In part one of my discussion with Dave Meltzer, proprietor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and writer for Yahoo! Sports, we discussed the legacy of former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar in mixed martial arts after his loss at subsequent retirement following UFC 141. In part two, we talk about Lesnar's most important contribution to MMA, the UFC's need to create stars with Lesnar gone and Georges St. Pierre on the shelf, whether there will ever be 'another Brock Lensar' again (and if Olympians are the counterexample), and why UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will have to carry the company in 2012.
Full audio and transcription below (part two content begins at approximately 21:20):
Luke Thomas: Speaking of Lesnar, what is his greatest contribution to MMA? Certainly he provided some entertainment for fans and I don't mean it in such a simplistic way, but to me, probably his greatest contribution is not necessarily that of a competitor although as you mentioned he was able to do great things, but it's his injection of popularity. I guess I'm wondering to what extent is it lasting? As you indicated, his fanbase at its core is probably not identical to the UFC fanbase so while all the pay-per-views he was a part of seemed to do really, really well from day one and I guess we'll see how this one does. Was the UFC boost from Brock Lesnar a sustaining boost or a temporary shot in the arm?
Dave Meltzer: Both, but the majority I would say is a temporary shot in the arm. There are people he brought in who grew, who appreciated and became sustainable fans. The vast majority of that I would say is not the case. I'll give you a perfect example. If tomorrow, something happens and Georges St. Pierre retires and he's got all this Canadian fanbase. I would guarantee you that, some of those fans will stay, but most of those fans will also be gone because that's what happens in every sport. Just like with Ali in boxing. When Ali left, yeah, he made a ton of fans for boxing but how many of them really stayed for Larry Holmes? Not that many. I think in team sports, it's different. I think in team sports, they sustain better. In individual sports, I notice the kind of guys whether it's Tiger Woods or Ali that swell the audience for those sports, when those guys are gone, yeah, they did help the sport, but most of the audience that they swelled, they're gone when the star is gone and I think that's gonna be the same thing with Brock. I think that the vast majority of people that he brought to pay-per-view, I don't think they'll buy another pay-per-view. Some will buy every pay-per-view though.
Luke Thomas: I was gonna ask you about certain audiences. With Brock, there was always that opportunity to want to see. It was the professional wrestling audience that was his core but Lesnar, and I can say from my experience, more than Georges St. Pierre, had that ability to generate interest among professional sporting media. When Brock fought, the radio station was more interested and maybe this is the case for you too, Dave, you get more requests for radio interviews.
Dave Meltzer: Way more.
Luke Thomas: So what is that? Why, is it just that Brock Lesnar curiosity? Why don't the sports fans stick around when he introduces them to a larger sport of mixed martial arts?
Dave Meltzer: He's a unique personality because he dabbled into football and he was so big in how he looked and pro wrestling fame, obviously. There was always that thing about the big, the first time something happens. Even though Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn were pro wrestlers and went into MMA, they were also not big pro wrestling stars before and MMA was a different world. MMA wasn't getting the big sports coverage in the 90s no matter what happened. It just wasn't gonna happen at that point. Lesnar came at the right time and he had that perverse pro wrestler who was a superstar in pro wrestling come over and it was gonna be, it's the same thing like the first boxing match, the first boxer, the James Toney thing and it could have been bigger if it was a bigger boxer than James Toney but the point is...I always knew the first time a boxer with name value appeared in the UFC, there'd be a lot of sports interest and things like that but the second and third time, it's not gonna be there at all. It's already happened, it's that novelty approach.
We're never gonna get that because first of all, there's never gonna be another Brock Lesnar case and the reason I say that is because when a guy like Brock Lesnar comes out of college now, with the mentality he has and the gifts he has, he's not going to the WWE. That's one of the things that people don't realize. The UFC and WWE are very different but the UFC has tremendous effect on the WWE and the biggest one is, you get a super dominant heavyweight wrestler who has the right look to come in and those were the guys who became the legends of professional wrestling. Now, those guys do not go into pro wrestling because they don't want someone telling them, "You've got to lose tonight." They've just come out of a really tough sport where they win and lose on their own and they're willing to go into another tough sport where they win and lose on their own where they can make money as opposed to someone telling them, "Okay, you've got to lose to this guy," and it's hard for a lot of the amateur wrestlers to flip that switch because they so much hate losing and to go into a profession where someone tells you, "You lose tonight," and it takes many of them years to psychologically get to that. Many have and done great in pro wrestling, but those guys, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, Verne Gagne, Danny Hodge and these type of guys, these guys are not gonna be pro wrestlers today. These guys are going into MMA because they're gonna go as far as their athletic ability can take them as opposed to going into a world where somebody else is in full control of them being a star or not.
