Mixed martial arts has been in a state of growth since the very first UFC event over 20 years ago. Now, after UFC 194, the sport is in for its greatest surge in popularity since UFC 100 and the days of Brock Lesnar.

But does this green wave signify a time when MMA catches up with its big brother, boxing?

There is one man, with a little help from his female co-star, doing everything within his immense power to close the once gaping gap.The Lesnar of today does not weigh 265lbs, nor does he look like the product of a biological experiment. What the former heavyweight champion turned WWE superstar and Conor McGregor do have in common, as well as some questionable ink, is extraordinary athletic talent and a rare ability to make people want to watch them.

McGregor’s latest one-man show, UFC 194, will not break the PPV buy record set by Lesnar and Frank Mir at UFC 100 but it won’t be far away. All signals indicate that UFC 200 in July, likely to be headlined by the Irishman, will set a new record – a record which will eat up even more ground on the slow-moving leader in combat sports. The featherweight champion is the ace in the pack for the UFC, the golden ticket which could propel the company to new heights.

After recording the quickest ever UFC title fight, McGregor is being rewarded for his fruitfulness – he will officially be paid more dollars per second than any fighter in company history – thus toppling the UFC’s poster-girl, Ronda Rousey, from that particular title.

As impressive as McGregor’s figures are, they pale in comparison to those of boxing’s greatest star, Floyd Mayweather. While McGregor is estimated to earn around $8m for his 13 second act at UFC 194, Mayweather raked in approximately $240m for his victory over Manny Pacquiao in May. 

Further evidence shows that this weekend the UFC broke their gate record in Vegas with $10.2m. Comparatively Mayweather/Pacquiao, which also took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, made that figure seven times over.

These enormously disparate numbers prove how far ahead boxing truly is when it comes to the mass market. This is largely down to boxing having the advantage of centuries worth of history from which to build a brand and reputation. While boxing is a sport our great-grandfathers may have watched, MMA is only a couple of decades old – it is still finding its feet in the sporting world.

Furthermore, the “fight of the century” was an anomaly and will not be replicated in terms of PPV numbers for many years to come.

In general terms the UFC can keep up with boxing when it comes to PPV – each of Ronda Rousey’s last two headline events have teetered around the one million mark. These numbers parallel those of last month’s blockbuster fight between Canelo Alvarez and Miguel Cotto, which drew 900k viewers and completely dwarf those that boxing’s “next big thing”, Gennady Golovkin, who achieved 150,000 buys in his last fight. Indeed they overshadow the number of people who tuned in to see “Money” fight his last fight in September – 450,000 people paid to see him bow out.

When exulting over the growth of MMA it should also be noted that the heavyweights of boxing should provide their sport with an injection of energy in the coming year. The staleness of that division which has left so many uninspired for the last decade has potentially been eradicated by Tyson Fury. The new heavyweight champion symbolises controversy and provides a spectacle that boxing’s most renowned division has been missing – his tomfoolery will undoubtedly increase the sport’s viewership.

It will increase markedly if he can captivate the American audience, who have not had to try very hard to ignore the heavyweight division since the glory days of Mike Tyson. The Americans crave unpredictability and showmanship – characteristics that Fury has in spades. And if, as many suspect, Fury one day goes to-to-toe with America’s hottest heavyweight, Deontay Wilder, the PPV numbers will blow anything the Klitschko’s ever did out of the water. The meeting of these two unbeaten giants would thrust heavyweight boxing back in to the spotlight.

Mike Tyson explained it well: ”We live in a bizarre world – nobody likes the nice guy, people like to see the schmuck win.” It is for this reason that the chess playing, multi-lingual, PHD Wladimir Klitschko never hit the heights in terms of popularity. And it is why fighters like Fury and Wilder, although arguably less talented, will soak up the fame and rake in the cash. With those two at the forefront and Anthony Joshua breathing down their necks the future of heavyweight boxing looks bright.

The relationship between MMA and boxing is and always will be an interesting one, a competitive one. As things stand it is clear that boxing still has the edge when it comes to widespread appeal and the big events are much bigger. But in terms of dedicated fans tuning in month after month MMA handily equals boxing and often betters it.

The revitalisation of heavyweight boxing is encouraging and it should benefit from the new blood that the coming year will bring.

But MMA could be in for its biggest year yet – it will take a lot to exceed the boom years of the late 2010’s but 2016 will bring us UFC 200, the return of Jon Jones and Conor McGregor fighting for the lightweight title.

The gap is narrowing.

About The Author

Barnaby Kellaway
Staff Writer

Barnaby Kellaway is a sports journalist specializing in Mixed Martial Arts. Being a sports fanatic all his life, he knew whatever career he aspired to it had to be in sports. Being a Brit he started with football and rugby but then a few years back he discovered MMA; this was when his aspiration became his focus. He studied from the basics all the way up to the most minute intricacies of the sport and now finds himself in a position where writing about it is his passion.