Some pro wrestling fans don’t much like when the wrestling media delves into the topic of mixed martial arts. But, to be sure, many of the lessons of the octagon can be applied to the squared circle. And, perhaps, never did the wrestling business have more to learn from the MMA business than from this coming Saturday’s big UFC 116 show.
Lesson #1: Brock Lesnar is a star: WWE may never quite realize how special a person it had on its hands in the man they dubbed as “The Next Big Thing.” As it turns out, they were right – but Lesnar became that big thing not in WWE, but in UFC, where he is inarguably the biggest draw in the history of the business. And that’s no surprise. Lesnar, who battles Shane Carwin for the undisputed heavyweight title this Saturday, is the perfect combination of gifted athlete, imposing big man, and charismatic performer. In many ways, he was exactly the kind of star that the wrestling business longs for. Unfortunately, Lesnar never quite developed a passion for the sport. It probably didn’t help that Lesnar’s wrestling career coincided with a relatively down business period for WWE – in between the historic boon of the Monday Night War and the popularity generated by John Cena, Batista, Rey Mysterio, and others once they became main event stars. Who knows how much better WWE would be doing today if Lesnar stuck around?
Lesson #2: WWE could still be making money off of Brock Lesnar: Perhaps not since The Rock has an ex-WWE performer achieved such mainstream success. Lesnar is the centerpiece of a company whose pay-per-view numbers are dwarfing those of WWE, and that is receiving the kind of mainstream media attention that WWE wishes it could. Why not take advantage of Brock’s star power by reminding everyone that they had a hand in creating it? Put out a Brock Lesnar DVD featuring some of his best matches and interviews with WWE superstars who worked with Lesnar. Extend an olive branch to Lesnar to see if he’d be interested in making an appearance on WWE television – even if it is just a satellite interview. Heck, offer to induct him into the WWE Hall of Fame. McMahon may harbor a little resentment toward UFC for cutting into his pay-per-view business, but he’d be foolish to not try to cash in on an obvious money-making opportunity.
Lesson #3: There’s still a big pay per view audience out there: Vince McMahon has blamed WWE's sagging pay-per-view buy rates on everything from the economy to viewing parties. And yet, while some WWE pay-per-views barely teeter around the 100,000 buy mark – and TNA pay per views draw just a tiny fraction of that - UFC is still regularly hovering around 1 million buys – a mark even WrestleMania couldn’t reach. WWE and TNA have both tried to offset the declining revenues by jacking up the price of each pay-per-view, but in the process may just be driving many fans away. It’s obvious that UFC is offering fans something that the pro wrestling industry is not, and wrestling promoters should be trying to nail down what that is.
Lesson #4: A straight up, one-on-one fight can be a big draw, with the right build up: WWE scrapped many of its usual pay-per-view titles this year in favor of several “concept match” pay-per-views. Their main selling point is not the competitors involved or the storylines between opponents – but rather the gimmick behind a match. In February, it was the Elimination Chamber. At Extreme Rules, it was all the no-disqualification bouts. Last month it was the Fatal 4-Way concept, and this month it’s the Money in the Bank ladder match gimmick. There’s been no evidence that this new formula is working. Meanwhile, this Saturday’s UFC show is likely to do monster business using a time-tested formula – two big-name, credible stars doing battle for the biggest prize in their sport – the undisputed world heavyweight title. To help drive home the importance of the match, UFC – as it usually does – is airing a “countdown” show featuring interviews with the fighters and their trainers. On UFC’s web site, it has compiled the predictions of dozens of fighters and celebrities for the big fight. In other words, UFC is treating Lesnar vs. Carwin as a truly big deal, and so it feels like one.
Lesson #5: A storyline doesn’t have to be complicated to be compelling: Brock Lesnar was the UFC heavyweight champ, but he took some time off due to a health problem. In the meantime, Shane Carwin won a match to decide an interim heavyweight champion. Now Lesnar and Carwin will fight to decide the undisputed championship. Lesnar has looked dominant, but so has Carwin. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. It’s a simple formula that is as old as time. And for decades the pro wrestling business had success selling matches with just such a formula. Unfortunately, wrestling promoters have routinely strayed far from that formula in recent years – instead feeling the need to unnecessarily complicate storylines with layer upon layer of twists and turns. Two stars. A world title. When done right, that’s enough.
Lesson #6: Stars aren't that hard to create: In recent years, wrestling companies have been very slow to develop new main-event stars. They typically argue that it takes years of dues-paying for fans to accept a new face at the top of the cards. But UFC has proven time and again that this is not necessarily true. I’d venture to say that before a few months ago, most casual MMA fans had never even heard of Shane Carwin. Now, he’s one-half of what’s being promoted as the biggest MMA fight in history. How did that happen? Through its promotional machine, UFC told its fans that Carwin was the real deal - a giant of a man who has never lost a match and who has knocked out all his opponents in the first round. Fans have bought the hype (rightfully so) and now accept Carwin as a bona fide top star. In wrestling, the task should be even easier, because unlike with MMA, a fighter’s credentials can be largely exaggerated, if not entirely made up. If WWE wanted to, they could have promoted Bryan Danielson as the greatest technical wrestler in the world before his debut – and some fans would have bought it. Instead, he was treated as an over-rated and under-sized “rookie” on the first season of NXT, and he ultimately failed in his short-lived WWE career. In wrestling, you reap what you sew. Treat a wrestler like a star, and he has a better chance of becoming one. Treat him like a loser, and you’re sealing his fate as one.
- Al Castle
Pro Wrestling Illustrated senior writer