and his affiliation with AJ. But boxing fans are not nearly as pleased with the content offerings, overall.

Disappointment shouldn’t be a new sensation for a life-long boxing head. When you’ve spent a few months witnessing how the other half lives, though, the shortcomings of your sport become even more obvious.

There have been reasons to be cheerful in recent times for boxing fans. I was at MSG to see Andy Ruiz’s incredible knockout of Anthony Joshua.

Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder completing two fights – with a third to come – has been a real win for match-making. A future Fury-Joshua fight penned in lockdown is another negotiation success, all be it three fights and potentially a few years down the line. 

The best heavyweights finally fighting each other has been met with high praise and a sense of self congratulation from the boxing world. But isn’t that a common aspect of an abusive relationship, being forced to feel grateful for your partner delivering pretty basic duties from their end? The UFC’s top guys from each weight-class seem to be fighting each other at least once a month. How long can our champs and their promoters get away with the ‘treat them mean, keep them keen’ approach? 

Like with all new suitors, the grass often seems greener on the other side. Recent labour debates over fighters’ pay cheques clearly shows MMA’s premier platform has its issues, issues that could manifest and cause the fragmented problems we’ve seen derail some of boxing’s greatest matchups.

But Dana White prides himself on being the best ‘problem solver’ in sport, going to extreme lengths to satisfy his fans and put on the best bouts. Delivering Jorge Masvidal-Kamaru Usman tonight may be his most impressive gesture to date. 

As a lifelong gambler I’ve compared betting lines of UFC cards with boxing bills over the years. The competitiveness is incomparable. Frank Warren once put on a show where an accumulator of his seven house fighters, all to win, was just about made-up an even money shot. The majority of UFC fights are pick ‘ems. 

The danger boxing faces is not its lustful fight fan, looking for some replacement action on a weekend that doesn’t feature a Top Rank or Golden Boy show. The threat is their punters falling for an organisation  that treats them better, giving back to the customer as much as it takes. UFC has filled a combat gap for me in isolation, but I’ve developed an appreciation for the brand and the personalities that represent it. 

Brandon Royval’s short-notice Octagon debut and emotional post-fight interview bagged him a 50k Fight of the Night bonus, allowing him to quit his job the next day. Halle Berry found Jamahal Hill’s knockout of Klidson Abreu so impressive she sent Dana White a text of congratulations to pass on. Walt Harris’ first fight back after the tragic kidnapping and murder of his young daughter had me close to tears.

These are stories to invest in, and fighters you want to see again. Fighters you’ll get to see again on the regular, in competitive matchups, because that’s how it works over there. 

With the likes of Ryan Garcia refusing more fights than he posts Instagram stories, boxing is likely to remain a sport that creates more problems than it solves.

As for my loyalty issue, it’s a work in progress. 

As smitten as I’ve been with the UFC these last few months, I’m yet to see a performance that moves me like a lightweight Floyd or prime Pacquiao used to. While the sporting diary’s still relatively slim, there’s room to juggle both codes for the time being, with no one getting hurt. 

Once the likes of the NFL and NBA return, though, and Saturday night offerings from both boxing and MMA begin to clash, something will have to give. 

To nab Bruce Buffer’s trademark, it’s not quite ‘TIME’ to make a choice.  But the clock’s ticking on boxing for this once faithful fan.

Ste Turton hosts the sports and gambling podcast My Conversations with The Pope

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