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How WWE is emulating Antonio Inoki’s vision a decade later

By Zach Arnold | April 9, 2012

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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.

Topics: Japan, Media, MMA, Pro-Wrestling, UFC, Zach Arnold | 21 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

21 Responses to “How WWE is emulating Antonio Inoki’s vision a decade later”

  1. Sundog says:

    It not only kept Inoki relevant, it helped New Japan outlast both K1 and PRIDE

    • Chuck says:

      It did no such thing!! New Japan is lucky to be alive after the MMA shenanigans of the early 2000’s. As great as New Japan is, they are number one in Japan by default.

      As an addendum, it definitely helped keep Inoki alive and relevant, but it almost killed not only New Japan but pro wrestling in Japan outside of NOAH (since NOAH didn’t bother with that shit) and maybe some of the indies (like Michinoku Pro, Toryumon, etc.).

      Ed. — They did with Sugiura, though. He needed the money.

      • Chuck says:

        Ah, I forgot about Takashi Sugiura’s MMA matches. Thanks Zach. But that was more NOAH LETTING him fight in MMA matches elsewhere, not NOAH having those matches on their shows. Really only Sugiura and Daisuke Ikeda had an MMA style to them in NOAH that I could think of.

    • Yeah, what Chuck said. It hurt them a lot more than it helped. It allowed them to put guys in a top position that normally would not have gotten there, but the way they booked the incorporation of MMA into pro wrestling (Zach touched on it) popped a couple big houses but hurt them a lot more in the long run.

      It also resulted in that really awful period where they forced all the Juniors to work a fake-shoot style (awful).

      • Chuck says:

        Ah yeah! I very vividly remember Masahito Kakihara and Masayuki Naruse! They weren’t bad. Hell, Naruse was known for beating dudes way bigger than he is in MMA matches. But your point still stands.

        I also remember those European rounds style matches NJPW was doing then too (including the triumphant return of Tony St. Clair). Ah, good times!

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    I wonder if King Mo will sign with the WWE within a few months.

    The two big problems for the WWE which will only get worse as time goes on is:

    1) They have lost the majority of the 18+ crowd to the UFC. This is the money crowd that will spend more on tickets and PPVs overall.

    2) The talent pool for Pro Wrestlers is much smaller now that MMA is an option. Plus, the MMA lifestyle is much easier. Lesnar is still left over from the era that Pro Wrestling was a better option then MMA. If he graduated college in 2012, he likely would have never gone to the WWE ever in his life.

    We are already seeing this downgrade in talent across the WWE. They are still relying on HHH (42), The Undertaker(47), The Rock (39), Chris Jericho (41), Big Show (40), & Kane (47). The ages are next to their names. Obviously with Pro Wrestling (unlike MMA) there is a longer shelf life for these guys. But that list right there made up the bulk of their drawing talent at this years WrestleMania.

    Pro Wrestling will be around for years to come. But the long term success is not looking good.

    • Royal says:

      Wanna know something funny?

      They’re are putting the “Legit!” sign around Lesnar’s neck while trying to bury the shit out of Bryan Danielson, a guy who has worked and studied with real Catch wrestlers.

      • Jonathan Snowden says:

        Lesnar has also worked with real catch wrestlers. And he probably gets the legit tag for proving himself in real fights, rather than 60 minute matches with CM Punk.

  3. Alexander Mogue says:

    The man who will bring legitimacy back to the WWE.”

    “He went on to conquer the UFC.”

    Those phrases were never uttered not one time during the broadcast. They only said he would change the landscape and “War machine” or something ridiculous. Only thing I will agree with you on is that this is like a Fujita vision or Tadao Yasuda thing. Win some big fights and you come back to get pushed to the moon.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      They were said during the telecast within the first few minutes of the opening segment with Johnny Ace bringing out Brock Lesnar. Ace himself repeatedly using the word ‘legitimacy’ and Cole himself was the one blathering about Brock ‘conquering’ UFC and bringing up the UFC name multiple times.

      • frankp316 says:

        Zach, I think you are misreading the WWE’s motivation for last night’s UFC name dropping. They don’t need to do that to get Lesnar over because it wasn’t mentioned last week and it’s not on his profile. The name dropping was a futile attempt to get Johnny Ace over as a heel GM. And Cole is the toady heel announcer. Of course Johnny Ace will never get over because he’s boring. It demonstrates once again that the WWE doesn’t know the difference between legit heel heat and the kind of channel switching heat generated by Johnny Ace. They are desperate to get him over but it won’t work.

    • The Gaijin says:

      “The man who will bring legitimacy back to the WWE.”

