Last week, Luke Thomas (@SBNLukeThomas) and I (@KidNate) shot a video discussion about the relationship between pro wrestling and MMA triggered by the news thatChael Sonnen would be accompanied to the cage by WWE star CM Punk at UFC on Fox 2.
The transcript of the fourth and final segment and video follow. We talk about the influence of 1950's pro wrestler Gorgeous George on Muhammad Ali, the tension between MMA and amateur wrestling, the inherent contradictions in the UFC's business model copied from the WWE and their sporting approach to booking fights. We also look at the failed MMA career of Judoka Satoshi Ishii
Muhammad Ali Learned Everything From Georgeous George
Nate Wilcox: There's no denying and this is an objective fact that the theatricality of pro wrestling has been one of the biggest influences on combat sports in the 20th century. Muhammad Ali, he always attributed his showmanship to how much he enjoyed Gorgeous Georges on TV as a kid. Muhammad Ali, a little Muhammad Ali, just imagine a little 8, 9, 10 year old Muhammad Ali in Missouri on the living room floor watching Gorgeous George.
You could just see him mouthing along with the words, practicing the acts and practicing the bits and that's part of what made Muhammad Ali not just the most famous boxer in the world but the most famous human being on the planet for the entire time he was the heavyweight champion and that's an enormous feat. The guy accomplished amazing things, gold medal, world heavyweight titles. He beat guys like Sonny Liston, George Foreman that were supposed to kill him. He had the incredible series with Joe Frasier, he fought way later than he should have and continued to win titles but at the same time, his gift of gab made that something that people who didn't even want to see him fight like Muhammad Ali. My mom didn't want to watch Muhammad Ali fight but if he was on TV talking, she wanted to tune in.
Luke Thomas: I've said this before too and there's no denying that. Again, I'm not here to deny any and all virtues to pro wrestling. If you like it, you like it. I don't, I never will. But most any activity from the bottom to the top of sport and entertainment has some measure of virtue to it and to an extent that it can be made mobile and repurposed, it can be hugely valuable to people but the crossover between boxing and pro wrestling influence is a very delightful, cute touch.
It's the art, and it's mostly just verbal art that they borrowed. They borrowed some theatrics, most notably the robes they wear but even those are going out of style and changing also with commoditization too but either way, there is some measure of touch there. Of course, remember in the 80s there was always a pro wrestling guy versus a boxing guy in the movies? You saw those a lot too.
All I'm here to suggest is, that the level of overlap, and I think in some ways forced in MMA, the level of forced integration in MMA, much more blurs the lines. If I lived in the boxing world and all I had to live with was the argument, "Hey, Floyd Mayweather has a big mouth that he got from pro wrestling and hey, Muhammad Ali has a big mouth that he got from pro wrestling."
Really? Well how about Manny Pacquiao? Manny Pacquiao is arguably the world's biggest global superstar and doesn't have none of that, none of that which goes to show you that you don't really need that. Could it be of huge maximum benefit? The case is pretty closed on that one but the neighbors wouldn't be arguing every day, Nate. They'd only be arguing on Thursdays and for me, man, if you turn on twitter and you see arguments about the pro wrestling influence on MMA, it's like the arguments, it's like, "Dude, it's two in the morning, can you guys just please shut the hell up?"
That's kind of how I feel and in boxing, you don't have nearly that much to worry about. If you don't like pro wrestling and you're a boxing fan, it doesn't really affect you. But if you're an MMA fan and you're like me and you don't even, you came into this sport not even conceiving of it this way and not enjoying it on those terms and frankly find it distracting.
Luke Thomas: For example, let's take Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Manny Pacquiao has been described as little pro wrestling, I mean every has image blandishment shaped but he doesn't borrow these antics whereas Mayweather certainly does. Here we have real drama too, right? We have two guys in the prime of their career, they might be at the end of it but let's say they're still in their prime who are basically the same weight class in the same era who could fight each other and there's talks about the future of boxing. Pacquao's suing him for defamation, there are accusations of steroid uses and how that contributed to Pacquio's achievement which elevated him in the first place.
