Wednesday, March 21, 2007


By Mark Staniforth

When Marc Ratner left his post as executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission to join the burgeoning Mixed Martial Arts world in March last year, it was seen as the strongest indication yet of the rising threat to boxing's traditional grip on the combat sports market.

Ratner, who was swiftly followed by his long-time medical director Margaret Goodman, was appointed as vice-president of regulatory affairs for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading commercial brand within the sport of MMA.

Boxing's critics had a field day, insisting the absence of a universally-recognised world heavyweight champion, the apparent growth in mis-matches and interminable politics which kept the best fighters apart, had killed boxing. Ratner was simply deserting a sinking ship.

MMA, meanwhile, and UFC in particular, continues to grow exponentially. Its 10 pay-per-view events last year generated in the region of US$200million - upward of US$20m more than the sum total of Home Box Office's 11 pay-TV boxing shows.

Walk down the Las Vegas Strip, where Ratner once held what is effectively the most powerful job in boxing, and kids chatter not of Wladimir Klitschko's latest mismatch in Mannheim, but of the latest battle involving Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell in the octagon.

Ratner's new role is to use his regulatory contacts to make UFC even bigger. His greatest goal is to persuade the New York State Athletic Commission, which banned UFC in its previous, relatively lawless guise in 1997, to sanction contests again.

But Ratner is keen to play down claims that the greater the growth for UFC, the more boxing will suffer. He insists that rather than deserting a sinking ship, his move into MMA simply fulfilled his need for a new challenge.

Ratner said: "It was an opportunity to learn more on the ground floor of a new sport. It was a difficult decision to make but I had been with Nevada for 22 years and I owed it to my family to take the chance.

"I very much believe the two different sports can co-exist. Right now in the USA there are clearly different demographics between the two groups of viewers. I believe there is limited crossover between the two.

"It is not just a case of boxing being able to learn a lot from the success of UFC. I believe both sports can learn from each other. Boxing may have made some big mistakes over the last 25 years, but UFC can still use it as a model."

UFC's tentacles will not stop on the east coast. Next month, they journey across the Atlantic for the first time in their current guise, for a slickly promoted show at Manchester's MEN Arena which is closing in on a 17,000 sell-out.

The sport, and UFC in particular, has clearly done a lot to clean itself up since its early 1990s beginnings, when it was ostensibly promoted as a blood-spattered entertainment brand rather than an authentic sport.

Rules such as those which outlawed retirements or submissions have been scrapped, and UFC remarketed as a celebration of the unique athletic skills of its combatants who blend traditional wrestling, ju-jitsu, boxing and kick-boxing.

Some traditional boxing promoters, led by the former Main Events CEO Gary Shaw, have already announced their intention to embrace MMA and are investigating the possibility of staging mixed discipline shows in the future.

And HBO's rivals Showtime have have become the first major PPV broadcaster to ink a deal to show regular MMA events, leading some to question the network's future commitment to boxing.

In the meantime Ratner, who took charge of many big fights including those involving the most recent generation of universally-recognised heavyweights like Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, hopes his old sport can stay on track.

"Fights like Klitschko against Ray Austin don't help the sport at all," said Ratner. "You have to have top guys fighting each other and not having one single dominant heavyweight champion very much hurts the sport.

"It needs more Olympic success to generate a young kid to capture America's attention. It needs promoters to work with sanctioning bodies. They are the age-old questions, but they need answers quickly for boxing to remain healthy."


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