Is the UFC becoming the New Sports-Entertainment? | What Brock Lesnar’s return means to UFC and WWE fans (Editorial)

Written By: Josh Hemeon

It all started the night of UFC 196. Holly Holm was set to defend her Bantamweight title for the first time after a spectacular head kick knockout of longtime champion Rhonda Rousey, and UFC featherweight Champion Connor McGregor was taking on Nate Diaz who took the fight on 11 days notice. It was to be the precursor to the biggest UFC pay-per-view event in history: UFC 200. Many fans were expecting Holly Holm to run through challenger Meisha Tate who, after all, lost twice to Rhonda Rousey who was recently decimated by Holm. Connor McGregor was coming off a 13 second knockout victory over longtime Featherweight champion Jose Aldo and fans were expecting more of the same against an underprepared Nate Diaz. Everything would be set for Holly Holm to rematch Rhonda Rousey and Connor McGregor would repeat Nate’s brother Nick’s famous line (popularized on Midnight Drive-Thru by me!) “Where you at Georges!?!” to Georges St. Pierre who, uncharacteristically, was present ringside.

Then, in the greatest comeback in UFC women’s Bantamweight history, Meisha Tate chokes Holly Holm unconscious capturing the title and dashing the hopes of a Holm vs Rousey rematch. That’s one big money matchup for UFC 200 down the drain. Then McGregor faced off against Diaz. While McGregor managed to bloody Diaz in round one, Diaz picked up the pace in round two, stunning McGregor, swarming him, and choking him out. Although UFC 196 was an enormous financial success taking in 1.5 million PPV buys (second only to UFC 100’s 1.6 million), it endangered the success to UFC 200. A rematch between McGregor and Diaz fell out over a disagreement about media obligations, a rematch between Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones for the Light-heavyweight title was not quite main event of the biggest PPV of all time material, and George St. Pierre would not return due to sponsorship conflicts. Dana needed a big fight and time was running out.

When it was announced at UFC 199 that Brock Lesnar would return for UFC 200, I thought “Good for him!” When I say that, I mean good for Dana White. Now I am not a Dana White fan per se, in fact, Fox commentator and former UFC Heavyweight Brendon Schaub’s assessment of White running the UFC like North Korea is pretty much in line with my view. Dana White makes far more money than any UFC fighter ($20 million salary and a net worth of $500 million) and the billionaire Fertitta brothers who own the UFC recently hired a law firm to lobby against better fighter pay and sanctioning by outside governing bodies; the UFC is essentially run by the mob! I am kidding of course! The UFC provides it’s fighters with generous pay, books matches in a fair and unbiased way, and in no way profits off the suffering of its fighters! PLEASE DON’T MURDER ME!

While I am sure many Midnight Drive-Thru listeners are avid MMA fans, in all likelihood most of you reading this are only interested in this story because of Brock Lesnar. But despite the obvious differences between MMA and professional wrestling, I am willing to bet at least a few WWE fans reading the end of the last paragraph noticed similarities between the WWE and the UFC. After all, Vince McMahon makes far more money than any wrestler he hires, he seems indifferent at best towards the steroid and prescription medication abuse plaguing his performers, and he has resisted any sort of regulation on WWE for decades. Furthermore, both Vince McMahon and Dana White seem to enjoy the celebrity status and are in the spotlight far more than similar sports figures such as Roger Goodell and Gary Bettman.

The similarities between the WWE and UFC do not end with their leaders. While boxing has been doing PPV events for ages, televised boxing events are largely contained to networks like HBO and Showtime except for the odd undercard on sports networks. The UFC however, has been expanding to major networks putting regular fight nights on FOX Sports (FS1) since 2013. Advertising giants have also been getting behind the UFC, most notably the controversial deal selling exclusive advertising rights to Reebok for UFC events. This has allowed the UFC to go from putting out a couple PPVs a year in the early 2000’s to several per month. Sound familiar? Bait PPV buyers with mediocre shows that hype up regular PPV events. This is virtually an exact copy of the WWE business model! If that wasn’t proof enough look at the push for the new UFC Fight Pass subscription! For those who haven’t subscribed, the UFC Fight Pass is basically the WWE Network if it was designed by Crackle. 