That, to me, that seems like at some point nauseated squabbling but there's a weight there and listen, sport is entertainment at a core level but there's a weight there about the nature of competition, the nature of the business and the nature of who these guys are as competitors and that, to me, if you want to make something out of that, okay, fine, but it's basically the same argument I made with ‘The Fighter' versus ‘Warrior.' ‘The Fighter,' listen, Christian Bale's an actor. This is drama but it was centered on some guy's real life. They couldn't wander too far off the artistic plantation. With ‘Warrior,' this guy's a war hero and he deserted and he's an alcoholic and he's gonna fight his brother in Atlantic City. Totally implausible nonsense and that, to me, you can really taste it on your tongue. One is sweet and one is not so sweet.
The Tension Between MMA and The Amateur Wrestling Community
Luke Thomas: One more point and we'll move to the last talking point here and this is a discussion you could have I think at any point in time in MMA but it was just brought up to us because of this whole CM Punk thing. I hate even talking about it. One more point to make is sort of the strange bedfellow relationship between amateur wrestling and MMA. Amateur wrestling, to me, is intensely more interesting.
I recognize that it's not in the industry at least from a four province standpoint that professional wrestling is and maybe that's because it's an indictment on wrestling, itself and I don't propose that everyone should like amateur wrestling in the same way I do but what I would say is if you want to have that infusion of showmanship that comes from the professional wrestling tradition because you believe that it ultimately pays dividends and there is obviously very strong evidence that it does, Chael Sonnen's career being chief among them. But Chael Sonnen also does, there has to be an acid and a base I feel like. I feel like MMA fans, I really believe we have more to do to ingratiate ourselves to the wrestling community because basically it's not quite symbiotic yet.
I've tried to make the case that it's symbiotic, "Oh, more kids are getting into high school wrestling than ever and it does show that there is." High school wrestling participation across the nation is up but it's still like the sixth or seventh most popular sport in high school and number four is like a mile away much less football at number one. We take a lot more than we give and I think that ultimately leads to a lot more apprehension to coaches like John Smith at Oklahoma State who doesn't want to see a guy like 125 pound Jordan Oliver go to MMA and would much rather him go to the Olympics.
I talked to Johny Hendricks and he was like, "Yeah, when I first went to MMA, coach John Smith was not pleased about it. He was not pleased about it." Two-time national champion, came very close to winning three and was hated, it was crazy he was a villain in collegiate wrestling but I feel like the story of this UFC on FOX thing, how much coverage is being paid to the fact that there's gonna be a 20 second walkout with a professional wrestler and none about what I just mentioned?
Of the four guys in the main and co-main event, all four Division I wrestlers, three All-Americans and two national champions and no one is writing jack shit about it and to me that is insane. It's insane. Wrestling, to me, is basically gonna be the top way we get our best athletes and our best performers and our best competitors at least in America by a long shot and the fact that we don't pay ever enough attention to promote amateur wrestling enough to me is fucking criminal. MMA is taking way more from wrestling than wrestling is taking from MMA. It's insane.
Nate Wilcox: That's very true and I think if any martial art has made a case for establishing itself as the ultimate martial art, wrestling, the power to decide where is the fight gonna take place, on the feet or on the ground, that's incredibly powerful and it might be the most important martial art of all. We owe it the props.
Luke Thomas: I'm just saying, if you want the CM Punks around, cool, but think a little bit more about where the actual talent is coming from and Chael Sonnen is another one. It's a perfect example. Chael Sonnen, what does Dana White always say about Chael Sonnen? Listen, is the guy crazy? Yes. Does he say insane shit? Yes.
