If you're planning on watching the twelfth season of The Ultimate Fighter you might want to put on your pro wrestling view finders or you might find yourself really hating Josh Koscheck.
Luke Thomas ended his diatribe against those who insist on using Pro-wrestling terminology to discuss MMA with the following:
"I don't know Pro Wrestling terminology and I think I'm probably a lot more informed because of it."
That's where I have to part ways with my good friend and colleague.
I agree with Luke that attempting to over-simplify the real life drama of MMA into a black and white, good-guys-and-bad-guys template is lazy and robs watching the sport of much of the fun. But refusing to draw on any of the lessons taught by pro wrestling leaves MMA fans very open to being played for fools.
Ignorance is rarely useful in aiding understanding and this is no exception.
The reason that an understanding of the carnie tricks employed by pro wrestling to take money from the marks is helpful to the would-be astute watcher of the MMA scene is simple: MMA fighters and promoters use many of the same tricks.
Luke acknowledges this to a degree, but he misses one obvious point -- pro wrestling is the place where modern fight promotional methods were first perfected for the mass media age and in the post-Kayfabe era it's where fight promotion first went post-modern.
The reason pro wrestling promotion operates on a higher level than all but the most gifted fight promoters in other branches of combat sports is this: they're selling a fake fight. Everyone knows their product is fake and yet somehow they still manage to make millions of people care enough to pay money to find out what will happen.
Luke was flummoxed by some of Chael Sonnen's antics building up to UFC 117 -- particularly when he blatantly and obviously lied to Jim Rome about not making comments that had been recorded. But had Luke been more familiar with the work of such masters of crowd manipulation as Ric Flair and Roddy Piper, he'd have recognized an old trick.
More on that in the full entry.
K.J. Gould wrote an incredible analysis of Luke's comments on Pro Wrestling, here's a key take away:
Luke Thomas recognises that Pro Wrestling formulated a method of evoking a response by tapping into its audience's psyche, but doesn't think sports or at least certain personalities in sports have adopted or adapted this method from Pro Wrestling. He instead suggests that because it has always existed - this method of promotion through manipulation in some form - that Sports or sports personalities stumbled upon this notion outside of Pro Wrestling's influence and in spite of its existence (when earlier acknowledging its influence on MMA, at the least). Stating this method existed before Pro Wrestling as evidence that Pro Wrestling couldn't have influenced sports promotion, especially fight promotion is a stretch of the imagination at best. It's like saying Blues existed first, so Hip Hop directly took from Blues and ignored Funk's utilisation of Blues, because the person making the argument has a distaste for Funk even though Funk was clearly sampled a lot among other Blues spawned genres in the development of Hip Hop.
I agree Pro Wrestling can't lay claim to every extroverted personality out there, and that it doesn't take a Pro Wrestling influence to exaggerate your own ‘natural' personality, but when it comes to Sports and theatrics in sports - and by its very nature theatrics are forced and not organic - dismissing any possible influence from Pro Wrestling in favour of something else that's likely to be less influential but more palatable than Pro Wrestling just shows a flawed argument with a clear bias.
When it comes to MMA and the comments made about X fighter acting like a Heel or Y Fighter acting like a Face it's usually because that fighter has done something out of character, but more importantly something that feels contrived for the purpose of promoting themselves or the fight.
Now, sports don't need a background story to get people to watch, although if there is one it's a bonus and can add more to it. The sports that are mainstream are so because they're not controversial by nature and are socially acceptable, and because they are so ingrained in our lives through multiple decades of tradition. Combat sports, or combative entertainment in Pro Wrestling, don't have that luxury. Pro Wrestling is Trashy. And as Luke Thomas will point out himself MMA is Ghetto. Boxing may have the tradition, but it's missing the social acceptance other sports have. Some other sports aren't without controversy but the tradition and social acceptance covers for that.
Combat sports will not get mainstream attention on their own merits as a sport and it often takes something outlandish and theatrical to get noticed. But that's better then not being noticed at all which would be the case without this type of promotion.
Saying you prefer the real life complexities of people in sports to the fictional portrayal of Pro Wrestling is fine, as well as disliking any contrived promotion in MMA, but the true mainstream sports don't need these human complexities to drive them or make real money. In their cases the competition is enough. MMA however needs conflict; real or not it doesn't matter come fight time.