What’s next? Could it be a Wrestlemania for MMA? Yes! UFC 200 is essentially that. Normally the UFC does not pay much attention to upcoming PPVs until it is the next one to come up. Aside from naming the fight card the UFC usually begins promoting the next card on the night of the current card. Likewise in WWE there is not a whole lot of talk about Money in the Bank until after Extreme Rules is over. Except when the Royal Rumble comes around WWE fans can start to expect that the storylines emerging during this time will culminate at Wrestlemania months down the road. The UFC has arguably been pushing UFC 200 more than any event in late 2015 to 2016. After UFC 196, drama over the fate of UFC 200 largely overshadowed UFCs 197, 198, and 199 PPVs despite those all being very good cards and mostly having delivered (Yes Jon Jones, I am talking about you when I say mostly!).

Another similarity is the how MMA fights are increasingly being booked based on box office predictions rather than fighter rankings. Rhonda Rousey is no longer considered number one contender for the Bantamweight belt but we are told that upon her return she will face whoever is champion for the title. That’s not so bad given her long championship reign. However, most would agree that Brock Lesnar, having one win and one loss in the UFC (with that win a decision over Heath Herring) would not have gotten a title shot if he was not already a big draw. The stars aligned for Brock in any case and he successfully beat an aging Randy Couture, an injured Frank Mir, and scoring a Homer Simpson style cardio-based victory over heavy handed Shane Carwin. If Lesnar defeats Mark Hunt at UFC 200, a title shot will likely be offered to him.

It is arguably this success in opportunistic booking that led the UFC to ignore rankings for the sake of star power and ratings. According to Brendon Schaub on The Fighter and the Kid podcast, Rhonda Rousey was allegedly allowed to pick her opponents and fight dates in order to work around movie obligations. When Holly Holm decimated Rhonda Rousey at UFC 193 Holm was ranked number eight in the division. This is significant given rumors that Holm was instructed to hold back in her earlier UFC fights fearing that the UFC would book in ways that protected their star. Now, Middleweight champion Michael Bisping is campaigning for a fight with 13th ranked contender Dan Henderson who previously defeated Bisping in 2009 (coincidently also on UFC 100). Yes, there may be a title shot between a champion and a challenger with 12 fighters ranked ahead of him; and why not given the success of WWE style bookings?

Another phenomenon worth consideration is the back and forth flow of MMA fighter and professional wrestlers into each other’s domain. Fighters have been doing this for a long time, with MMA pioneers such as Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn moving to professional wrestling due to the substantial pay increase, especially during the 1990’s. Many WWE bloggers have even been asserting that the WWE needs to court MMA fighters like Conor McGregor and Rhonda Rousey which is ironic since many of these same bloggers rail at the WWE for appealing to celebrity culture. For successful MMA fighters, the WWE is like a retirement plan for when they are no longer competitive in MMA. Why drift to the preliminary card in hopes of regaining past glory when you can cash out on remaining superstardom, no pun intended!

Since Brock Lesnar’s successful first run in the UFC and the correlating rise in fighter pay (at least for the big draws) many professional wrestlers have expressed interest, or have outright participated, in MMA bouts. Kurt Angle is considered a great “what if” given his Olympic wrestling success given MMA’s history of successful wrestling-based fighters. Bobby Lashley and Dave Bautista have had successful bouts in lower profile MMA promotions, and CM Punk is set to make his UFC debut later this year. Could this materialize into professional wrestlers using their stardom for the purpose of becoming main event draws in UFC? And does CM Punk’s delayed UFC debut due to a no-compete clause at least partially make sense given the way things are going?

Dana White’s most successful booking to date was UFC 100 which relied heavily on crossover from WWE fans. It stands to reason that UFC 200 will be an even greater success given the increased popularity of MMA since 2009. This increase in popularity comes in part due to the UFC’s mimicking of sports-entertainment.