How will Mayweather-McGregor stack up with the other biggest money fights in boxing history?
Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs Conor McGregor is threatening to be the biggest fight – biggest money wise at least – in boxing history. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering the fact that one of its biggest selling points is that it will make a tremendous amount of money. It is being billed as “The Money Fight” after all.
“It is well to recognise that finance was the basis of the prize-ring from the first,” wrote William Biggs Boulton when describing the earliest days of boxing. This has been true from the times of James Figg, boxing’s first recognized champion, until today, as each generation found news ways to monetize the sport.
In fact, the very first written rules for the sport, which were only seven in number and penned by Jack Broughton in 1743, included one that governed how purses should be split. The sport was called “prize-fighting” for a reason, after all.
In 1750 Jack Broughton took part in one of the biggest fights of his era, the 18th century equivalent of Mayweather-Pacquiao. It was against Jack Slack and attracted much excitement amongst the “fancy,” as the collection of boxing enthusiasts who watched and bet on matches in London were known.
In these early days, the only sources of revenue for a boxing match were the live audience, limited by first geography and also awareness of the contest, and gambling. In the case of Broughton and Slack, enough was collected at the gate to offer a £600 purse, with the winners’ split being 2/3 as was typical at the time. In addition the two men, or more specifically their backers, wagered £200 a side, meaning that the winner would walk away with £600, the loser nothing. In the end Jack Slack won the match and the £600 (around 175,000 USD in today’s dollars) while Jack Broughton’s backer, the Duke of Cumberland, reportedly lost £10,000 (almost 3 million USD today) foolishly matching bets at 10-1 odds.
By the end of the 19th century the telegraph and the newspaper had drastically altered the economics of a match. Thanks to first wired and then wireless communications, a newspaper’s coverage of a boxing match was no longer limited to their own city. Now the entire nation, or even much of the world, could learn not only the results of the big match but also follow the daily happenings of the champion and his challenger. As newspapers fed the appetite of their readers for stories of Sullivan, Fitzsimmons, Corbett, Kilrain, or Paddy Ryan, they also served as promoters and even financial backers for some pugilists.
When James L. Sullivan defended his title against James Corbett in 1892 interest was so high thanks to the endless newspaper coverage that they were able to sell 10,000 tickets priced between $5 to $15 for a total live gate of $125,000 ($3.2 million today with inflation). Fans came to New Orleans from all across the country (many by another innovation, the train) to watch the match at the Olympic Club. The size of purses had grown significantly from the time of Broughton as well. The winner-take-all purse was $25,000 plus each competitor also put up a side bet of $10,000, so that the winner, Corbett, ended up earning $35,000 (the equivalent of $906,120 today) while the loser, Sullivan, was out $10,000 ( $258,890 today).
By the time Jack Johnson and James Jeffries was held in 1910, the first “Fight of the Century” of the 20th Century, a new medium had added another potentially lucrative source of revenue: motion pictures. In addition to the live crowd in Nevada, which numbered 18,020 spectators and generated a $270,755 gate, film cameras captured the action with the intent of exhibiting a motion picture around the world. It was estimated before the event that the film rights would be worth more than a million dollars but, in the wake of the terrible racial violence that followed Johnson’s victory, congress passed the Rodenberg Act that prohibited the interstate transportation of prizefight films. Fortunately for the contestants they had sold their rights to the film in advance, with Jeffries collecting $66,000 and Johnson $50,000. With the addition of the $101,000 purse that was split 60/40 in favor of the winner and the $10,000 signing bonus each received, Johnson made the equivalent of $3 million in today’s dollars and Jeffries $2.9 million.
Another means of transmission, radio, was introduced at the 1921 “Battle of the Century” between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. Over a million people are estimated to have heard the broadcast live, with halls all over the country charging for the privilege of listening to the match.
The amount made from radio, however, was dwarfed by what was made at the gate. Because New York had a $15 maximum on ticket prices, the promoter Tex Rickard (who also promoted Johnson-Jeffries) borrowed $250,000 to build his own 91,000-seat arena in New Jersey. Tickets were priced from $5.50 to $50 generating a gate of $1,789,238, the first ever million-dollar gate (a little over $24 million in today’s dollars). The fight was also filmed, and while the Rodenberg Act should have limited its distribution, it is thought to have made millions, mostly for Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty who was charged with illegally distributing the film.
For the match, Dempsey was guaranteed $300,000 ($3.9 million today after adjusting for inflation) and Carpentier $200,000 ($2.6 million today). In addition the two boxers split 25% of the motion picture rights.
In 1927 Tex Rickard promoted a rematch between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, the famous “Long Count”, that drew nearly 105,000 fans and a gate of $2,858,660 (over 40 million in todays dollars). Jack Dempsey received a purse of $447,500 ($6.3 million today) while Gene Tunney received $1 million dollars ($14.2 million today), $9,555 of it his own money he paid Tex Rickard so that the check would be an even million. This time seventy-four radio stations carried the bout, broadcasting to a potential audience of 50 million listeners.
By the time Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali’s 1971 “Fight of the Century” took place, a new means of transmission had been introduced, closed circuit.
“When Ali and Frazier fought,” recalled Bob Arum to Dan Rafael, “we sent the signal on telephone lines, and we could only reach less than 400 locations. That’s all the phone company could service. We didn’t have enough closed circuit locations. Every single closed circuit location was sold out, and people were running around to find places [to watch the fight].”