Here's where James Toney and Dana White come in. According to Dave Meltzer, the dean of pro wrestling writers and also one of the top MMA writers, Dana White and James Toney cooked up and executed their entire feud long before James Toney began following Dana White around and publicly challenging him. From the Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
While Dana White presented the idea that Toney had started following him around (Toney started appearing at UFC press conferences starting late last year cutting promos; clearly coming across like an angle had already been agreed to), challenged his fighters, so he would do the fight to shut him up, in actuality the fight was first proposed and negotiated for by White in 2006. Couture, at the time retired, was asked if he'd come out of retirement to face Toney, and he agreed, but the negotiations fell apart.
The entire James Toney debacle was a farce played out to rile up UFC fans and yet, most fell hard for the angle that James Toney "talked smack about the UFC" and "paid the price".
Wrestling fans know better than to take anything coming from a promoter or a performer at face value. MMA fans would behoove themselves to be equally wary.
...Whether fans love you or hate you, it's all about making money. That's the entire reason for doing it all. Yes, there are other reasons that guys fight but money is the most important one and I'll never let anyone convince me otherwise. That's what pro wrestling is and that's what MMA is.
Pro wrestling started as a carnival act. Lure the marks in with the promise of violence, only to give them a worked fight where they aren't actually hurting each other, and in fact are protecting each other, so they can do it again the next night and make more money. When the fights weren't enough they created characters and gimmicks to play to the crowd with. It's a tried and true method. If you get people to hate you and love your opponent, they will pay to see him kick your ass. MMA is the extension of this method because it's the ultimate payoff that pro wrestling cannot give us. When they get in that cage they will actually be trying to hurt each other.
The connection is in the build up. Koscheck is openly admitting that he will play the heel to counteract George St. Pierre's babyface persona. He's not saying he will do it because that's just who he is and he won't change for anybody. He's saying he will blatantly play a role if it means he makes more money. That's pro wrestling the whole way. Chael Sonnen never actually came out and said that but he was doing the same thing. He was presenting a character that was very much like himself but with the volume turned all the way up. Whether anybody wants to admit it or not, it's a tried and true method of fight promotion.
MMA and pro wrestling share so many similarities that you would be blind if you can't see it. Koscheck just came out and confirmed it. The goal is to make money and guys will do whatever they have to in order to do so. If they have to borrow a few pages out of the pro wrestling handbook then so be it. We all need to just accept it for what it is. It doesn't make MMA any less real or any less entertaining. The product in the cage remains the same and that's what really matters at the end of the day.
Personally I haven't watched pro wrestling in 25 years, although I did check in on it during the 1990's "Monday Night Wars" hey day. But I have found that paying attention to the commentary of those coming from a pro wrestling perspective like Dave Meltzer and Zach Arnold has dramatically improved my understanding of the business of MMA.
That does NOT entail blinding myself to the very real and multi-faceted human complexities involved in the sport. In fact, I'm obsessed with the nuances. Which is why I've been working on a series about the contradictions between Randy Couture's public persona and his real nature for weeks now. His lawyer slowed me down for a little while, but we got past that. Keep your eyes peeled.
But the moral of today's story is that it's better to be a "smark" who is attuned to the kayfabe and carnie tricks than a TUF-n00b who buys every bit of B.S. coming from Dana White and his stable of fighters.
Earlier installments of this series:
- Luke Thomas and Jordan Breen Make the Case Against Viewing MMA Through a Pro Wrestling Prism
- More on the Great "Keep Your Pro Wrestling Out of My MMA" Debate
My Nobel Peace Price worthy Chael Sonnen series:
- The Kayfabe of Chael Sonnen - Putting Anderson Silva Over
- Did Chael Sonnen Quit, Cheat, or Choke Against Anderson Silva? It Don't Matter, He's Still the Hero of UFC 117
- Ed Soares and Dave Meltzer on Chael Sonnen's "Quick Tap" Against Anderson Silva at UFC 117
- Wrong Again: Chael Sonnen's Flagrant Lies Make Fans More Likely To Believe the Fix Was in at UFC 117
- Preliminary Estimates Have UFC 117 Doing Near 1 Million Buys, Chael Sonnen Puts Anderson Silva Over the Top
- MMA Is Not Pro Wrestling and Shouldn't Be, or Did UFC 117 Show That Every Fighter Needs Kayfabe in His Arsenal?