But the reason he's able to back it up is because he has arguably the best wrestling in MMA. Not the best background and a pure wrestling pedigree but in terms of takedowns, there's not, if you think about it, who bullies opponents more in the late stages of his career than Chael Sonnen does with wrestling? Hard to think of people. It's very hard to think of people and he's able to bring to life all that nonsense that he talks by virtue of the fact that he is an amateur wrestler, still loves amateur wrestling, still has a connection to the community and is of considerable athletic ability. It's best for us when you have both.
You've got a little bit of showmanship, an appropriate amount of showmanship and a very requisite level of talent and skills or whatever. When those two combine and they meet in epic performances, that's when it's the best. I would very much hate for us, though, to become so enamored with showmanship that we begin to lose respect for what it is that ultimately makes MMA pop. Jason Mayhem Miller has great entrances and then he goes and gets absolutely smashed by Michael Bisping. Which is more important to you? I can tell you what is more important to me is the fact that somebody can show up and actually compete on fight day even if they don't or do talk a lot of shit.
The Inherent Sport Vs. Spectacle Dilemma Of The UFC Business Model
Nate Wilcox: Well that gets us into what I think is one of the big strategic dilemmas the UFC faces as a business because their business model is stone copied from the WWE.
Luke Thomas: That's another truth, yeah.
Nate Wilcox: Get on cable television to promote your product and your product is pay-per-views.
Luke Thomas: Although that's changing.
Nate Wilcox: It is changing, but 75 percent of the revenues last year were still pay-per-view.
Luke Thomas: Another thing, in another day we can debate but there's a growing argument amongst the business people I talk to that the UFC will ultimately wind up getting the vast majority of their money from television rights fees and their argument is, "What are all the legitimate sports on? TV and then the last ones that are not on TV are boxing, MMA and pro wrestling. What does that tell you?"
Nate Wilcox: You got to look at the UFC's business model. It's built on spectacle. It's copied from the WWE and they've built their fanbase from the WWE. The Ultimate Fighter in its first season followed the WWE and the biggest star, Brock Lesnar, was a WWE champion. Huge chunks of the audience are people who came directly from pro wrestling fandom. A lot of those kids outgrew pro wrestling and MMA was part of that transition for them but there is this bind that that they've kind of created for themselves where their business is built on spectacle and on the WWE model and the things that really pop for them, the events that really sell are Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, these stars or the Rashad Evans versus Quinton Jackson at UFC 114 that was built on the hype, it was built on the feud. It wasn't a title fight. Nobody was saying these were the two best fighters in the world. They were saying, "These guys really hate each other," and that's where they make their money.
But Joe Silva is over there booking the fights as if he's the NCAA. This guy has a very sporting approach to booking fights and is continually putting boring fighters like Jacob Volkmann in the path of fighters that could be much more exciting. They want to see if these guys can win against the toughest, most boring competition. Obviously, they haven't rolled out the red carpet for Jon Fitch. This is a guy who lost one fight in his first six years in the UFC. Incredible athlete, incredible mixed martial artist and they begrudged him that first title shot.
Luke Thomas: Yeah, but that was a thrilling bout.
Nate Wilcox: Against GSP? It certainly was, but it was also very one-sided. Yeah, it was one of GSP's greatest performances and it certainly wasn't boring at all but you can't really credit Fitch with the fight not being boring. If it had been up to Fitch, it would have been a slow, grinding, tedious affair.
Luke Thomas: To your point, Fitch's two most exciting fights, the Roan Carneiro fight was exciting but are the GSP fight and the Johny Hendricks fight where he was blasted to smithereens in both.
Nate Wilcox: When he "Belforted" Thiago Alves in 2006, that was pretty exciting too. Did you see that fight? It was a pretty awesome fight. He just took Alves down and mauled him. He left Alves a shaking, shuddering bloody pulp at the end of that fight. Fitch can be entertaining but anyway, it's just interesting to me with the UFC. It's something I picked up in politics. You have a candidate who's plan was to do this, but something about him, like, "We're gonna run a populous grassroots campaign," with a billionaire banker. It just doesn't work.
