Ultimate Fighting's popularity may put boxing down for count

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I sat ringside for my first boxing match when I was 14 years old. There might have been 100 people in the room, but somehow those droplets of blood chose to fly from the fighter's nose and land on my white shirt. I was infected. Whatever it was about the supposed sweet science, it got me.

So it's somewhat sad to see what's happened these past few years and to realize what's going to happen during the next few. A sport like boxing doesn't just die and disappear. It slowly fades away until one day you look around and notice that it's no longer around.Instead, your attention is taken by something else, and it's pretty clear by now exactly what that something else is.

The heavyweight title bout between Oleg Maskaev and Hasim Rahman two weeks ago got just 60,000 pay-per-view buys. Tonight's Ultimate Fighting Championship show, headlined by Chuck Liddell vs. Renato Sobral, will likely generate more than 500,000 buys. You see where we're going?

No headstone has been erected over boxing's grave, but UFC is holding a shovel and prepared to splash dirt on a casket.

"I can't even watch boxing now," Dana White, president of UFC, said recently. "I really can't - and I came from a boxing background. It literally bores me to death. I'd rather watch Power Rangers with the kids than watch boxing."

Of course he's going to say that. It's in his interest. But he's actually right.

Officials from the boxing end and their UFC counterparts carefully try to distance themselves from each other, but it'd be naive to not recognize the cause-effect relationship. The grandfathers still like boxing; the grandkids are flocking to UFC.

"I think it's wrong to compare the two. The similarity is that they're both unarmed combat. But that's it."

That's Marc Ratner talking, the former head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, as respected during his time as anyone in boxing. He's a former opponent of unruly mixed-martial arts and now works under the UFC banner, lending the sport a lot of credibility. He's still a huge boxing fan but concedes:

"When old boxing fans pass away, there aren't new ones to take their place."

The old guard that runs boxing - the people who made it an exciting sport for many, many years - has been slow to adjust. They don't even recognize that the two might be somehow connected. Even if you want to believe that boxing fans aren't flocking to UFC, you have to recognize that young people who might have been boxing fans 20 years ago are instead buying tonight's UFC pay-per-view show.

When I was in Las Vegas recently, I spoke with Bob Arum, who brought the world boxing iconic figures such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Oscar de la Hoya.

"I don't think Ultimate Fighting has had an impact except that it has demonstrated to boxing promoters another method to promoting the product. They've done a marvelous job in promotion," he says. "But we have a totally different audience.

"The demographic of UFC are young white males. To cater to that audience, you basically only see white men who fight. Our audience for boxing is Hispanic, African-American and maybe a few whites."

I'm not saying Arum is wrong, but that's not the biggest difference. Boxing fans were alive when Cassius Clay changed his name, whereas UFC fans couldn't even name Cassius Clay. Which sport do you think has a brighter long-term future?

"My biggest beef with boxing right now is that the powers that be, the Bob Arums and Don Kings, they aren't interested in securing the future of the sport," said White, young and brash and with heady plans for the UFC. "They'll never put a dime of their own money back into it. It's all about, `How much money can I put into my pocket right here, right now?' There's no investing in the future."

I hope boxing adjusts. White took a page from Vince McMahon's pro wrestling playbook by using cable programming to promote pay-per-view shows. UFC's reality show The Ultimate Fighter has spawned legitimate stars. Arum hopes to mimic the model using the cable network OLN to showcase younger fighters.

Unless those young fighters are in a caged octagon and are fighting mixed martial arts - a la UFC - it might be too late. Admittedly, I was a slow convert. But there's something raw and exciting about UFC and all of its disciplines: boxing, judo, jujitsu, freestyle wrestling, taekwondo and others.

When I was in Las Vegas, I toured the UFC gym, where the popular reality show is filmed. The show's first season launched the fighting career of Forrest Griffin, a former police officer from Georgia.

Griffin, who squares off against Stephan Bonnar tonight, struggled to describe UFC's appeal, before finally hitting it perfectly: "It doesn't try to be something it's not. We're not carrying sticks and chasing a puck on ice. We're the part of sports that you like. We just get in there and fight in every style we can."

UFC vs. boxing - it's not a fair fight. They're in different divisions. One's on the cusp of the mainstream. The other is best viewed on ESPN Classic.