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Pro-Wrestlers in MMA: It Just Makes Cents

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From the early days of the sport, professional wrestlers were a big part of mixed martial arts, especially in Japan. The role "pro-wrestling tactics" had in MMA really took off in 2002 when Ken Shamrock fought Tito Ortiz. They laid mainly dormant for several years until Brock Lesnar entered the sport. With Lesnar's success, it's been proven that pro-wrestlers draw in MMA.

Monday night, MMA For Real's Matt Bishop and Lights Out Radio's Forrest Lynn discussed the impact of professional wrestlers on mixed martial arts.

Matt Bishop: Forrest, the success of pro-wrestlers in MMA really started in Japan, where there was tremendous crossover. Can you explain a little bit of what made pro-wrestlers so successful, drawing-card wise, in MMA.

Forrest Lynn: Quite simply, you're taking an already proven commodity for the most part (the popular pro wrestler) and inserting him into a new realm. Pro-wrestling is a predetermined sport under the guise of being actual competition, so the interest is natural in wanting to see if the so-called fake can also be legitimate. Popular pro-wrestlers bring an audience who is already willing to pay to see them, something most fighters don't enjoy. I would say 90 percent of the famous and most popular Japanese fighters have strong or direct ties to pro-wrestling, even fighters who never actually competed in pro-wrestling like Mirko Cro Cop. The ones who lack pro-wrestling ties were not nearly as popular in Japan as those who had them.

You have to remember that Pride existed originally only for a pro-wrestler to challenge the famous Gracie family. Without Nobuhiko Takada as an opponent (who was seen as the strongest and most legitimate of all the pro-wrestlers due to his "shoot" style), Pride would have never even happened, let alone became popular. The ratings and box office receipts Takada drew encouraged Pride's backers to go forward and attracted television executives to the product

MB: To me, that's really where the Japanese fans differ with the American fans. It is just seeing them compete in a different realm. In America, professional wrestling is looked at with quite the stigma. Even though pro-wrestlers had been doing a ton of business in Japan, the first time we really saw that model be success in the U.S. was when Ken Shamrock fought Tito Ortiz in 2002. That fight did so much business for the UFC compared to what it did at the time, but a lot of people panned it for being promoted like it was pro-wrestling. To this day, some Americans still have problems with how many parallels there are being MMA and pro-wrestling. I guess my question is: How critical of a figure was Ken Shamrock is getting over that hump, so to speak, and show pro-wrestlers can be a big-time draw in MMA?

FL: I think a big part of the backlash against so-called pro wrestling tactics is mostly due to lack of exposure to the history of promoting combat sports. The audience for MMA is a young, mostly white one. Most of them simply weren't alive for the days of Muhammad Ali, who has actually said he got his entire "gimmick" and gift of gab from growing up watching pro-wrestling in Kentucky. If no one beats their chest and sticks their neck out and talks a little louder than they should, no one would hear it or notice it. What is now perceived as "pro-wrestling" build-up is the same types of things that used to sell Muhammad Ali fights. It hasn't changed. Shamrock is interesting because not only was he one of the original MMA pioneers in Pancrase, he was a pro-wrestler before that in the late 1980s before returning to it with the WWF. Actually almost all of his contemporaries in Pancrase were also pro-wrestlers, either before or after that promotion's original heyday.

But yeah, Shamrock was definitely a big part of the promotional aspect of it, because now Tito Ortiz finally had a foil. His opponents up until Shamrock were basically like fighting nobody. Vladimir Matyushenko and Yuki Kondo were not going to drum up interest for a fight, so it left Ortiz to do all of the posturing and trash talking himself. That didn't draw tremendously well, but Tito was still a very well known and polarizing figure. With Shamrock to play off of that, it brought out the best in both of them and maximized the potential of the fight to make money. You can really only draw big if your opponent is willing to go along with it.

MB: Although many people like to think MMA is about competition, it really is about money, and most of the fighters who compete at the higher level realize this. I think this is why the pro-wrestlers have so much success. They understand what it takes to build a fight, and that's why Shamrock/Ortiz did such big business. That's why it's hard to fathom why we didn't have a big-time pro-wrestler head into MMA until Brock Lesnar did (the lack of money was a huge part of it, I know). But now, Brock Lesnar has really revolutionized the sport. To me, his success, and it is limited, but at a very-high level, has really opened a lot of doors, not to mention a lot of eyes.

