UFC 200 is now in the books and it has arguably been the most troubled event UFC has put on. Not since its earliest days, where the events were almost so underground that some states refused to allow them has there been so much turmoil leading up to a show.
As recently as last year, with the shock losses by Ronda Rousey to Holly Holm and later Connor McGregor to Nate Diaz, Dana White has had headaches. Every time he finds a bankable star, the nature of the sport comes to bite them and they tumble down the pecking order.
For many UFC's natural rival has always been the WWE. Indeed the two have always shared a symbiotic relationship, with early UFC Champions Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock both being professional wrestlers who parlayed their UFC wins into WWE careers. Indeed Shamrock became a WWE Intercontinental Champion and was the preferred choice for Bret Hart to "lose" the belt to before the events of the Montreal Screwjob. Before this, WWE head honcho Vince McMahon and his father were promoting boxer vs wrestler bouts as far back as the 70's, with Muhammad Ali taking on Japanese legend Antonio Inoki and Andre the Giant v Chuck Wepner.
The Ali/Inoki match sucked as the latter spent an hour on the mat kicking, forcing Ali to "float like a butterfly" around the ring before the inevitable draw. It was alleged by former WWE Champion Bret Hart, who worked for Inoki at the time that Ali's "Black Muslim" handlers had negotiated a severe set of restrictions on him, with threats of violence should he break them and beat their man. So even this was not the legit contest that UFC now offers.
Of course the rub is that we all know WWE is pre-determined, whereas UFC is not. Wrestlers are often derided by MMA purists and the same can be said of their fans. The F word, in this case fake is often used to insult fans of WWE and other worked promotions, implying people don't realize the truth.
However grappling is a legit form of combat, having trained myself for many years I can attest to this. There is a safe, worked way to put a hold onto an opponent and a real "shoot" way that could snap a limb with as little as 15 pounds of pressure. Tales of the old "shooters" such as Lou Thesz, Billy Robinson and Stu Hart are legends, with the latter's "Dungeon" being a mecca for those who wanted to learn the art. Stu's son Owen, who tragically died in a WWE ring in 1999 famously, as a child recorded an unfortunate victim of Stu's stretching showing one thing. Many wrestlers, if trained right, can do more damage than a knockout punch can.
For all the arguments over the technical aspects and whether WWE is a "sport" or not, there is one aspect Vince has always excelled at and this is creating and marketing his events, and his stars. Wrestlemania had its 32nd annual event this year, and while on paper it was a more lackluster card, that it broke an indoor attendance record was in no small part to the marketing effort around new stars. Roman Reigns was the man chosen to headline the show, while a mixture of veterans and newcomers fill out the card. AJ Styles was the "new guy" and despite a loss to Chris Jericho on the night, his star was made. WWE is great at doing that, where as over in UFC, one loss can literally end a career.
Thus, UFC has found it hard to keep stars who they can bank on for more than headlining a few shows. Guys like Chuck Liddell, George St. Pierre could do it but more recently the focus has shifted to younger talent like Connor, Jon and Ronda.
The Ballad Of Dana, Jon & Connor
They all track well with fans, McGregor for example offers an edgy personality and ability on the microphone. Jon Jones could have bossed UFC for years to come and Ronda was the perfect woman to popularise the sport to new markets, particularly women.
But all 3 had major setbacks which damaged their market worth. Connor losing to Diaz made him seem more a blowhard than a blow you away type, Ronda losing right when she had signed for some movies and was talking about going to WWE made it look like she wanted out and Jon Jones' second doping violation takes him out of pretty much all serious competition going forward, even if it is for recreational rather than performance enhancing.
The other factor is Dana White. The man in charge of UFC has made some poor decisions lately, notably removing Connor from UFC 200 after a very public disagreement. While the exact reasons may not be quite known, to a layman it would seem that Connor had a point, that he then so publicly negotiated with Floyd Mayweather was a warning sign as much as anything. Dana White was becoming a factor in UFC's success, like it or not.
He seemingly pulled a rabbit from the sleeve when he successfully negotiated with WWE to secure Brock Lesnar's return. This was no small feat but was also a tacit acceptance that UFC 200 and thus the company was lacking star power. With Ronda and Connor off the show and former WWE Champion CM Punk not ready yet, he needed someone else on the show.
Brock Lesnar was the logical choice, having famously quit WWE in 2004 and headed to UFC via the NFL camps. After a shaky start, Lesnar quickly became UFC Heavyweight champion. His return, despite a dodgy record cemented UFC 200 as a big time event with mainstream interest. Of course what White didn't expect was Jon Jones' drug test failure, announced just days before the show. Forget the embarrassment of losing Jones again, perhaps for years this time but think about how now, thanks largely to how he handled Connor, Dana was relying on the WWE guy to headline his biggest ever show.
