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UFC and MMA Still Have Miles To Go in Catching Up with Boxing

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Yesterday saw Cameron Newton, quarterback of the undefeated Auburn Tigers and favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, lead his team to a come-from-behind win against a feisty rival in the Georgia Bulldogs, clinching a birth in the SEC title game and inching the Tigers closer to the BCS Championship. He did this following a week in which questions regarding the legality of his recruitment process held the spotlight of every mainstream media sports outlet.

And so, SportsCenter - ESPN's flagship program - opened up its nighttime program with... fifteen uninterrupted minutes of coverage of Antonio Margarito's drubbing at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. Say what?

Isn't boxing dead?

A fair amount of criticism can be directed toward ESPN (I offer plenty myself), but it's undeniable that "The Worldwide Leader in Sports" is the barometer of the average sports fan's consciousness. For a relatively predictable boxing match to be the clear-cut top story, on a day when the top 3 teams in college football all face stern tests, speaks volumes as to how far behind boxing MMA is in building cache with the mainstream sports fan, the mainstream media, and general public acceptance.

At UFC 121, MMA's most recognizable athlete fell in a crushing defeat. Keeping with my SportsCenter measuring stick, it wasn't even mentioned in the first half of the program. The biggest story of the year in MMA was put on par with results in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

That should tell you everything you need to know about Dana White's ridiculous proclamation from three years ago that "In ten years, MMA will be the biggest sport in the world."

Of course, Pacquiao is one of his sport's two biggest stars at the moment. And, his sport has a deep historical cache of which only baseball isn't envious in America. But to hear MMA fans tell it, boxing hasn't been relevant since Mike Tyson nibbled on Evander Holyfield's ear.

My point here is that us ardent MMA fans often overestimate our sphere of influence because we are so immersed in it. The UFC may have surpassed boxing in terms of pay-per-view sales, but I think that speaks more to the power of branding rather than overall popularity. For MMA to make serious gains in the latter regard, there will have to be more bouts like Silva/Sonnen, more promotion of guys like GSP and Shogun instead of Dana White, and fewer iterations of UFC 122. Seriously, pass that junk off as UFC-lite instead of your prime product.

Boxing might indeed be slipping in relevance to casual sports fans, but as long as the heavyweight champion of MMA captures less of the public consciousness than Hannah Storm's wardrobe, fans like myself should refrain from declaring boxing dead and gone.