Luke Thomas: What about the Olympics? Obviously Michael Phelps and swimming, it's not an accident. Swimming is a little more popular at least during the Olympics time and there's a history of great swimmers who have been popular figures in America but what about the idea, something like a heavyweight Henry Cejudo where a guy can be, and I know he's not a household name, where a guy can be a big star in college in terms of the wrestling community and goes to the Olympics and somehow in popular mainstream America finds a way to crossover and becomes a big star and goes and fights. First of all, is that paradigm, I know it's unlikely but is it possible and wouldn't that still provide that kind of curiosity factor to the extent that we can produce it that Lesnar may have brought with his audience in coming over to the UFC?
Dave Meltzer: If you have the right gold medalist, yes, absolutely. If they get exposure during the Olympics and they come in. The problem is, we have an impatient society too and this is a hard sport to learn. Look at recent example Mark Ellis and he's not an Olympic gold medalist but he was a good amateur wrestler who did win a national championship albeit in a weak year and he came in and I watched his fights on HDNet and I was like, "Ah God, NCAA championship, you expect more, right?"
Luke Thomas: He couldn't even take the guy down.
Dave Meltzer: Yeah, well that's another thing. Remember Karam Gaber when he came out of the Olympics and he fought Fujita? That guy was as dominant in the Olympics as anyone since Kerelin and he walked in and he didn't try a takedown and he got knocked out in like a minute and then the bubble can burst.
Luke Thomas: Like Cejudo, here's a guy, he's not the be all, end all, but he has wrestling credentials and some meritorious accolades in amateur boxing. What if something like that were possible?
Dave Meltzer: It is, if you had the right guy coming off an Olympic gold medal winning performance in wrestler who's exposed and capture the public. When I was a kid, Dan Gable, when he came out of the Olympics, he was a household name and we didn't really have that later. Kurt Angle, he wasn't a household name but the WWE thought he was very marketable and he did very well in that world. Again, if it was 1996 and he didn't have a bad neck and MMA was big and he came out and he went into MMA and could do well in his weight class, I think the Olympic hero thing, there could be something there. It's possible.
That's what happened in boxing with De La Hoya and even Ali to an extent. Win the Olympic gold medal and the difference is in boxing, when you're someone like that, they protect you. They put you against guys that you're not going to lose to for 3-4 years and they build up your confidence. In MMA, man, people can't wait to see you get beat and promoters can't wait to push a guy inexperienced against a top guy if they think he's got a name. I'm not saying it can't happen, it can still happen, but the way MMA is structured, it's pretty tough because you have to look good and impressive in a sport where it's hard to look good and impressive without experience and boy, they push you pretty hard pretty quick. You don't see guys with 3-4 years of fattening up their records before they start fighting real guys. In MMA, you may get it for a little while but not that long and in UFC, you don't even get it for a little while. You're fighting real guys right away.
Luke Thomas: So let's talk about going forward. One of the key worries is that the UFC is in this transition phase not only between Spike and FOX but a lot of the old stars are leaving and they've got to create new ones. St. Pierre is still on the shelf for a little while longer. Lesnar is now gone. To what extent does Lesnar's absence really kick into gear Zuffa's priorities for starmaking?
Dave Meltzer: Well, they had to do it anyway because all of these guys have a short shelf life anyways but I do think this hurts their year a lot because if you could have had, we figured, two big Brock Lesnar pay-per-views and especially if he had won this fight, Lesnar versus Junior would have been gigantic. That would have been actually gigantic worldwide. That would have been huge, huge, huge in Brazil because Junior's on the cusp of being something special there already and Brock would be such a great opponent for Brazilian TV and that casual audience over there but it's not happening.
Overeem, I can tell you Overeem can be to an extent, that, in Brazil. Not so much in the United States but yeah, there's two pay-per-views they would have had that would have done big business but won't or a FOX show because Brock fighting on FOX would have been the highest ratings of anyone. I think it's a big blow but those things are gonna happen anyways. If it wasn't this year, it was gonna be next year.
You've always got to have big stars and again, you know a lot of it is the promotion getting behind people and a lot of it is luck. We all thought Cerrone, he had this charisma and a very exciting fighting style and he was one fight from possibly challenging for the championship and now that's not gonna happen.
