By Zach Arnold | April 9, 2012
Last week on this web site, I discussed how many MMA writers are practically gleeful to talk about Brock Lesnar’s return to the WWE under the label of being the former UFC Heavyweight champion. Things got so carried this weekend that there were arguments about whether or not Brock Lesnar deserves to be placed in the UFC Hall of Fame.
In last week’s article, I stated that the reason so many WWE fans were cheering Brock Lesnar’s return is because he is viewed as an icon of legitimacy for wrestling fans. WWE fans are a tortured lot given all the ‘comedy’ crap (like The Three Stooges this week) they’ve had to endure for so long and how the WWE vision of wrestling has deviated so far from what the wrestling business used to look like. Because Lesnar won the UFC Heavyweight title, in the eyes of many wrestling fans this is viewed as a symbol of making pro-wrestling legitimate. Lesnar is not a cartoon character. He’s a pro-wrestler who can do real fights. Therefore, this plays right into the paranoid & manic psychology that so many wrestling fans have today.
A lot of people laughed at this notion when I initially trotted it out. If Monday night’s edition of RAW was any indication, my assessment was deadly accurate.
“The man who will bring legitimacy back to the WWE.” – Johnny Ace
“He went on to conquer the UFC.” – Michael Cole
These phrases were used multiple times by the TV announcers during the show (via Vince McMahon in the earpiece) to put over a confrontation between Lesnar & John Cena. In many respects, this is utterly fascinating to watch. First, it’s a grave admission by Vince & company that much of their audience does in fact watch & support the UFC’s PPVs. We already knew this but this point of logic is something WWE has desperately denied for many years. Second, it’s revealing in that even WWE recognizes that their fans view UFC as a ‘real fight’ sport and therefore Lesnar’s success there can hopefully give them a rub for credibility. Third, I can’t imagine what the feeling is right now at UFC HQ seeing that their number one PPV draw is about to go back to being the WWE’s number one PPV draw. It’s hard to reconcile to ‘real sports’ people that your top guy is Vince McMahon’s top guy. It’s quite a unique conundrum that has developed here.
So, if you’re an MMA fan, why should you care about this story? From a historical standpoint, what we are seeing today with Brock Lesnar’s return to WWE is an experiment we saw over a decade ago in Japan with the Japanese MMA scene & Antonio Inoki trying to integrate his pro-wrestlers in the movement.
Inoki used New Japan wrestlers like Naoya Ogawa, Shinya Hashimoto, Yuji Nagata, Kendo Ka Shin, Kazuyuki Fujita, and Tadao Yasuda in curiously booked MMA fights. In the case of Nagata, his KO loss to Mirko Cro Cop hurt his career for many years. In the case of Kazuyuki Fujita & Tadao Yasuda, their inexplicable initial MMA success led them to get big pushes back in New Japan because they won ‘real fights’ in PRIDE or K-1. Both men became IWGP Heavyweight champion. Inoki saw the MMA wave coming in Japan through PRIDE & K-1 and tried to save New Japan’s mainstream appeal by integrating pro-wrestlers into the MMA world. On the whole, it backfired in some respects but also kept Inoki’s name relevant as a pitchman for years to come. His vision of blurring the lines has existed for 40+ years.
Which takes us to April 2012. Brock Lesnar is the former UFC Heavyweight champion. His last opponent, Alistair Overeem, failed a urine drug test… but Nevada won’t change the result of the Overeem/Lesnar fight to a no contest. Lesnar returns to WWE to a jubilant pop to kick the ass of the ultimate WWE corporate boy in John Cena. WWE decides to go full tilt in pushing Lesnar by talking about all of his ‘real fighting’ accomplishments in the UFC.
A great irony in all of this is that when Lesnar had his initial dispute with WWE, he would end up getting booked by… Antonio Inoki. Lesnar got the IWGP strap and ended up no-showing a title match in Sapporo against Hiroshi Tanahashi when the possible prospects of him dropping the belt suddenly occurred. Lesnar would go on to wrestle Kurt Angle in Inoki’s own promotion before signing with the UFC.
It really is a small world after all.