Last Sunday at Summerslam, Paul Heyman did his usual introduction for Brock Lesnar by mimicking the big fight UFC introductions. The Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns match was the main event of the show, which followed the Ronda Rousey destruction of Alexa Bliss to win the Raw Women’s Title. The match before that: former mixed martial artist Shinsuke Nakamura (he hasn’t fought since 2004 but he was 3-1-1).
When did the UFC (and mixed martial arts in general) become the new feeder system for WWE? Look at who was announced as the newest big signing at Takeover: Brooklyn IV: former UFC fighter Matt Riddle. Bobby Lashley is someone who could be in the World Title picture anytime soon. Shayna Baszler is rumored to be called up to the main roster pretty soon, not to mention her fellow Four Horsewomen Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir both being down in NXT.
There’s some serious talent here.
It’s not just in WWE either, as former UFC fighter Tom Lawlor is a big deal in Major League Wrestling and Jake Hager (Jack Swagger) is signed with Bellator while also wrestling. For some reason every wrestling company loves to bring in UFC fighters, with only TNA managing to botch it with King Mo and Tito Ortiz, but that’s to be expected given their track record (to be fair, they could probably pull it off today).
So why mixed martial arts? Why does it have such a connection to wrestling that makes it so easy for the fighters to come over to the wrestling world? Well aside from the obvious connection to combat sports, today we’re going to be looking at the connections between the two and trying to find out why the UFC has become one of the biggest talent pools that the WWE has had in years.
Let’s start with the obvious: professional wrestling and mixed martial arts are rather similar in nature. It basically comes down to real fights vs. fake fights and if you can teach the real fighters how to make things look face, they’ve turned from mixed martial artists to professional wrestlers who have a legitimate sports background. The combat skills alone are more than strong enough to carry them to a pretty decent career and if they have the charisma to go with it, the sky is the limit to where you can go.
Just being able to do a few suplexes, some holds and strike is about as solid of a groundwork as you can get in wrestling. Teach the fighters how to take bumps and you have a lot of the hard work already taken care of. Steve Austin has described his time in wrestling school as bumping and tumbling plus a few wrestling holds. If you have a basic knowledge of mixed martial arts (and a UFC/Bellator fighter would), you’ve got most of that covered. Instead of spending six months learning it, these people can move straight ahead without much effort.
Think this might work in WWE?
The same thing ties in to the character and that character’s credibility. Need someone to believe they’re a top level athlete? Mention that they fought in the UFC. It’s a guaranteed way to make fans believe in them because they can fight with the best in the world. Look at Kurt Angle’s debut. How much credibility did he have because he was an Olympic gold medalist? So what if he wasn’t burning up the mat just yet? Saying that he had been the best amateur wrestler in the world was enough to make people believe in him, which is all you need.
If I’ve seen someone who can beat up other UFC fighters, I know they’ve got a good chance to take out WWE names. But what about the top level stars? Well that’s where things get interesting, which is why Rousey vs. Charlotte has been hyped up as a potential WrestleMania 35 main event. It’s two worlds coming together and we’ll get to see which of the two is better, which is how you sell tickets in the wrestling world.
If you need more proof, look back the Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali fight, the early days of UFC when you would have one discipline against another, or the greatest of all time: Rocky Balboa vs. Thunderlips. Fans are interested in seeing which of the sports come out on top and that makes for some interesting showdowns. Mixed martial artists come into WWE with an established reputation and that’s going to be enough to generate at least a little buzz, which is something they can grow from. But how do these things grow?
If you’ve never heard of this, you need to learn about it.
Well that would be a third area where the two worlds intersect: mixed martial artists, especially headliners, are often asked to use their personalities to help sell pay per view fights. Rousey is known for her death stare, Conor McGregor can talk with the best of anyone, Chael Sonnen is hilarious and Lesnar is….well Lesnar is just scary and that’s enough to make people want to see a show.
Now if you can teach these fighters to do the same thing every single week instead of every few months, they’re well on the path towards having a great career. It’s the same kind of promotion that will do them well in professional wrestling and it’s a lot more important than being able to do anything between the bells. However, if you can do both the physical and the promotional, you’re destined to be a star.
Then there’s the crossover audience. In short, an athlete from another sport is going to bring their fans over to the new one. Why do you think Rousey and Lesnar are featured so strongly? It’s a formula that is hard to screw up: their fans want to see them win and their detractors want to see them lose. It brings in a new set of eyes (and more importantly wallets) to the wrestling game and that’s what matters more than anything else.
It’s the same reason wrestling has brought in so many celebrities over the years. If you can bring in some “real” sports fans, they might stick around to see something else they like. Maybe they see someone beat up Lesnar and want to see where that guy goes. Or what about the woman who pinned Baszler? Is she worth watching more of? She’s fighting someone who looks like a Marine but talks about what a lady she is. Who do you think is going to draw a bigger audience? An unknown wrestler or someone who has drawn money in another sport and can bring their fans with them?
These two are awesome together.
Finally, there’s the much wider UFC audience. The organization just signed a huge deal with ESPN after leaving FOX. There’s a big audience on those two networks and WWE would love to poach some of those people off. It wouldn’t make sense to go after second tier Montenegro team handball players. The UFC has an audience to go with a bunch of athletes who are perfect candidate to go into wrestling. There’s a lot to love there and the wrestling business has figured that out, both on the top and lower levels. Just don’t over saturate the field and everyone can benefit.
Football used to be the place where a lot of wrestlers came from (Goldberg, Steve Austin) and still is to a degree (Reigns) but now it’s more of the well rounded athletes. You can get that from mixed martial arts, and when you look at the other built in benefits, there’s a gold mine waiting right there. It’s easy to see why mixed martial arts and professional wrestling are as close as they are and that’s not changing anytime soon, with very good reason.
Thomas Hall has been a wrestling fan for over thirty years and has seen over 50,000 wrestling matches. He has also been a wrestling reviewer since 2009 with over 5,000 full shows covered. You can find his work at kbwrestlingreviews.com, or check out his Amazon author page with 28 wrestling books. His latest book is the the Complete 2003 Monday Night Raw Reviews.
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