(McMahon poses with legendary WWE manager Paul Bearer (RIP). / Photo via Getty)
By Matt Saccaro
MMA history contains many compelling “what ifs” that could’ve changed the fate of the sport. If one path is taken, disaster. If another path is taken, absolution.
Some “what ifs” are more compelling than others. Not much changes if Floyd Sword or Rudyard Moncayo decides to never step into the cage. The timeline remains intact if Anderson Silva doesn’t get a DQ loss against Yushin Okami at Rumble on the Rock. But there are scenarios where the entire sport can change — where the timeline can split like in Back to the Future Part II.
This is the start of a series at CagePotato where we examine such scenarios, using historical fact to help create realistic historical fiction. Here is our first historical conundrum:
What if Vince McMahon Purchased the UFC in 2001?
In 2001, Vince McMahon’s WWE (then WWF) purchased the decaying WCW and the fledgling, bankrupt ECW. That year, McMahon’s XFL hosted its first (and only) season. It was quite a year for Vinny Mac. He destroyed his two rivals and expanded into a new sport.
2001 was also the year that Zuffa purchased the UFC from the company’s original owners, SEG. SEG was cash-strapped and could no longer carry the burden of running an MMA promotion in a country that was, at the time, hostile to MMA. The Fertitta Brothers bailed out Bob Meyrowitz and SEG, and the rest is history.
But what if, for one reason or another, The Fertitta brothers didn’t buy the UFC and give it to Dana White like they were tossing their kid the keys to the Ferrari? What if Vince McMahon decided to add another three letters to his shopping list…U, F, and C?
After all, it was those letters — not anything else — that were the most important. Lorenzo Fertitta said the following to Fighters Only Magazine:
“I had my attorneys tell me that I was crazy because I wasn’t buying anything. I was paying $2 million and they were saying ‘What are you getting?’ And I said ‘What you don’t understand is I’m getting the most valuable thing that I could possibly have, which is those three letters: UFC. That is what’s going to make this thing work. Everybody knows that brand, whether they like it or they don’t like it, they react to it.’”
So what if Vince wound up with those letters and the power of the UFC brand?
It would’ve been bad — sport-killing level bad.
Commenters on MMA articles are always quick to point out that the WWE is “fake” and “gay” but what they likely don’t know is that the WWE once experimented with real, unscripted fighting in the form of quasi-mixed martial arts bouts in the late 1990s. It was a “shoot fighting” tournament called Brawl for All. And it sucked.
MMA and pro wrestling historian Jonathan Snowden explained the WWE’s reasoning behind this horrible tournament in his book Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling:
Actual mat wrestling on a professional wrestling program was a thing of the distant past. Brawl for All wasn’t a plan to bring it back either. Instead, it was busy-work for the WWF’s extra talent, guys kind of milling around in the back that the bookers had no plans for. They didn’t want to let anyone go; after all, their competitor down south could scoop them up and potentially make something out of them. WWF had taken a WCW castoff, “Stunning” Steve Austin, and made him the biggest star in the industry.
There’s also some more to the Brawl for All story. The WWE wanted “Dr. Death” Steve Williams to win the tournament. It was supposed to enhance Williams’ tough-guy street cred en route to booking him in a big-money feud with Steve Austin. The WWE learned why wrestlers started fixing fights in the first place: real fights don’t always end in the most profitable outcome. Williams didn’t win. He was KTFO’d by the eventual tournament winner, Bart Gunn. After Gunn won the tournament, the WWE booked him in a legit fight with famed gimmick boxer Butterbean at WrestleMania. Butterbean smashed Gunn’s brain into atoms. Vince’s experiment in real fighting ended…but not in our alternate reality.
From the way that Vince used “MMA” historically, we can make educated guesses as to how he’d use it in a timeline where he finds himself at the helm of the UFC in 2001. What does he do?
He botches it worse than Brock Lesnar’s shooting star press.
The WWE’s roster was bloated in 2001. They had their own WWE “superstars” and the imports from WCW and ECW. In real history, the WWE begins “brand extension” in an attempt to mitigate this problem. They treated their shows, Raw and Smackdown, as separate brands so as to create “competition” between them. They even had a “draft” where each brand chose different wrestlers.
But in the alternate reality where Vince McMahon owned the UFC, what’s to say that McMahon didn’t set up the UFC as some sort of hybrid MMA-pro wrestling organization, as Pancrase on steroids (figuratively and literally)?
In this reality, the WWE would send its mid and low carders to the UFC for the same reasons they pushed their mid and low carders into Brawl for All: A. They weren’t doing anything with them anyway. B. You could potentially turn one into a star through their abilities at beating up untrained fighters.
Thus, the UFC becomes akin to the old Toughman Contests on FX except with more marketing dollars and glitz behind it. Even if the product caught on, the WWE name would’ve tainted anything that happened in the cage. Who would believe a great comeback was really a great comeback and not a work if the UFC and the WWE were run by the same people?
Questions like this, and the constant shuffling of superstars between the UFC and the WWE, would blur the lines between real and fake, and ultimately lead to MMA and pro wrestling being seen as one in the same.
Meanwhile, legitimate MMA would live on in Japan until Pride’s demise, while in the United States, a slew of King of the Cage-level promotions would unfortunately represent the biggest organizations that true fighters could ply their craft in.
This alternate reality is a sad one for the sport. The UFC becomes a failure akin to the XFL and actual MMA fighters struggle in obscurity.