MMA, pro wrestling and proper arenas

It started with an innocent joke. With my eyes straining, I misread the name “CM Punk” as “chipmunk.” When my eyes refocused, I realized it was another reference to a pro wrestling champion whose name I just learned because he’ll be accompanying Chael Sonnen to his next fight. I thought it would be amusing to Tweet that Sonnen will be walking to the cage with a chipmunk.

An MMA media colleague who really likes pro wrestling was not amused. And pretty soon, we were down the same road of “pro wrestling vs. MMA” that will one day be settled in a Texas cage match with me and Luke Thomas taking on Sergio Non and Matt Roth.

Luke and I may sometimes come across as rather pious about separating scripted fighting from unscripted. To be fair, pro wrestling has a lot to offer pop culture. Chris Jericho has been on several VH1 I Love the (whatever) shows and is usually wittier than the alleged comedians. The Rock/Dwayne Johnson has been great in recurring appearances on Saturday Night Live. Mick Foley’s thoughtful writing and TV appearances have boosted Tori Amos’ career. So it’s not fair to say pro wrestling should stay in its own arena.

In yesterday’s Twitscrap, I defended myself with the weaker point first, saying I preferred my fictional sports to be about Texas high school football or Carolina League baseball. When pressed, I said the real problem here was the encroachment of pro wrestling into another arena. It’d be idiotic to seek out a Friday Night Lights message board to tell people the show’s lame, but if Tim Riggins (in character) walked with someone to the cage, MMA fans would have every right to say that’s silly.

Yet that exchange still doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Some wrestling/MMA mingling is harmless — Tom Lawlor’s Hulk Hogan impression sailed over my head but was hardly distracting from the fight that followed.

Japan also mixes pro wrestling and MMA with some fluidity. For the big annual New Year’s Eve fighting show, Dream mixed a tournament of legit bantamweight fighters and a couple of championship bouts with a few exhibitions of MMA fighters in pro wrestling bouts. That mix isn’t for everyone, though I’ll admit I’d rather see Josh Barnett in a pro wrestling bout than Chris Jericho shouting a bunch of obnoxious scripted boasts in a WWE show.

The problem is when the line between fiction and reality blurs. And that leads us back to Sonnen.

Start with trash-talking, most of which is harmless. No one was hurt when Nate Diaz flipped Donald Cerrone’s hat off (flipping off Cerrone during the fight was a little more difficult to defend), and these were just two willing participants trying to get fans (and themselves) ramped up for a fight. For the most part, it’s an act, designed to get fighters excited over the otherwise-abnormal act of punching someone else in the face. The “feud” is over when the fight is over.

Sonnen’s “act” has gone far beyond those bounds. The one-time political candidate is happy to bring politics into the arena. (So is Jacob Volkmann, who managed to get 15 minutes of fame by threatening Barack Obama and then casting himself as a martyr whose chiropractor job is threatened directly by the president, who apparently designed the whole health-care thing not to insure the uninsured by to oppress his business.) He gleefully insults Canada and Brazil. He has denied saying Lance Armstrong gave himself cancer, though he hasn’t exactly convinced the blogosphere of his innocence. He even takes that bluster into a serious career-threatening legal process over his testosterone therapy, blaming the media and saying he was found guilty of taking a “legal substance.”

So now we have a guy who sounds like Ric Flair yelling at Dusty Rhodes (hey, I’m old) when he’s talking about serious stuff. And when he decides to walk to a legitimate fight with a wrestler in his corner, it just seems like it should be the other way around.

Why should we care about this blurred line between wrestling and MMA? First, MMA fans have a right to know that what they’re watching is legit. Drug-testing is part of it.

Second, MMA fans have a right to say, “Look, leave Lance Armstrong and Canada’s government out of it.” Some may disagree, but the fans who prefer to watch fights without all that nonsense shouldn’t be dissuaded from speaking up.

Third, MMA — like all sports — has to watch its image. The challenges in MMA are unique in the sense that we still have grumpy old sports editors and corporate sponsors who don’t want to deal with the sport. But they’re not unique in the sense that any sport can be stereotyped. Browse any sports site and read the comments about people who think the NBA is populated by “thugs.” Look at the damage control baseball has had to do in the wake of its drug scandals and labor strife.

MMA has unique ties to pro wrestling, particularly in Japan but also in the USA with crossovers such as Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley. But MMA and wrestling are a volatile mix. Handle with care.

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