Is there a more polarizing subject among MMA fans that the tried, tested and true “Professional Wrestling is just like/is nothing at all like Mixed Martial Arts”?
Just drop the phrase “pro wrestling” or “WWE” on any MMA message board, and the battle lines form almost instantly. On the one side are the “marks” (oh me and my wrestling lingo) guys and gals who are either current or former pro wrestling fans. Like it or not, a great many fans of MMA came to the sport via pro wrestling. I count myself among the “former wrestling fan” category.
And on the other side? The hardcores. The diehards. The “true fans” (yes, you should be picturing finger quotes here) to whom the idea of pro wrestling’s sideshow sullying the purity of MMA is too much to bear. Hell, if you so much as utter the phrase “pro wrestling” around Luke Thomas he’ll turn into The Hulk. You’ve been warned, Washington.
I also count myself among this crowd (wait, what?). After all, my Dad and I were watching old UFC tapes of sweaty guys in speedos beating each other up long before we were watching sweaty men in speedos pretend to beat each other up each Monday night.
So when it comes to the pro wrestling vs. MMA debate, I’m like the Daywalker, able to walk in both worlds while living in neither, stalking my prey with the focus of…
Ah, screw it. That sounds lame as all hell. Let’s just say I’m an MMA fan who was also once a pro wrestling fan. I know I’m not the only one.
When the subject of pro wrestling and MMA comes up, it’s usually because of one man: Good ol’ J.R. Actually, no, it’s usually because of Chael Sonnen.
To purists and fanboys alike, no one better typifies the machismo, the outrageous trash talk and the almost surreal braggadocio of professional wrestling like “the gangster from Oregon."
Though he’s always been known for his mouth, Chael Sonnen came to exemplify “pro wrestling in MMA” during the buildup to the Anderson Silva fight. Whether you loved it or hated it, Sonnen put on a master’s class in getting you to give a sh*t about him. It’s the kind of lesson lots of fighters in MMA could learn from.
Case in point: I bet all the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket that Sonnen gets a far louder crowd response (positive or negative) than anyone named Gray, Frankie, Kenny or Jose come Saturday night.
It’s ironic that MMA fans, being fans of something as macho as cage fighting, are actually a very sensitive bunch. We keep diaries (we call them “blogs”), take everything personally (GSP didn’t grease, damnit! It was a breathing technique! A BREATHING TECHNIQUE!), and hold hands and cry every time Wanderlei Silva gets knocked out—just the way he would want it.
And see, because we’re so sensitive, we can’t just sit back and enjoy a good thing. I mean the UFC is coming to network TV! Yeah! Go team! And hey, we’ve proven that it’s possible to get 55,000 people to come see an MMA event in the middle of a recession. Wooooo! Right?
But are we happy being happy? Hell no! PPV numbers are down this year from last year. Ratings on Spike TV are plateaued. GSP’s gotten boring. Jon Jones is a d-bag. No one loves Dominick Cruz. Why can’t anything ever go right for us!? LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!
And this whole “pro wrestling in MMA” controversy? It’s all part of it. See, MMA can’t be like pro wrestling, or else that means interest will fall off a cliff after
the general public all my friends and I stop watching.
Besides, what we strive for most as MMA fans is legitimacy. Every time a “true fan” (yep, finger quotes again) watches the gladiator intro, or hears another Goldy-ism or watches a Leonard Garcia fight, we tend to get all agitated, like we just spent a calm evening watching fights Chuck Liddell-style.
Folks, here’s the simple truth: Legitimacy for MMA means more WWE-style showmanship, not less. Just look at boxing, that most hallowed of combat sports. Muhammad Ali became one of the biggest icons in sports by (admittedly) ripping off '60s wrestling heel Gorgeous George. Mike Tyson dominated the boxing scene of the late '80s and early '90s with outrageous trash talk I’d put right alongside anything said by misters Sonnen or Diaz.
And don’t tell me this doesn’t remind you a little bit of something you’d see on a professional wrestling broadcast.
What does it all mean? Just that for as long as there’s been two guys squaring off in a ring, there’s been two guys trying to figure out how to get people to pay to see it. The idea of “selling yourself” to a discerning public is not one that pro wrestling can claim exclusive rights to, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to MMA. All sports—and all individual sports especially—are all about “the sell."
By the same token, however, let us not just assume that whoever makes the most noise will be the most popular. Remember that the best gimmick in wrestling history was an expressionless mute who went nearly two years without wrestling a match and communicated only through creepy narration.
At the end of the day, actions will always speak louder than words.