You have this structural paradox there. We're gonna run this business built on the WWE spectacle model and we're gonna book the fights like it's a sport and we're just gonna take our hottest prospects. Look at like Alistair Overeem and Nick Diaz, these are two guys people are talking as UFC's potential breakout stars. How did they get built up? By fighting cans away from the UFC. Nick Diaz fought lightweights and Cyborg. I love Cyborg Santos but the guy's not a top contender.
Luke Thomas: But he solidified it with a win over Penn.
Nate Wilcox: Sure, sure. I'm not taking anything away from Diaz or Overeem. I'm just saying that they had an opportunity to show what they could do against less than the best competition, against opponents that were stylistically good fits for them. Nick Diaz didn't have to fight a succession of top guys. He didn't have to fight Jake Ellenberger, Mike Pierce, Rick Story and these just brutal monsters that the UFC throws in their path of anybody who wants to compete in the UFC welterweight division. He got to fight a different path and fight guys where he could show off his boxing style. He struggled in his first run in the UFC because he couldn't handle dominant top control guys like Karo Parisyan, Sean Sherk and I just think there's something that they've got a difficulty in producing stars.
They had a first generation of stars, the Randy Coutures, the Chuck Liddells, the Tito Ortizes but then, after that, Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar are the only real major stars who've been able to emerge since then and both of them had special factors. It's interesting to me that Strikeforce is sort of bringing in this new wave of talent that's got fans really buzzing and I think it says something about the dichotomy of the UFC's financial model and their booking model.
Luke Thomas: I think that's a salient point. If we can, the only thing I would add is I'm mostly in favor of that model that can be decried and at one point, even I got a little "ehh" about it with who they were gonna book initially but then the fight got cancelled. It was supposed to be Koscheck versus Condit and I thought, "This is insanity," and not because this is not an important fight. All the fans were like, "This the fight Condit needs to prove he can move on," but my point was, here's a guy in Koscheck who has a very considerable skill-set. If he beats Condit, this rising contender that's about to break through and generate a bunch of interest, who can give Georges St. Pierre, even in a losing effort, what I believe to be a very serious test. Condit loses to Koscheck and now where are you? You're at the same place you were before, even worse because no one wants to see Koscheck fight St. Pierre and get his ass kicked again. You would throw away a contender like that?
People think that's pro wrestling but that's not pro wrestling. That's boxing. There's a certain showmanship, a certain sleight of hand when you're building guys up, De La Hoya got 20 fights before took on anybody serious but all these guys who've got 40-0 records, they get 20 fights and it's not just to make them look good. It's partly to build up their confidence and give them just enough of the right test. Here's a guy who's totally beatable but our guy has shown in practice he has a little bit of trouble with southpaws with a great left hook. We're gonna put him up against a guy who's totally beatable but has that left hook, maybe he buzzes him a couple times but our guy figures out a way around it so by the time you fight the guys in their peaks, the Roy Joneses of the world, the Hopkinses, whatever. You're in a much better place and I'm not so sure that that's the worst model ever.
The Disastrous MMA Career Of Olympic Judoka Satoshi Ishii
Nate Wilcox: No, it's a good model and the last thing I wanted to bring up before we ended our hour but it's, look at the disaster that was Satoshi Ishii's MMA career thus far? This guy was an Olympic gold medalist in judo. That is a very competitive sport. That is a huge accomplishment. He comes into MMA at 21 years old, the UFC wanted to sign him immediately, probably to put him on the reality show with Kimbo but he stayed in Japan and just got mangled. They threw him into the deep end early. What was it, his sixth fight and he's already fighting Fedor? It's just crazy.
There's no concern at all for this guy's long term career, for him as an athlete, a growing, learning athlete. This is a guy who needed to be brought along a little more slowly and Jordan Breen and some others have applauded that he did take some more lower profile fights in New Zealand and that was good but when New Year's Eve came around, they were still throwing him in there with Fedor and at the end of the day, you've got a guy who's wrecked.