FL: Brock has the perfect combination of all the things a lot of people hate. He's a physical freak, just an absolutely massive human being. That in and of itself makes a lot of people feel negative toward him whether they realize it or not: they can't look like him no matter what they do. It's hard for some people to even rationalize his sheer mass. They assume he has to be on steroids. Being that big, it's important to cut a menacing figure: Lesnar knows that. He wants to appear unlikable, mean, a bully. It plays on people's already wild stereotypes. He is also the biggest star of all the pro-wrestlers to ever do MMA in America (his popularity level was usurped by several wrestlers who did MMA in Japan), so you know he's going to be incredibly well-known right of the gate. He's also really talented, which is what ultimately kept Shamrock from being a superstar- he just couldn't win the fights. Brock can.

But don't get it twisted, this sport is all about money, like you said. Anyone who competes at the very top level should look out for themselves at every level: your career, in comparison to the average job, is going to be incredibly short. Your relevance in that time could even be shorter than your actual career. You are destroying your body and pushing it to its very human limits. Your life is entirely consumed by training, dieting, watching film, traveling. You most likely won't be able to live a normal life after you're done. That's why it's important to do literally everything you can to make as much money as you can- your time is short. Will it matter what some random Internet site thinks of you when you're 45 and have enough money to pay for the college education of half the kids living in your town? Nope. (It also doesn't matter at any other point in time, but I digress.)

MB: I really like what Brock Lesnar does. He knows what he has, and like you said, plays it up. But him being the first big-name pro-wrestler to come over almost hurts those coming after him, doesn't it? Lesnar, as stated, is a complete freak of nature. He has the physical tools and the natural skill to be successful in this sport. Now you have people like Bobby Lashley and quite possibly Batista, who have lesser physical gifts but still will be compared to Lesnar because they were pro-wrestlers when really, they don't have much in common outside of that.

FL: Well, Lashley and Lesnar are a little different than Dave Batista. They have legitimate backgrounds, whereas Batista has nothing. Batista is just a curiosity.

MB: Well, I was referring more to Lashley, but I do think expectations have been tempered a bit on him. But at first, everybody thought he should be exactly like Lesnar and be on the fast-track to big-time success. Now people are starting to realize he's a little more limited. Still, though, he remains a big attraction, which really says something to the interest of pro-wrestling fans in MMA when these fighters fight.

FL: Quite simply, they're more popular than a lot of MMA fighters will ever be. How many people watch the WWE a week total, around 8 or 9 million? And that number is just in the US.

Lashley wasn't even a particularly popular wrestler, to the best of my knowledge. When a pro-wrestler goes into MMA, he is instantly afforded this "this guy is one of ours" status by pro-wrestling fans. They rally around anyone they see as one of their own, as kind of a communal support base.

MB: Exactly! And that's why it baffles me why some MMA fans are so high-and-mighty when it comes to pro-wrestlers being involved. Because, simply put, they bring more eyeballs to the sport. Will they stick around? Who knows, but more eyeballs on the sport means it has a better chance to grow.

FL: Well, MMA fans are of the snobbiest and most obnoxious people living on this planet. Some of them have a serious moral objection to a former world boxing champion in James Toney competing in their sacred sport. I'd rather watch James Toney fight and lose than some of the truly, truly terrible fights I've seen in MMA history. At least Toney has one really great skill. There's thousands of MMA fighters out there that have less than zero skills.

For a fanbase to preach to the "masses" that they need to open up their eyes and accept this new sport, they themselves need to open up their eyes as well.

MB: You know, I'm so glad you brought up James Toney, because this is a guy who is in the same exact boat as the professional wrestlers. He's coming with a lot of notoriety from another sport into MMA and he is being met with such negative attraction. The backlash against Toney is like he's Kimbo or something. He's another guy who is going to make a lot of money for the UFC and maybe get some people who weren't into MMA into the sport. Boy, that's so terrible.

FL: Well, Toney is a curiosity, but he's a curiosity with some serious talent. He won't be around long, but he is the best boxer to ever compete in a sanctioned MMA fight. That has to count for something. He's going to get a lot of people upset and get a lot of people to order the PPV he's on, and the atmosphere for that fight will be totally electric. And people are going to have a great time watching it, but then wring their hands afterward and try to pretend they didn't.

But honestly, to act like the sanctity of MMA is being ruined when the UFC has staged such fights as Marcio Cruz vs. Keigo Kunihara is a little bit on the absurd side.

MB: Exactly. It's basically a ton of hypocrisy going on. Now, do you think there will ever be a point where pro-wrestlers coming into MMA will not draw?

FL: I think the ones who have the chops to do it will always draw, but that field has basically been exhausted already. With the talent being scouted into pro wrestling now being basically devoid of amateur athletic backgrounds, I don't see it being something particularly en vogue.

MB: Excellent. Well, I want to thank you for the discussion today, Forrest.

FL: If James Toney fought Brock Lesnar, would the internet explode? I wonder. Thanks Matt.