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Last Updated: Friday, 20 April 2007, 23:27 GMT 00:27 UK
Boxing's biggest fight
By Ben Dirs

Michael Bisping
Michael Bisping is Britain's biggest star in UFC

Boxing promoter Frank Maloney reckons it will have "15 minutes of fame", yet it is the fastest-growing spectator sport in the United States.

Boxing legend Barry McGuigan called it "dirty" and "undignified", but statistics suggest it is safer than boxing.

Ultimate Fighting Championship is coming to Britain - and British boxing is rattled.

On Saturday, UFC lands at Manchester's MEN Arena, and 16,000 people, including Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Girls Aloud, will be there to welcome it.

606: DEBATE

Across the Atlantic, it's already big news. UFC, the leading brand within the sport of mixed martial arts, outsold boxing on the box twice over in 2006 and has just finalised a deal with HBO, the traditional home of boxing in America.

UFC champions Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell are household names, which is more than you can say for Floyd Mayweather, arguably boxing's biggest talent.

And it has even caught the imagination of the A-list, with a host of Hollywood stars - and Paris Hilton - regulars at UFC shows.

There has never been a death or serious injury in UFC and boxing suffers deaths in the ring almost every year

British UFC star Michael Bisping

There's more. Last March, Marc Ratner left his job as executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, one of the most powerful jobs in boxing, to join UFC.

He took Nevada's leading boxing doctor Margaret Goodman with him, and it looked suspiciously like they were deserting a sinking ship.

Ratner is more diplomatic than that but has no doubt that UFC can learn from boxing's ills.

"I very much believe the two sports can co-exist," said Ratner. "In the USA there are clearly two different demographics between the two groups of viewers and I believe there is limited crossover between the two.

"Boxing may have made some big mistakes over the last 25 years, but the UFC can still use it as a model.

"You have to have top guys fighting each other, and not having a single dominant heavyweight champion very much hurts the sport.

"Boxing also needs promoters to work with sanctioning bodies. These are age-old questions, but they need answers quickly for boxing to stay healthy."

Paris Hilton
Socialite Paris Hilton is a UFC regular in America

Well-matched fights? The best fighters meeting in the ring? Recognised champions in each weight class? It all makes perfect sense.

UFC has come along way since the 1990s, when it was marketed as an ultra-violent entertainment and denounced by some, with some justification, as "human cockfighting".

In 2001, the UFC brand was bought out and repackaged as an authentic sport, celebrating rather than demonising the different skills of boxing, wrestling and various martial arts.

Weight classes, judges, submissions and five-minute rounds were introduced, and gloves and gum-shields became mandatory, as did drug and steroid testing.

That it is still considered by many to be more brutal than boxing owes much to fact that the action takes place in a cage, or 'octagon', 34ft across and surrounded by a 7ft mesh wall.

But Clitheroe's Michael Bisping, winner of last year's Ultimate Fighter reality TV show in the States, believes UFC's barbaric reputation is undeserved.

He is also particularly scathing about former featherweight world champion McGuigan's claims that UFC involves little more than "rolling around" on the floor.

"There has never been a death or serious injury in UFC and boxing suffers deaths in the ring almost every year," said Bisping, who will be appearing on the Manchester card, which will be broadcast in the UK by Setanta pay-per-view.

"McGuigan is ignorant to the skill, technique and finesse mixed martial arts fighters use in addition to boxing techniques.

"I'd like to invite Barry down to the Wolf's Lair MMA academy where I train in Runcorn and I'd happily do my best to try to educate him as to the various techniques we use."

Other boxing people appreciate MMA more than McGuigan, including prominent American promoter Gary Shaw, who plans to stage mixed discipline shows in the future.

The British boxing fraternity cannot afford to be complacent, and all who love the sport must hope the emergence of UFC persuades it to address its myriad problems.



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