Jon Jones blasted through everyone and became that guy. This year, let's face it, Jon Jones is gonna carry the company. Georges [St. Pierre] is gonna be out for most of the year, Anderson Silva's probably only gonna fight once, maybe twice and he's no matter what, Anderson's getting old and Anderson's a reflex guy. I'm not saying that he's gonna be done but when you get a guy who relies on incredible, incredible reflexes and they start getting in their late 30s, look at Roy Jones Jr. as an example. You can fall from the top pretty quick. Jon Jones is a young guy and he's gonna have to carry the company. The problem with Jon Jones is he desperately needs a rival and I don't know who that guy is. That adversary that really brings it out where you can't wait for this fight, the two top guys that people talk about and Jon Jones is still not quite at the level of a draw that people might have hoped so it's gonna be a struggle but I think the exposure on FOX helps in a lot of ways but there's a mainstream thing that Jon Jones may be years away from being able to get or may never get that Brock Lesnar already had and that no one else in the UFC, even St. Pierre really had.
Some foreign reporters were talking to me and they said, "I didn't think about it this way, but for us, this is bad. The ability to create more jobs for reporters in this industry, Brock Lesnar was more valuable than anyone else," and that's the truth, he was, because those guys you talk to that don't care about MMA, when Brock Lesnar fought, they did care and all of a sudden, the sport got a little bit of respect. "We can't be behind them, we've got to cover this. We've got to have someone who knows what they're talking about for this fight at least." Kind of like with boxing when you had the big fight and in case, losing Lesnar is gonna hurt in ways people don't think about.
Luke Thomas: So if we call what Lesnar did, non-ignorable MMA, with this FOX deal as the UFC moves forward, not just in 2012 but over time, can the UFC create somebody, as you mentioned, maybe not the Brock Lesnar crossover guy, but with its own machinery, with its own alliances and with its own power, can the UFC create somebody at some point in the relatively near future who captivated audiences in the way that Lesnar did because I sort of had this curiosity, why is it that when Herschel Walker crosses over, well now the football guys will care. Can UFC create somebody in house that can generate that kind of interest among audiences that typically aren't accustomed to watching UFC?
Dave Meltzer: Absolutely, but it's gonna be somebody not who they created but somebody who comes along. It's gonna have to be the right guy who captures the public and I think the UFC is strong enough that when that guy comes, they'll get behind him and there's another Jon Jones-level guy who maybe even has more charisma than Jon Jones. It'll be there.
In seven years, again, it's like the Ali thing in boxing. Can boxing create another Ali or Mike Tyson even? It's like, they can't wave their magic wand and do it but if the next Mike Tyson shows up and just starts knocking people out. If there's a heavyweight that comes along that looks like Alistair Overeem and just starts knocking people out, the public will catch on. Maybe it will be Junior dos Santos in time. The language barrier and all that but Junior comes across very likeable. It takes years to do this because Tyson was lucky. He had so much exposure as a teenager that by the time he was 20, people were ready for him. De La Hoya was lucky because he came right out of winning Olympic gold and Junior's not that young but he's young enough. Overeem is in his 30s and it takes few years of building that thing but if some awesome guy comes along, say there's an American Jose Aldo.
Luke Thomas: What about Cejudo, could he do it?
Dave Meltzer: Look, if the guy could walk in and destroy everyone, he's pretty small and in the small weight classes it's tougher but if he came in and knocked everyone out, of course he could be a star.
I think if Aldo was American, I think Aldo would be a really big star because at that age, people love to see someone from a young age and watch their whole career and especially if they've been on top for 4-5 years and people see that tenure and knockout after knockout after knockout. If some guy comes along, probably not even an NCAA champion wrestler as much but probably some guy who at 14, decided they loved this sport and just got awesome at this sport. I think that's what we're gonna be seeing is guys like that more than the guys crossing over from other sports.
But if the guy is really good and talks good, looks good, yeah, the teenage prodigy thing, it could work. Again, the guy has to come along, it's not like the machine is gonna create him and the problem is that this is a sport where anyone can win and anyone can lose and they don't protect their stars that well in a sense of giving them really easy matches like the boxing promoters do and creating these 40-0 records because that doesn't happen in this sport. In that sense, it's more difficult. But on the flipside, when those guys are made, fans are a lot more accepting of their losses than they are in boxing so you've got the thing on the flipside.
Look at Chuck Liddell until the last fight. He still drew really good attendance and a really good buyrate and he lost how many times and he was 40 years old. If that guy comes and he's really good at 25 and he starts drawing really big from 25-32 in his prime, he probably could stay on top if he wants to for years to come based on that name and still draw if he's the right guy at the right time. It's a question of the guy who clicks.
Jones is the best candidate but there's weaknesses in Jones. Not fighting weaknesses but personality weaknesses. I don't know, but listen, if Jon Jones goes undefeated for five years, I don't care what his personality is, he'll still be a sports superstar and he'll still be somebody.