      “He went on to conquer the UFC.”

      Those phrases were never uttered not one time during the broadcast.

      I just watched a youtube clip and these EXACT phrases were uttered word for word on the broadcast within the first 10 minutes of the opening.

      Nice work, smart guy. Always great when you try to snarkily show someone up and make yourself look like an absolute idiot.


  4. RST says:

    Hunt wears it well.

    And it would be a good fight just for the Rocky aspect!

    The man came back!

    He suits the style!

    True, he could get smoked like the Manhoef fight?!

    But he has a chin when he wants to!

    Give the guy a heck of a chance!

    Just for the constitution!

  5. Megatherium says:

    There is also some, albeit admittedly lesser, support building for the idea of scrapping the Johnson/McCall flyweight rematch and letting those two fight Dos Santos off shore in some ZUFFA sanctioned backwater.

    It’s the best option I’ve seen out there, certainly better than using Hunt.

  6. Mike Lewis says:

    Aren’t wwe more relying on the fact that their fans dont watch ufc as if they did they couldnt take seriously this whole “conquering UFC” thing.

    I think they are hoping more that the fans are aware of the UFC so it adds legitmacy to him but not followers of the UFC as it would make a mockery of the UFC conquering returning star.

    • Steve4192 says:

      “Aren’t wwe more relying on the fact that their fans dont watch ufc as if they did they couldnt take seriously this whole “conquering UFC” thing. “


      Mock the way he went out all you want, but Lesnar did ‘conquer the UFC’ for a short period of time. He came with almost no experience and was immediately competitive with veteran fighters and legends of the sport. Sure, his comeback after his health issues did not go well (at all), but that doesn’t change the fact that he was ‘The Man’ before being felled by illness and younger/more skilled competition.

      • Mike Lewis says:

        I am not mocking, what Lesnar achieved was amazing but my point is that because he went out the way he did they cant market that he conquered the UFC and now returns a hero because everybody’s last memory of him is him losing badly…in the first round…twice.

        So they are actually relying on that people have an idea of what the ufc is and that Brock was the champion there as opposed to that their fans are also avid ufc fans. It is no different to what they did with Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn in the 90’s.

  7. bezzarguy says:

    There’s something incredibly sad, almost tragic about Lesnar “play-fighting” again.This is a guy who could fight, a guy who actually became HW champ. A guy who took a terrific beating from Carwin, only to smile across the cage through bloody teeth, before going on to win the fight.This will be his legacy, rolling around with dudes in bright costumes, pretending to punch each other.

    • bluerosekiller says:

      Though I was never a fan of Lesner’s during his foray into MMA, I do admire what he was able to accomplish given his late start in actual professional combat sports. It’s likely something that we’ll not see repeated again.
      Especially when you consider the fact that he’s an individual who really never adapted well to getting punched in the face ( or, in the last case, the body ). Which isn’t a dig on him, honestly. It’s not as if his distaste for getting hit was indicative of him being a coward. In some ways, it displayed extraordinary heart for him to climb in the cage facing some of the most dangerous fighters in history handicapped by his never having adapted well to the striking game of MMA.
      if Lesner lacked heart, he’d have walked away immediately after Mir applied that knee bar 7 he’d have tapped out to Carwin’s strikes…
      But, he didn’t & he accomplished a great deal during his short time in the UFC. Which, doesn’t necessarily automatically qualify him for a spot in the HOF IMO, but I think his legacy will be seen positively in the long run.

      As for his returning to the WWE for a while while he’s still young & healthy enough to do so, why not?
      I don’t see it as sad at all. It’s entertainment. He has every right to provide himself & his family with further financial security while the gettings good.
      To my eyes, it’s no different than if he were to go into acting & cash in on his fame as a former UFC champ by portraying an unbeatable MMA fighter in some movie. Would the fact that he got KO’d in his last two fights in the octagon make him less believable in such a role to the general public? I really doubt it.
      Besides, in order for one to be a fan of pro wrestling, one already has to have a highly developed suspension of disbelief anyhow. Don’t you think?

    • Steve4192 says:

      “There’s something incredibly sad, almost tragic about Lesnar “play-fighting””


      Sakuraba, Minowa, Barnett, Severn, Frye, Soszy?ski and many others have proudly walked the line between legit fights and pro wrestling theatrics. Is appearing in pro wrestling any more embarrassing than some of the awful movies that MMA fighters have appeared in? Why single out one theatrical outlet and not the others?

  8. liger05 says:

    Brian Danielson was actually entering submission wrestling tournaments prior to him go to the WWE wasnt he?

    I would like to him back in New Japan one day. Does he still train @ Team Coture?


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