Mixed martial arts has a few historical links to professional wrestling. The connection is stronger in Japan than in the USA, but it exists here. They’ve chased some of the same audiences, and a couple of people have existed in both worlds. Ken Shamrock went back and forth between the two. Brock Lesnar left pro wrestling behind to climb quickly to UFC heavyweight champion. We even have an overlap in journalism — Dave Meltzer, who dove aggressively behind the scenes with Wrestling Observer, is a very good MMA writer.
No one would want to drum Lesnar or Meltzer out of the sport, but MMA fans have every right to play up the differences between their sport and the scripted version. Luke Thomas minced few words on Twitter today (not that Twitter gives anyone much leeway to mince words) in talking about it: “I’m going to start swinging a machete if we keep pretending MMA is professional wrestling.”
Thomas, who hosts “MMA Nation” on WJFK and is the editor of great MMA blog Bloody Elbow, expounded in two more Tweets. Combining them: “The other issue that folks need to consider is the longer you pretend there is a cozy relationship btw MMA & pro wrestling, the longer you put off integration into the larger sporting audience. They will not accept it on those terms. And who can blame them?”
Thomas is a passionate defender of MMA as a sport and not just a spectacle, something Bloody Elbow’s critics in the fight world should remember. And he’s right.
In Japan, fans and the media may be more accepting of close links between the “fake” and “real” worlds. In the USA, that’ll go over as well as the “European carry-all” on the great old Seinfeld episode.
All of this is in the wake of UFC 117, which played out like a pro wrestling storyline, vividly spelled out at Watch Kalib Run. Chael Sonnen hyped the fight with ludicrous overstatement, dominated for most of the fight and then lost when Silva pulled a submission win out of nothing. That’s Sonnen playing the heel to Anderson Silva’s babyface.
It’s not a perfect analogy. Sonnen had a lot of fan support against Silva, whose popularity has suffered through some erratic performances.
But the differences between MMA and pro wrestling were more apparent in the rest of the card, which no one would script:
– Jon Fitch took a typically methodical win over Thiago Alves in the type of bout.
– Matt Hughes, a few years past his championship run, beat Ricardo Almeida with an improbable choke. (Maybe you’d script that one.)
– Clay Guida beat Rafael dos Anjos on an injury — a Guida punch injured dos Anjos’ jaw, and dos Anjos tapped out when he was caught in a hold that made the injury worse.
– Junior dos Santos beat up Roy Nelson in a matchup of contrasting builds.
UFC fight build-up is sometimes nasty. Lesnar and Frank Mir had some pointed exchanges, and Lesnar went way over the top in celebrating his win. But it’s generally a different vibe. Even Sonnen and Silva embraced after the fight, with Silva going out of his way to praise a fighter who had spent several months ridiculing him.
As a journalist who has come to love this sport, I’m with Luke. I can deal with pre-fight confidence-building boasts, but not with pro wrestling-style histrionics. I’d bet I’m not the only one.
Update: At Bloody Elbow, Kid Nate sums up one of the problems — the more MMA resembles pro wrestling, the more likely observers may think it’s predetermined.