Vince McMahon of course is no stranger to own goals of this type, he has famously started bodybuilding and Football leagues that have bombed and successfully defeated his competition, that nearly destroyed his company by purchasing WCW before blowing the opportunity in the eyes of most fans of both companies. Indeed even Roman Reigns, the man he has personally chosen to lead his company into the future is currently serving a 30 day suspension for a drug test failure, forcing the belt to be placed on the man many felt should be holding it already, Dean Ambrose.
While Vince would have been secretly happy to see his man so important to UFC and thus it being down to him for allowing it to happen, he would also empathize with Dana White somewhat. However Vince is definitely a "me first" kind of guy and with Brock's "upset" win over Mark Hunt (most expected Hunt to knock him out) and several UFC fighter's interest in working with WWE, especially Ronda and Connor it puts him into an enviable position when it comes to future negotiations with UFC.
Dana has tried to steer a course of making UFC THE preferred destination for talented fighters. WWE however is increasingly becoming an option for them for a one off or short run. Indeed even Floyd Mayweather has fought at Wrestlemania, so why couldn't Connor or Ronda? In the past it would be because Dana said no, but to get Brock this time, some kind of consideration would have to be made. Ronda would be the less damaging of the options, as it would be a one off and she probably isn't going back to UFC full time, but if Vince could persuade McGregor to jump ship, even for a year or even work in some of the potential Mayweather promotion into WWE with a rematch held at Wrestlemania for example, then you can easily see Connor wanting to leave UFC for WWE, even in the short term.
Perhaps the most interesting chance for a UFC cross promotion is the one that on paper seems least likely. Dana's next and arguably final hope for a major star is another former WWE Champion, CM Punk.
Punk famously quit the WWE a couple of years ago on bad terms, is currently suing them over medical malpractice allegations and has gone on record about the ugly way he was treated meaning he doesn't want to go back, but of course you never say never. From a UFC standpoint, Punk is untested, he has no fight background at all and is very much a risk. He could bomb spectacularly against Mickey Gall at UFC 202 or he could stun the world and start putting a career together. Either way it's probably a matter of time until Dana has to convince Punk to show up in WWE again, either because it didn't work out for him or imagine if he was there as a UFC Welterweight Champion, representing his new home against someone like Connor McGregor who is now in WWE?
Ultimately UFC 200 will go down as a mild success, but one that could have been much more had Dana White not made certain choices. What he now has is a situation where many of his top people have had their heads turned by WWE, not just because it's "fixed" but because Lesnar has proven you can be in that world and still sharp in the MMA world. Lesnar just proved CAN do both and more importantly get well paid to do so. Dana's people are going to want to now, the reality that a one year deal with WWE would probably net someone like Connor, who is a natural fit for WWE $3m-$5m and make their inevitable UFC return worth more. A year for Ronda in WWE could see similar sums and perhaps the chance to be the first female headliner at Wrestlemania would be something that she would love to do? Not to mention that the schedule would be much more favorable, allowing other outside interests like movies to happen.
From Vince's perspective, he now has a rejuvenated Brock Lesnar under contract, going into a big match with Randy Orton next month at Summerslam. This perhaps taking some of the embarrassment of Reigns' situation away but it definitely makes Lesnar a household name again. Vince may well let Brock out again to play, but he'll want more each time for it.
Even now Dana owes Vince a favor! That's not a good position for him to be in as while both men are ultra professional you never know what Vince is gonna want. If it's an option on Connor should he leave, if it's UFC guys (Punk) taking a bullet in a worked match down the line who knows? Perhaps it's Ronda for a year or even a one off match in the UK Wrestlemania for Michael Bisping?
After years of steering UFC on its own course, Dana has now veered the company into shared waters. It's a bit like Fox Studios tying up with Marvel to allow the X-Men into their world... we all want to see it and it could be the best thing ever for both companies, or it could be toxic. WWE has been around long enough to survive, but UFC? If it went wrong it could go BADLY wrong for them and with news of new owners paying $4billion for UFC coming just today, the last thing they need is a bad crossover ruining the brand.
Indeed, it could be that how UFC 200 turned out means the new owners decide to show Dana the door rather than entertain any crossovers at all. Where it may get awkward is if any contractual consideration was made with WWE for allowing Lesnar's use on the show. New owners may choose to simply buy out those clauses rather than take the risk... or perhaps the willingness to suddenly work with WWE could now be coming FROM the new owners!
What do you think? Will we see a UFC star fight on a WWE show? Let me know in the comments!