MANILA (Reuters) - Indelibly linked with the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier laid their bitter boxing rivalry to rest some 37 years ago, the Araneta Coliseum welcomed “the future of fighting” on Friday in the Philippines’ biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) event.
A tied, yellowing banner marking the date of that brutal battle in 1975 reminded fans of the Araneta’s place in boxing history, but most of the 16,500 people packed into the domed venue were not even born when Ali met Frazier in that last great clash of heavyweight titans.
While the full contact sport of MMA has gone from strength to strength over the last 10 years, boxing, and the heavyweight division in particular, has fallen on hard times.
Years of greed and self interest, and a lack of direction from the alphabet soup of governing bodies, has brought the once proud sport to its knees. Only a handful of superstars such as the Philippines’ own Manny Pacquiao stand between boxing and sporting irrelevance.
Victor Cui, the CEO of Asia’s biggest MMA promotion ONE Fighting Championship, told Reuters one of the keys to success was figuring out what the current generation of fight fans want.
Sitting at the edge of the cage, as South Korean Kim Soo-chul rained elbows and punches down on home hope Kevin Belington, Cui said part of boxing’s demise lay in its “old school” approach.
“Manny Pacquiao walks on water here, but the days of people buying tickets and being happy just to see two people fight are long gone,” he said.
“Where MMA has succeeded is recognising the overlap between sport and entertainment. Whether it’s MMA or the Olympics or football, you have to entertain, and sports that don’t do that are going to wither and die.”
Nodding to the five star generals and the heads of major Philippine banks and corporations watching the action from the VIP section, Cui said the ‘one size fits all’ approach to hosting live events was out of date.
“From those fans up there with the beer and the cheapest tickets, to the VIPs who walk down the red carpet and enjoy a glass of wine before the fights, I have to make sure I deliver to each and every one of them,” he added.
‘THE FUTURE OF FIGHTING’
While boxing continues to bank on diehard fans shelling out for a main event and lacklustre undercard on pay per view, MMA has taken to the Internet to open up new revenue streams and tries to give better value for money by stacking fight cards.
Through reality television shows and the canny utilization of social media, MMA has also become much more accessible than boxing, helping fans connect with fighters and building brand loyalty.
But while boxing has always been considered the gentlemanly form of fighting, the raw violence and lack of regulation in the early years of MMA saw it shunned and scrapping for survival.
Only after evolving from bare-knuckle brawls in underground carparks to highly-regulated bouts between professional athletes has MMA become the mainstream money-spinner it is today.
Alvin Aguilar, who helped bring MMA out of the shadows in the Philippines with his URCC promotion, said fans were frustrated by boxing - the unscrupulous promoters and overpaid fighters -- and were increasingly turning to MMA.
The gloves are smaller, a steel cage stands in place of a ring, and a fighter’s fists are not his only weapon. Knees, feet and elbows are used to gain victory, as are an array of grappling submissions.
Just like boxing, however, bodies are broken, blood splashes on the canvas and fans pay good money to watch.
Barely audible above the roar as local fighter Eric Kelly smashed Jens Pulver to the ground, Aguilar said his countrymen had a long-standing love affair with combat sport.
”There’s no such thing as a Filipino man who has never been in a fist fight,“ he said. ”But boxing these days, it doesn’t do much to entertain fans outside of the fight itself.
“MMA entertains. For my first event I expected 500 people to come, but 5,000 showed up. I keep saying it, the next Manny Pacquiao is going to come from MMA.”
There was much to entertain the fans on Friday.
American Phil Baroni, the self-proclaimed ‘New York Bad Ass’, strode to the cage giving one-fingered salutes to the crowd. They cheered him harder.
The crowd roared when two Korean ring girls danced to the K-pop smash ‘Gangnam Style’, and went wild when a delirious photographer jumped up on the cage to join them.
Sitting in the front row, 24-year-old Arthur Navarro was loving every minute.
“I‘m too young to know about Ali versus Frazier, but boxing is not enough for me,” he said. “The MMA is fast and all action. It’s the future of fighting.”
Editing by John O'Brien