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The Deep Historical Links Between MMA And Pro Wrestling

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In a discussion between Luke Thomas and Nate Wilcox, the two mixed martial arts (MMA) editors talk about the deep historical roots between MMA and pro wrestling.

Last week, Luke Thomas (@SBNLukeThomas) and I (@KidNate) shot a video discussion about the relationship between pro wrestling and MMA triggered by the news that Chael Sonnen would be accompanied to the cage by WWE star CM Punk at UFC on Fox 2.

The transcript of the first segment and video follow. In this segment we cover: Luke's annoyance at pro wrestling's shadow being ever-present on the MMA world; I riff on the history of pro wrestling and MMA, how pro wrestling went from mostly legit sport to a worked spectacle. Video is below.

Luke Thomas: We're here to talk about a topic you can almost talk about at any point in MMA. It came up yesterday and it just made me want to defenestrate myself, CM Punk, who I guess is a professional wrestler. I don't know anything about it, myself.

Kid Nate: He's huge, Luke. He's big.

Luke Thomas: Is he real popular? He must be, right?

Kid Nate: I think he was the breakout star of last year.

Luke Thomas: Whatever that means. Anyways, it was reported and confirmed by very reliable sources, Ariel Helwani and Dave Meltzer too. To me, when those two report it, it's pretty much fact, that CM Punk would escort Chael Sonnen for his fight against Mark Munoz at UFC on FOX 2 which is later this much. He won't be cornering him but just providing a promotional presence which is really only a 15-22 second thing. But anyway, it caused another debate because it drove me up the wall.

There's a few things we want to discuss here. I want to lean on you more for the history of things. We were talking about this yesterday and folks were asking me why I hate on pro wrestling so much and the truth is, I don't really want to hate it that much, I just don't' want it in my life anymore. I said this when I started in MMA, I never, ever, ever anticipated having to deal with it, having to talk about it now for crying out loud.

I told you yesterday, it's like living in an apartment and the neighbors never stop fighting, never stop arguing. That's what it's like for me. I'm living in this apartment downtown Manhattan, whatever, and the fucking neighbors won't stop, they just won't stop. That's the noise that's in my ear from pro wrestling. There's a lot of merits to anything and a lot of downsides, I think the easiest way to explain it is it just doesn't appeal to me, personally speaking, and I'm not just one who believes that, I think I don't get enough credit. I recognize that there are a lot of benefits to having a pro wrestling influence not just in MMA but to sports more generally, but I'm also not one of the kind of guys who thinks that there's not a tipping point. I think there's absolutely a tipping point. We'll get to whether this CM Punk thing is or isn't.

For me, it's like I'm constantly, it's like to borrow the words of Bill Hicks, it's like fucking gnats on a camping trip. I just can't get rid of it. We can debate about whether it's got merits or not. I think that's sort of a fruitless debate. I personally think it's gutter theatre mixed with steroid-infused acrobatics. That's me, but others obviously have a different take. If you like it, it's not a matter of whether you like it. It's a question about having ownership over it. There are reporters out there who like MMA and who like pro-wrestling and they don't get the influence. I made this point to you last night, ‘what's wrong with pro-wrestling?'

Here's a little litmus test, and Chad Dukes would kill me for this because he doesn't think of the world this way but for others, if you were dating a chick who was totally out of your league or even in your league but you really coveted her and she asked you what your interests are, are you really going to say ‘pro-wrestling'? Like, ‘my interests are pro-wrestling! I'm super interested in pro-wrestling.' You'll never get laid! You'd never get laid. And, you know, it's a stupid litmus test but it's explanatory on a level of cultural acceptance and I think we'll get to this later but for me, I think there's an appetite for professional wrestling amongst a wide array of audiences including sporting audiences but I feel like traditional sporting audiences really like the things separated. There's not nearly as much mixture of it and, for me, it's driving me crazy but I guess it's important for us to talk about why it's so prevelant.

Kid Nate: You've got to remember that MMA is pro wrestling, it's just professional wrestling without the fix being in.

Luke Thomas: Professional wrestling in the 1920's meant something entirely different than it does today.

Kid Nate: It was always shady, but once upon a time, pro wrestling was the most popular combat sport. To my understanding, in the 19th century, pro wrestling was a legitimate sport and it was more popular and socially accepted than boxing, which had only recently stopped being illegal because it was too violent and so wrestling was "the sport of kings."

