If UFC's Usman secures a boxing match with Canelo, he'd be a winner before it began

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UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, left, has expressed interest in entering the boxing ring to challenge the sport's undisputed super-middleweight champion, Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, right, but his pursuit signals a pay disparity between the two sports. (Getty Images - image credit)
UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, left, has expressed interest in entering the boxing ring to challenge the sport's undisputed super-middleweight champion, Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, right, but his pursuit signals a pay disparity between the two sports. (Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last Saturday night featured the logjam that the Ultimate Fighting Championship and major boxing promoters work carefully to avoid: marquee pay-per-view events trying to co-exist.

In Las Vegas, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez made history, dispatching Caleb Plant over 11 rounds to become the undisputed world champion in boxing's super-middleweight division. Across the country, at Madison Square Garden, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman punctuated UFC 268 with a five-round decision win over longtime rival Colby Covington.

If, as a fight fan, you felt conflicted, don't feel guilty about it. It's normal. UFC president and longtime boxing fan Dana White solved the problem by streaming the Alvarez fight Octagon-side at MSG. Afterward both headliners had to answer the question we only ask fighters in moments like this.

What's next?

WATCH | What if Canelo Alvarez agreed to box Kamaru Usman?:

As Atlanta players sprayed each other with champagne in the wake of their six-game World Series win over the Houston Astros, nobody asked whether they planned to win next year's final in a sweep? When Eliud Kipchoge ran 2:01:39 to set a marathon world record, we didn't ask how soon he planned to run a triathlon.

In most other settings, we — sports fans, but, especially, the media — let big accomplishments breathe, and give athletes time and space to savour them. There'll be another race, and another baseball season, and we can address them when they approach. For most athletes, we want to know how the triumph feels in the moment.

But we've decided fighters are only as good as the fight they want next, so we ask about it, often with answers in mind. Don't say you want a relatively easy fight, because in our memories, legends fought other legends every time out.

Wait, didn't Sugar Ray Leonard squeeze Dave "Boy" Green between Wilfred Benitez and Roberto Duran? Yes. But that was him, and that was then. Now we want 50-50 fights until you lose. And don't dare say you need to rest, because fighters fight.

But Saturday night, Alvarez, minutes after his fourth win in 11 months, a hectic pace for a fighter at his level, said he wouldn't even consider his next bout until January.

"I'll take a little rest," Alvarez said. "I deserve it."

Steve Marcus/The Associated Press
Steve Marcus/The Associated Press

And Usman?

He said he wanted Alvarez, even though they compete in different sports.

"I want to do something that scares me," Usman told reporters after his fight, referring to a match with Alvarez. "Pound-for-pound MMA, pound-for-pound boxing, that scares me. I'm down for those challenges. Who in the world wouldn't want to see that?"

Relax, folks. This fight won't happen. I know I said the same thing about Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor five years ago, but this time I'll be right. In 2017, we wanted to see what would happen when a top mixed martial artist boxed against a 40-year-old version of the best boxer of his generation. The answer was a one-sided drubbing that made big money for everyone involved. Mayweather's guarantee was $100 million US, and McGregor's was $30 million.

From a competitive standpoint, Usman would probably fare worse than McGregor did. Alvarez is a heavier puncher than Mayweather was, and, at 31, is still active and in his prime. He wouldn't need three rounds to scrub off ring rust. He could just get to punching.

'Of course we want the money'

As for the money?

Given what we know, and can reasonably infer, about UFC payouts, even a fraction of McGregor's guarantee for the Mayweather fight would represent a massive raise for Usman. The prospect of an eight-figure check could justify Usman campaigning for a boxing match he would lose. Badly.

No, we're not entertaining the possibility that Usman would defeat Alvarez under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in 2022. Yes, I recognize Usman would enter this hypothetical fight with edges in height (six feet, compared to five feet eight inches for Alvarez) and reach (76 inches to 70.5). But Alvarez competes at 168 pounds. All his opponents are taller, with longer arms. But, unlike Usman, they're world-class boxers.

Alex Menendez/Getty Images
Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Alvarez put dents in all of them. In 2019 he turned Sergey Kovalev's lights out to win a light-heavyweight title. This past May he broke Billy Joe Saunders' face with a right uppercut. Saunders might never fight again. And last weekend, Alvarez dismantled Plant to annex the IBF title.

Thanks to Mayweather-McGregor, we know how an MMA fighter's striking skills translate to high-level boxing. The same way DK Metcalf's all-NFL speed crosses over to world class sprinting. Partially, but not well enough to beat world champions in their specialty.

At some level Usman must recognize the skill gap between himself and Alvarez as boxers, but the fight might still make sense for him if he can talk his way into it.

"Of course we want the money," Usman said.

Boxing pay vs. MMA pay

Between-the-lines reading: UFC headliners are underpaid compared with boxers of similar stature.

An analysis at the MMA site Bloody Elbow points out that while the average UFC fighter payout has increased 600 per cent since 2005, the company's annual revenue is up 1,800 per cent over that same span. And profit? It's 63 times higher than in 2005. From year to year, fighter payouts hover between 15 and 22 per cent of total revenue.

Contrast that figure to the NHL, where the salary cap is based on an even split of hockey-related revenue, and the appeal of an Alvarez fight to a UFC champ like Usman becomes clearer. Imagine how NHL salaries would look if ownership kept 80 per cent of revenue. If that happened, we might never break the cycle of lockouts and strikes.

UFC payouts are difficult to calculate. Guarantees, filed with local athletic commissions, often go public, so we know Usman grossed at least $500,000 for his first fight with Covington in 2019. But headliners like Usman receive a cut of pay-per-view sales, and, like other fighters on the card, earn extra pay for wins, dominating performances and spectacular finishes.

So $500,000 can turn into $1 million, or $1.5 million, or more.

But it doesn't turn into $40 million, Alvarez's guarantee as the A-side in last Saturday's fight. And it likely doesn't grow to $10 million, Plant's payday as the B-side.

Both boxers will likely cash in pay-per-view bonuses, and each had more freedom to strike sponsorship deals than fighters enjoy in the UFC, where the organization controls major partnerships, and factors that revenue into baseline paydays.

Add up those numbers and circumstances, and the appeal of an Alvarez bout becomes apparent. Saturday night, White and Usman shared a back-and-forth over the proposed crossover bout.

"I watched the Canelo fight tonight," White said. "He don't want to fight Canelo."

"Dana doesn't know that," Usman said.

White might be right. A proud competitor like Usman doesn't want to lose — and against Alvarez, in a boxing match, he would.

But if Usman can manage to affix his signature to a contract that guarantees an Alvarez bout and a life-changing payday, he'll be a winner before the opening bell sounds.

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