There are three basic types of MMA fans, in my experience: those who love pro wrestling, those who are more or less indifferent, and those who hate it unequivocally. Of course there’s some middle ground, but not much.
Pro wrestling is a lot like hot dogs in that sense. Either you can ignore the obvious problems and enjoy it, or you can’t – and by the time you’re an adult you’ve probably made up your mind where you stand on the issue.
But something is happening in the tenuous link between pro wrestling and MMA. Promoters on both sides are starting to see the potential for profitability by incorporating aspects of the other. Brock Lesnar found a big payday when he left the WWE for the UFC, while the Undertaker now dons MMA gloves and finishes fights with something resembling a gogoplata. Nobody tell Nick Diaz about that, by the way. It will only make him mad.
It’s nothing new for MMA fighters to decide they might be better served financially if they left real fighting for scripted competition. Ken Shamrock, Don Frye, and Josh Barnett (to name just a few) have all heard that particular siren’s song. But recently more pro wrestlers are starting to consider MMA as a career choice. Kurt Angle toyed with the idea, and Bobby Lashley is said to be doing the same.
The question is, does this represent a natural evolution, or a blurring of the lines between two very different sports? Is it a good idea for MMA to welcome more pro wrestlers into its ranks?
Consider the pros: wrestling has an enormous fan base. They pack arenas on a weekly basis and enjoy a type of fan loyalty that borders on fanaticism. It’s not far-fetched to think that a Brock Lesnar or a Bobby Lashley might get some of those fans to give MMA a chance, and when they do they might discover that real fighting is pretty entertaining too. More fans means bigger shows, which means more money, which – as the Notorious BIG reminds us – means more problems.
Which brings me to the cons: pro wrestling is fake. Not fake in the sense that it isn’t athletically challenging or that the people who do it at the highest level aren’t tough as a coffin nail. They are. The travel schedule alone is a killer, to say nothing of getting hit with folding chairs and being dropped on your head a couple of times a week. But it’s fake in the sense that it’s not legitimate athletic competition. The outcome is scripted. The storylines and characters are contrived by writers.
Why does that matter for MMA? There are a couple different reasons. For one, a lot of people don’t know what to make of MMA right now. As a sport trying to gain mainstream acceptance, it’s teetering on a precipice. An influx of pro wrestlers might make some of the skeptics question its authenticity. It also might draw the wrong kind of media attention if a pro wrestler tries to trade on his WWE persona after becoming an MMA fighter, and to some extent it’s almost impossible not to.
But we have to face an uncomfortable truth about pro fighting in general, which is that there is no easier sport to fix. All you have to do is pay off one man. In MMA it’s particularly easy, because he doesn’t even have to feign a knockout. He can just walk into a submission. What could be simpler?
I’m not suggesting that pro wrestlers would necessarily be more likely to fix fights than anyone else. Being a former pro wrestler doesn’t say anything about a man’s ethical code or his willingness to take a dive, and plenty of guys who weren’t pro wrestlers have worked fights in the past.
But because it’s so easy to fix a fight, MMA has to be especially vigilant about making sure it doesn’t happen. Nothing is as important as the integrity of the sport. Once people can’t believe that what they’re seeing is completely real, once they even have cause to ask the question, the sport is weaker for it. That’s why MMA organizations need to be very careful about the way they promote former wrestling stars.
That said, MMA presents excellent opportunities for plenty of college wrestlers who previously had their options severely limited. Before MMA became popular and profitable they could try to make the Olympic team, try to get a spot on a pro wrestling roster, or go ahead and start working for a living like the rest of us talentless schmucks. Now they have a chance to continue as legitimate professional athletes, and you can see why that might appeal to them.
They shouldn’t be denied that chance or stigmatized for previous career choices. At the same time, this is potentially dangerous ground, and MMA organizations need to tread lightly on it. In this strange relationship, they’re the ones who have the most to lose.