Gotch vs Hackenschmidt, that was the biggest sporting event of its day. The problem was it wasn't designed to be theatrical entertainment. It was designed to be 19th century, 18th century era when a few people could sit in a room around a mat and watch a wrestling match all day. They had nothing else to do. If you're in Abilene, Kansas in 1860, hell, you've got all day to watch a wrestling match if you're not herding cattle or working on the railroad which is what you do 364 days out of the year. The one day a year you get to go to town, hell, the wrestling match went for four hours? 'Cool. I couldn't see a thing, somebody was telling me what was happening, it was the thrill of my lifetime.'

But as people got more jaded and more sophisticated and in the urban environment, in the 20th century, pro wrestling became a big spectacle and they put the fix in. There had always been fixes in pro wrestling. You have to remember that traveling wrestlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, that was like a pool shark. You didn't want to say, "Hey, I just got off the Olympic team, does anyone want to wrestle me for 200 bucks?" No, you showed up, worked in a mine or a harvest, got a day labor gig, got into a couple tussles at the work camps, got people talking and then you set some bets up and then you had another buddy come up from out of town and he'd talk about how great of a wrestler he was and then you'd set up a challenge match and clean the hayseeds out for all their money.

There's documented cases of this going on many times on the frontier and in the carnival circuit so there was always this shady aspect of pro wrestlers being grifters, basically. Sportsmen, but also grifters. It's just like a pool shark. The guy can legitimately play pool, but would you trust him with your car keys? I don't know. In the 1920s, you had the Gold Dust Trio, Strangler Ed Lewis and I don't remember who is confederates were who basically made sure the fix was in for all fights.

The rematch for Gotch versus Hackenschmidt was fixed. They made sure it was over quick, it was entertaining and there were rumors that Hackenshmidt was injured but the long and short of it is they fixed the match. They knew who was gonna win before they stepped into the ring and what Strangler Ed Lewis and the Gold Dust Trio did was institutionalize that. This was an era where American sports papers covered professional wrestling as if it were a real sport. That lasted into the 50s when wrestling had been totally fixed since the 30s.

Luke Thomas: In other words, what is pro wrestling today, as a functional relationship to what it was and what is MMA today as a relationship to what it was?

Kid Nate: Pro wrestling today is all show. The WWE barely even does the in ring acrobatics anymore. You get guys who aren't even athletically gifted becoming big stars now. That's not something that happened in even the 20s or 30s so it's totally spectacle. [Note: Originally I said "60's or 70's" which is completely wrong. Georgeous George in the 1950s was a non-athlete and the biggest star of his era] It's completely worked, it's predetermined. The wrestlers don't even get to ad lib their speeches before the matches anymore, those are scripted and so that's a big change. It's total theater now and it's not at all a sporting endeavor.

The guys aren't even necessarily athletes and MMA is sort of the bastard child of pro wrestling. It's a throwback because if you look at where MMA came from: Vale Tudo in Brazil and pro wrestling in Japan. In Japan, pro wrestling evolved into MMA because the dudes in pro wrestling just got fascinated with, "Wow, what if this was real?" and in Japan you had catch wrestler Ad Santel go over there in 1921 and beat the world's best judokas. That made a huge impression in Japan which is a very martial culture. Catch wrestling, this idea of real wrestling, had a huge hold on the Japanese psyche and Antonio Inoki and others just got obsessed with pushing the boundaries of, "What can we do in the context of a fixed match to make it stiffer?" meaning more realistic, more violent.

Most of wrestling matches are improvised anyways. Most of it is actual wrestling, they'd just have predetermined moves at the end and just a couple of changes. You say, "Hey, I'm gonna win at first, then you're gonna win and then at the end, I'm gonna beat you with the North Star Press or whatever." The rest of the time, they're improvising and they're often really competing and so in Japan, it evolved into Pancrase and Shooto and Shootboxing and a bunch of other attempts to make pro wrestling real. It's no accident that the first people to be champions in the UFC were Royce Gracie who was coming out of the Brazilian Vale Tudo tradition, which itself evolved from the catch wrestling circuit of the early 20th century, and Ken Shamrock, who came from out of Japan and the pro wrestlers circuit. Those were the guys who knew how to fight and at least knew how to grapple and it showed early on that if you couldn't grapple, you couldn't fight somebody who could. That's the connection.