On Saturday, we’re set to see arguably the biggest fight night of the year. Canelo Alvarez, the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer in the world, looks to become an undisputed world champion for the first time in his career as he faces Caleb Plant in a super middleweight unification fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. On the other side of the United States, in New York, UFC 268 features three pay-per-view headlining-worthy fights atop a stacked card at Madison Square Garden.
Two years ago this weekend, Alvarez fought Sergey Kovalev in a light heavyweight title fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, while UFC 244 — headlined by Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz — took over MSG in New York.
In theory, weekends like this should be rare. For some fans, the choice will be easy — watch one over the other. However, in an era where any phone or computer can serve as a second screen, many crossover boxing and MMA fans will choose both, and enjoy an incredible night of entertainment. But some fans, due to either time or budgetary concerns, will have to make a choice.
The question we should be asking is whether or not there should have to be a choice. There’s a finite amount of real estate in a year — 52 Saturdays, the typical night for a major fight card. But how many events on the boxing or MMA calendar stack up to the quality each sport is set to deliver on Saturday?
Boxing can boast name value with its biggest star, Alvarez, who will fight an opponent he’s “never had as much bad blood with.” Much of that stems from all the insults Plant hurled at Alvarez at their September news conference that led to the pair exchanging blows. Plant, who called Alvarez a doping cheater and took aim at his beloved trainer, Eddy Reynoso, emerged with a cut on his face, under the right eye.
The scuffle went viral and only increased visibility for Alvarez’s return to pay-per-view (Showtime PPV). It’s his first bout exclusively available in that format since his 2018 rematch with Gennadiy Golovkin. Anytime the Mexican icon fights — no matter the opponent — it’s a Super Bowl of sorts for the sport.
Plant happens to be undefeated and American, which always helps to sell pay-per-views in the U.S. He’s also a talented boxer who possesses an excellent jab and quick hands.
In the other corner, thousands of miles away, the main event is a rematch between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington for the UFC welterweight championship. The bout tops a stacked UFC 268 card, presented on ESPN+ PPV.
Both pay-per-views will cost $79.99. And while there are surely ardent supporters of each sport who’ve known for months which event they’ll buy, what about those who are on the fence?
“I’m not saying that competing combat sports on that same night will never draw from our audience, but in terms of the overlapping fan appeal, I don’t think there are any Canelo fans who are worried about Colby Covington and vice versa for that matter, ” said Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza, which also televises Bellator MMA.
“Undoubtedly, there is some crossover,” he added, “but if you look at the kinds of events, the demographics, we’re relatively unconcerned about losing [our] audience.”
Teddy Atlas, a longtime boxing trainer and commentator, feels a little bit differently. He estimates 15 to 20 percent of fight fans who would normally purchase the Alvarez-Plant PPV will instead choose UFC 268.
Those fans, he opined, will say, “I’m going to go over where I’m guaranteed a competitive fight, I’m going to go with the sure thing, and guess what else I’m going to get? The undercard,” said Atlas.
“Boxing fans are not dumb. I have news for the promoters: The gig is up…. They’ve been suffering through some of the crap on the undercards and guess what? There is no crap on the undercard of the UFC. Every one of those fights can be life or death, every one of those fights can be a war.”
In terms of depth, it is a one-sided contest. Alvarez-Plant will be a tremendous main event. But it’s accompanied by a lackluster undercard, and it’s hardly a surprise because Alvarez is guaranteed $40 million, per sources, while Plant will earn at least $10 million. Usually, the bigger the boxing match, the weaker the undercard, with few exceptions. Plant, who might be a bit biased, does have one strong point to fall back on.
“As a fight fan myself, it’s unfortunate that someone would have to choose between two big cards like that,” Plant told ESPN, “but at the end of the day, people will make the right choice: they know what card to turn into. The reason being, there’s never been an undisputed super middleweight [champion] crowned in the history of boxing. Not only are you witnessing … probably the biggest fight of the year, if you’re a fight fan you’re also going to be witnessing history in the making.”
While the underwhelming three-fight undercard for Canelo-Plant isn’t a major selling point, the rest of the UFC 268 is stacked, topped by the co-main event, a rematch for the UFC women’s strawweight title between Rose Namajunas and Zhang Weili. But wait … there’s more!
Justin Gaethje meets Michael Chandler in a lightweight fight that should set the winner up nicely for a title shot at whomever emerges when Dustin Poirier challenges Charles Oliveira for that championship on Dec. 11.
With such a strong undercard, fans of both sports will be inclined to start off with UFC 268 before potentially switching over to Canelo-Plant, if that’s possible.
There could be a lesson in what we saw in 2019 — images of Alvarez and Kovalev waiting in their dressing rooms for the Masvidal-Diaz main event to wrap up, as DAZN’s attempt to offer fans a window to watch both pay-per-views led to a dreadfully long delay and a scene that has become an infamous image in boxing lore.
Don’t expect a repeat.
“We’re completely unconcerned with the timing of any other competing event,” Espinoza said. “Canelo Alvarez is the No. 1 star in boxing by far at the box office. We wouldn’t be doing his event justice if we were putting his audience in the arena, and on television, on a delay and sort of compromising the viewer experience and fan experience to accommodate some other event happening across the country.”
And even if PBC, the company that promotes Plant, and Showtime wish to avoid walking Alvarez and Plant at the same time as Usman-Covington, the logistics of such a wait are difficult. What would have been far more practical was avoiding Nov. 6 altogether.
Since 2017, the UFC has held a major PPV event at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the first Saturday of November; last year was an exception due to the pandemic. It was well-known in the boxing industry that the UFC was set to hold an event on Nov. 6. Pete Dropick, who’s in charge of live events for the organization, told ESPN that the hold on MSG for Nov. 6 was placed almost two years out. But PBC decided to push ahead with Alvarez and Plant anyway.
Showtime was on board with the fight at a later date, but why did PBC decide to hold the event on Nov. 6 rather than, say Nov. 13? Or Nov. 27?
Apparently, Alvarez liked the Nov. 6 date, but he’s not the one doling out $50 million in guarantees. That’s not to say the event won’t be a financial success. The fight sold out the MGM Grand Garden Arena almost immediately, and on the secondary market, buyers will have to pay at least $700 for the worst seat. Ringside seats are going for as much as $25,000.
The PPV sales will likely be healthy, too, especially with all of the buzz after their previous confrontation. But it’s easy to believe the PPV would perform even better if it wasn’t competing with perhaps the most stacked UFC card of the year.
That’s not to say Saturday will be a disaster for Canelo-Plant or boxing in general, or anything remotely close to it. Alvarez is the sport’s biggest star, and no matter when he fights (or against whom), fans will be watching — particularly his legion of supporters who treat his events like holidays.
In fact, that’s when Canelo routinely fights: Cinco De Mayo and Mexican Independence Day weekend in September.
The fight with Plant was pegged for Sept. 18 before talks collapsed during a contentious negotiation. By the time discussions resumed, October was out of the picture, too.
More than 730 days have passed since Alvarez and Kovalev appeared on the brink of falling asleep waiting for their turn to get in the ring. This time around, Canelo surely won’t be waiting around for anyone. But a little bit of prudence would have likely benefited everyone involved.