Fans were changed anywhere from $5 to $15 to watch the bout from these closed circuit locations, with over $20 million in revenue generated. Another $4 million from 10 closed circuit commercials. At Madison Square Garden 20,445 watched live, generating a gate of $1.5 million ($9 million in 2017 dollars). Ringside seats had cost $150 (almost $900 today); balcony seats $20 ($120 today).
Outside the US and Canada, fans watched on regular television. It was broadcast in 12 different languages with the viewing audience being an estimated 300 million. Foreign rights totaled $4.3 million. In total the fight is thought to have generated a gross total of $30 million dollars (over $180 million today) while promoter Jerry Perenchio made $20 million before expenses. Both Frazier and Ali had been guaranteed $2.5 million each ($14.5 million today) for their purses.
Three years later, Hank Schwartz and Don King promoted the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammed Ali and then heavyweight champion, George Foreman. The two boxers were each paid $5 million ($25 million today), which was paid in two $100,000 advances while the remaining $4.8 million was deposited in a bank, ready to be withdrawn the day after the match, An additional $100,000 for each was used to pay for their training. Besides the boxers, publicity, insurance, telephones, travel. lawyers, office staffing and other promotional expenses totaled $1.5 million.
A $1.25 million site fee was paid to hold the event in Kinshasa, Congo. The fight was broadcast on closed-circuit television at close to 400 locations across the United States and Canada. Tickets, some 3 million were made available, were $20 apiece, with the houses having to guarantee $7 per seat in advance, against 60 percent of the gross. Television and radio rights were sold around the world. A British distributer paid $600,000 to air it on closed-circuit television. Other European countries paid similar amounts to air it on public TV. It is estimated that the television advertising brought in a few million more and “maybe an equal amount on such random items as T-shirts, souvenirs ash trays, medallions, and lithographs of the fighters.” Films of the contest would provide a small income for years to come. In total the fight may have generated as much $30 million ($180 million today).
The third and final fight in the legendary Ali-Frazier trilogy generated even more money. The 1975 Don King promoted “Thrilla in Manilla” was shown at close to 400 closed-circuit television locations in North America and broadcast to 68 countries around the globe. It also received millions from the Ferdinand Marcos government in the Philipines. According to the 1974 Foukien Times Philippines Yearbook “the Philippines exposure was $4 million while the King people put in $5.5 million. Ali’s purse was $4.5 million against 43% and Frazier’s $2 million against 22%.” It is estimated that in the end Ali made about $9 million total ($41 million in todays dollars) and Frazier roughly $5 million (the equivalent of almost $23 million today).
By the early 80s it was apparent that pay-per-view would soon become a major force in the business. Larry Holmes vs Gerry Cooney grossed over $45 million, with $8.4 million from the live gate, over $20 million from closed circuit, and more than $5 million from the relatively new payperview. The fight is estimated to have netted $30 million ($75 million today) with each boxer to receive 35% of the net while their managers, Don King for Holmes and Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport for Cooney, to each get 15%. Holmes and Cooney reportedly made around $10 million apiece, which is about $25 million today after inflation. (Don King was also accused of stealing $2 or $3 million of Holmes’ purse)
Marvin Hagler vs Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987 would be the biggest pay-per-view fight of the 80s along with being one of the biggest non heavyweight fights in history. The fight is thought to have grossed $78 million, which, after inflation, would be $168 million today. 150,000 pay-per-views were reportedly sold along with 3 million tickets to view the fight at 1600 different closed circuit locations. HBO also paid over $3 million for the rebroadcast rights. Live gate would add another $6.1 million.
Hagler is reported to have made $20 million (approximately $43 million today) from the match while Leonard ended up with $12 million (or $26 million today).
By the time of Tyson and Holyfield 2 was held in 1997 pay-per-view had replaced closed circuit television as the primary revenue stream. While the closed circuit numbers were still huge, 1,625 locations in the United States and $6 million ($9 million today) in ticket sales, this was dwarfed by the pay-per-view numbers. Domestic pay-per-views were just under 2 million, generating almost $100 million ($151 million today), a record that stood until 2007’s De La Hoya-Mayweather bout. The fight also produced a record gate, $17.28 million at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It was seen in 97 foreign countries, generating sales of over $21 million ($32 million today), including sponsorship. Tyson earned $30 million ($45 million in 2015 dollar), while Holyfield got $35 million ($53 million today).
While Mayweather’s bouts with Oscar De La Hoya and Canelo Alvarez set records, it was his match with Manny Pacquiao that rewrote the rulebook. The previous gate record (held by Mayweather vs Alvarez) was smashed, with $72 million tickets sold for the MGM Grand. Another $6.9 million was made from the 46,000 seats sold to watch it on closed circuit at the MGM Resorts International properties in Las Vegas. Nearly $19 million more was generated by closed circuit screenings at the nearly 5,000 bars, theaters, and commercial properties that presented the match.
Around 4.6 million pay-per-views were sold in the US and Canada generating over $400 million. Sponsors brought in $25 million, while $40 million more came in by foreign rights. In total the fight grossed over $600 million.
Pacquiao is thought to have made around $160 million, while Mayweather earned more than $250 million for the single fight.
While Mayweather vs Pacquiao currently occupies the spot as the highest grossing money fight of all time, we’ll have to wait until after August 26 to see if Maywearther vs McGregor eclipses it.