Is the WWE making a big mistake by letting Brock Lesnar go back to UFC one more time?
Brock’s been fighting in wrestling rings and steel cages for over 15 years, and if he’s made one thing clear, it’s that he’s selfish. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and that’s neither a compliment nor an insult; it’s the truth, and it’s a truth that he himself concedes. By his own admission, he neither likes people, nor gets along with most of them. He hates traveling. He hates promoting himself, preferring other people to do his talking for him. He’d rather be on his farm in Saskatchewan than amongst a crowd of adoring fans. And that makes him an odd duck in a company that values its “Universe” of fans and its social media outreach.
WWE knew what they were getting when they re-signed Lesnar for a second run in 2012.
Professional wrestling booker and manager Jim Cornette remembers training Lesnar in Ohio Valley Wrestling (the same promotion where he helped train John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista). And like many people, Cornette disliked Lesnar and his “prickish demeanor” from the outset. Most professional wrestlers get into the squared circle, because it’s their childhood dream to do so. Lesnar, on the other hand, was an entitled, bullying jock who didn’t love the business. Lesnar wrestled, according to Cornette, because it was something that he was good at and it was something could make a lot of money doing. As it turned out, both statements are true.
The Beast is selfish, but for the most part, his interests have aligned with the WWE’s. WWE pushed him to the top of the company in under a year, and they covered his weaknesses by pairing him with Paul Heyman, one of the best talkers in the business. At the age of 25, Lesnar became the youngest WWE World Heavyweight Champion in the company’s history. He would later main event Wrestlemania XIX at the same time that his OVW contemporaries were just beginning to establish themselves.
But just a year later, after Wrestlemania XX, Lesnar left the WWE. How could he quit at the peak of his career? Observers were baffled, but they shouldn’t have been that surprised. Lesnar never cared about professional wrestling and its accolades to begin with, and so of course, it was easy for him to walk away from them. As WWE fans, we emotionally invested in Lesnar far more than he ever invested in us, and that made him a natural heel.
The first time Lesnar left the WWE in 2004, it was because he wanted to pursue his personal goal of joining the NFL. Now, in 2016, he’s going back to the UFC for a one-off engagement, to fight at UFC 200. In a recent sit-down interview with Paul Heyman, Lesnar noted that would make a “boatload of money.” Lesnar’s driving reasons, however, are personal. The majority of Lesnar’s UFC career was hampered by two bouts of diverticulitis, and he hopes this latest match will give him some peace of mind about leaving MMA.
"I'm not doing this for fans,” Lesnar said. “If there are fans that are excited that I'm getting back in the Octagon, great. But I'm not doing it for them. I'm doing this for me. This is for me. If by chance, 2 million people want to tune in for me to enjoy myself on July 9, so be it. That's great. That'd be really good and I appreciate that, but I'm not gonna change. This is all about me. I'm sorry. This is all about me. And why should it be about anybody else?"
The UFC is the obvious beneficiary of Lesnar’s decision, however selfish, and they could use the break. In under a year, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, their two most popular, bankable fighters, got badly exposed in the Octagon. Then, the McGregor vs. Diaz rematch fell through. Suddenly, the UFC 200 card lacked mainstream appeal. Lesnar’s addition has restored some much-needed name recognition.
One must give Lesnar credit; he’s not fighting a tomato can on July 9th. He’s fighting an experienced kickboxer and knockout artist named Mark Hunt. Hunt has a solid stand-up game, and he has the power behind his gloves to turn out his opponents’ lights. In fact, he’s won 7 out of his last 11 fights, and he clinched his last two victories with back-to-back knockouts. Meanwhile, Lesnar hasn’t fought in five years. That doesn’t mean Lesnar’s exceptional genetics won’t win the day—after all, he was named a defensive tackle to the Minnesota Vikings without any college football experience. But he’s a lot older now than he was when he tried out for the NFL, and Vegas is opening 2-1 odds in favor of Hunt.
For four years, the WWE has done everything that it can to protect its investment in Lesnar, a part-time Superstar who only wrestles a handful of times per year. He bloodies his opponents, and he beats them soundly. Thirteen German suplexes for Seth Rollins. Sixteen German suplexes for John Cena. An F5 on a pile of chairs for Dean Ambrose. The limited number of dates that he works only adds to his mystique and prestige.
And that’s why even if Lesnar wins this fight, the benefit to the WWE is minimal. Lesnar does not need to be built up any further, nor can he be. He is already the most feared man on the WWE roster. And knocking out Mark Hunt, who the majority of WWE fans have never even heard of, will not add to Brock’s aura.
The aura of intimidation in professional wrestling is increasingly rare; there used to be a time, only a three or four decades ago, when professional wrestling was still believable to a large number of people. Today, however, the fans know too much, and the backstage component of the business is overexposed. There’s no turning back—one can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube—but the best professional wrestling still makes an effort to appear real and legitimate. Brock Lesnar is the rare Superstar who, thanks to his stiff style and fight experience, allows fans to suspend their disbelief.
But if Lesnar is laid out in the middle of the Octagon, bloodied and unconscious, it shatters that illusion. This is the greatest fear whenever anyone from sports entertainment intersects with anyone from legitimate combat sports—that the wrestler will be embarrassed, and professional wrestling will become a bigger punchline to the lay public than it already is.
That fear is based in reality. Back in 1998, the WWE had a shoot competition called the Brawl-For-All, where Superstars (mostly lower level Superstars who were trying to get over) competed in a tough man contest. The contest was a disaster—multiple Superstars were seriously injured, none of the fans believed it was real anyway, and the fighting itself was embarrassing—uncoordinated, slow and like nothing resembling the choreographed matches that we loved. The winner of the tournament, Bart Gunn, was put up against professional boxer Butterbean at Wrestlemania XV, and this was the result:
Holy. Moly. That is what happens when a person who has trained for performance and body aesthetics squares off against a person who has trained for legitimate combat. And if a morbidly obese boxer like Butterbean can obliterate Bart Gunn, then what, exactly, does that say about all the wrestlers who Bart Gunn defeated in Brawl-For-All? It’s a domino effect that degrades and lowers everyone involved in the fiasco.
It’s odd that the WWE would go to such lengths to maintain Lesnar’s invulnerability—they booked him to beat the Undertaker at Wrestlemania, after all—only to throw it away on a UFC gimmick main event. A Lesnar loss not only lowers Lesnar, but it also, by proxy, lowers every other wrestler on the roster; nearly every top star has been fed to Lesnar in the process of building him up to be a monster.
In recent years, the WWE has struggled with scripting long term plans. This latest stunt is decidedly short-sighted. Is there money in the short term? Sure. Will SummerSlam sell more subscriptions with this cross-promotion? Maybe? But this also has the potential to go horribly wrong, and the WWE might end up losing more than they could have possibly hoped to gain. We know why Lesnar is doing this. We know why the UFC is doing this. But what’s less clear, and frankly baffling, is why the WWE is doing this, and allowing their top star to be so exposed.
Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.