I'm sure it's been terrible for his confidence and his growth as an athlete. He's what, 23 years old and he's enormous. How often are we going to get a gold medal winning Olympian at the peak of his athletic abilities wanting to come into MMA? That's not going to happen very often and to me, it's such a huge waste and it shows how the pro wrestling model doesn't fit MMA very well. They did everything for a quick buck, the instant spectacle and at the end of the day, they've got nothing.
Luke Thomas: Yeah, talk about biting the hand that feeds you there too. The last thing I want to say about it and certainly I don't disagree with anything you have to say about Ishii, but I just want to reinforce the point that, at the end of the day, if you're an MMA fan, you need to ask yourself what it is about the sport that you love. Okay? There's probably a combination of things that you love for anybody. For me, it's a certain balance of goods. For you, it's a different one. But you need to have an honest evaluation about what it is where you derive enjoyment.
Maybe you derive enjoyment through the entire fight process. Maybe you're a little more, I don't know, less sanguine than somebody like me. I get labeled incorrectly. I feel like, "Oh, you don't like pre-fight build-up!" I do like pre-fight build-up. I don't like pre-fight build-up that is hamfistedly put in front of my face. When Wanderlei was fighting Michael Bisping, remember this? And Wanderlei was like, ‘I hate Michael Bisping!" And someone's like, "Why do you hate Michael Bisping?' and he goes, ‘I don't know! I just hate him!' I mean, what are we doing? What are we doing? It's such a childish.
Nate Wilcox: Part of it is just Wanderlei's approach to fighting which is, he's gonna hate anybody you put in front of him.
Luke Thomas: Is he? I don't know if he's gonna hate everybody. He's gonna talk that he hates them up front or at least not talk pleasant about them.
Nate Wilcox: Remember the old Wanderlei?
Luke Thomas: He was a lot more, when he was in his 20s, he was just a destroyer but the current one, he's a dad and everything in it now is about redemption and putting on a good fight for the crowd. That's what his top priorities are but you need to ask yourself what it is about this sport that you really, really like and if showmanship is a huge part, that's okay but you've got to recognize that that won't carry the sport forward. It will grease the skids a little bit but what will move it forward are actual athletes that people are invested in that can perform and can perform on big stages in bouts of significance in however we define significance.
Last thing I have to say about amateur wrestling too real quickly, I was talking about this with Dave Meltzer here in my piece with him was that, are we ever gonna get another Brock Lesnar? This guy who came in with this huge existing popularity and that crossover fanbase just came right in and then to some degree was able to compete with the world's best right away. I thought the two takeaways from that are really important. The first thing was that, you can't get guys who can just come over and compete with the world's best heavyweights anymore.
That actually is not true which I think is a great, great thing. Because think about that, could Lesnar take off eight years from amateur wrestling and just go back? Be Turtle Glagnav? It would never happen so that's a good thing. The other thing is could we get Olympians and not just another Satoshi Ishii. Swimming and diving have always had a big crossover effect so it's not surprising that he's such a big star and not just that he's a gold medal winner but swimming is super accessible to both genders. I'm not so sure that amateur wrestling is but let's say we get a guy like a Dan Gable.
Chael Sanderson didn't quite have that appeal but let's say we have Chael Sanderson, a guy who goes completely undefeated in college and let's say he does hav ea little bit of showmanship and people care about him, are invested in him and he goes an wins the gold medal. Even then, we aren't going to get him right away because he's got to learn to box, he's got to learn jiu-jitsu and he may learn fast. Promoters are going to want to throw him to the wolves. Brock Lesnar was the last of a dying breed or a one-time thing, maybe the Kimbo Slice thing. But anyway, I do feel, though, that the relationship between wrestling and MMA is reluctant neighbors who benefit from one another but don't do enough to water each other's lawns to really have a meaningful crossover and that's the last thing I've got to say about that.