In the last three years UFC has seen an explosion in popularity like never before. The brutal cage matches that once only satisfied the particularly blood thirsty are now seeping into the mainstream mind and becoming ever more prevalent with every passing day. UFC events sell out arenas all over the globe, every PPV draws millions of viewers worldwide despite time zones, and UFC has its own successful series of annual videogames.
This sudden surge of popularity is, mostly, down to one person. His name is Conor McGregor.
Not to take the credit away from any other fighter that goes through rigorous training and puts their bodies and lives on the line for our entertainment, like gladiators in Roman coliseums. But, Ronda Rousey aside, only the man from Dublin has really broken the barrier and become a pop culture figure.
It’s not because he’s an exceptional, exhilarating fighter to watch, although that sure does help, but it’s the man outside of the octagon that has drummed up so much interest in the sport. Unmissable press conferences in which he is almost guaranteed to be entertaining, Instagram posts showing off his luxurious lifestyle, a constant stream of jibes at Floyd Mayweather and the knack of turning up outside of random nightclubs have all elevated McGregor above everyone else in his sport and thrust him thoroughly into the mainstream limelight.
The Notorious Conor McGregor made himself a character, a wise cracking badass who defies authority figures and has a tendency to throw cans about. Now, does that remind you of any one?
UFC’s popularity has risen so much in recent years because, in its own unique way, it has started to become a bit like wrestling. The theatrics and hysterics are stirred into the melting pot to give more of an emotional connection to every bout. The fighting is obviously still very much real, but outside of the brutal carnage that takes place in the octagon we’re beginning to see larger than life characters, passionate feuds between competitors and even the faintest outlines of stories. The growing influence of wrestling on the UFC was typified when CM Punk made a successful start to his UFC career back in September. (Sniggers).
So UFC takes influences from WWE and wrestling on a whole, but can wrestling do the same thing? Can wrestling on every stage look to UFC’s fighting styles, presentation and seriousness to take wrestling in a new, interesting direction?
Well, yes. Yes they can. In fact, it’s already happening. In both WWE and independent promotions across the planet, MMA is beginning to have a much bigger influence on the graps.
Where else is there to start but at the very top? Who else but WWE’s resident conqueror, Brock Lesnar? WWE have allowed the former UFC champion to vanquish and squash almost all those who have come before him, including The Undertaker at Wrestlemania and John Cena. Any young face in WWE who has come up against The Beast Incarnate has been quickly suplexed into oblivion and disposed of with reckless abandon. He’s the big bad, the ultimate last boss of WWE—his aura is palpable and he’s one mean, scary bastard.
So why has WWE built Lesnar to be such a monster since his return to the company? It’s because he’s a legit fighter. In his nine MMA fights he’s won five of them, two by knockout, two by submission and one by decision. He’s lost three of his matches, with one being a non contest, but the defeats matter little: he’s still a legitimate prizefighter.
The WWE craves these legitimate fighters who can attract wider audiences, who can give their product a richer sense of realism and believability. Another prime example of this is Kurt Angle, who won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games. Angle didn’t join WWE until 1999, but the company was clamoring to get him well before then.
As far as legitimacy goes, none are more so than Lesnar. In his current run his MMA background has been brought to the forefront. Not only does he look like a fighter with his ring gear but WWE happily promoted Lesnar’s latest return to the UFC, as he took on the Kiwi brute Mark Hunt at UFC 200. Lesnar won but the decision was later overturned as he twice tested positive for clomiphene. Despite the controversy and WWE’s seemingly strict wellness policy, which has even seen golden boy Roman Reigns hit with suspension, Lesnar continued to appear on WWE programming in the run up to his SummerSlam encounter with Randy Orton. One subtle dig from the Apex Predator aside, Lesnar’s controversy was not mentioned in WWE at all.
This built up to the match between Lesnar and Orton itself, and the gnarly way in which it finished. The match closed out SummerSlam and it was shaping up to be a fine encounter, until Lesnar got a top mount on Orton in the middle of the ring and then started to batter Orton with elbow strike after elbow strike. Blood poured from Orton’s forehead and Lesnar was given the win via TKO. It was hard to tell if the finish was a work or a shoot in the moment, with even Chris Jericho reportedly being tricked, but it was indeed a work—and boy, did it work. As if Lesnar needed anything else to push him, this very MMA-like ground and pound finish was absolutely brutal and made Lesnar look like an even bigger monster. F5s and suplexes are all well and good, but a savage beating doesn’t only look terrifying, it gets people talking about WWE and gets eyes on the product.
By openly bringing attention to Lesnar’s fighting in the UFC and leaning on that with the story and within the match itself, they were able to finish a match with genuine ambiguity and also build a character with so much heat that when he was finally conquered, by Bill Goldberg in less than 90 seconds, the roof nearly lifted off the building. It’s the biggest and best example of how wrestling can use MMA to its advantage to create intriguing stories and interesting matches.
Lesnar isn’t the only wrestler signed to WWE who has an array of MMA inspired moves in his arsenal. There’s NXT’s Aleister Black, whose striking style is one of the most unique and crisp in the world of wrestling. The Anti-Hero is highly trained in both kickboxing and Pencak Silat, which heavily inspires his moveset of vicious elbow strikes and devastating kicks. Another PROGRESS alumni, Jack Gallagher, may be making a name for himself in WWE with his gentlemanly persona, but he is also no stranger to serious competition. He’s competed in two MMA fights and won both via submission in the first round. Gallagher was the only cruiserweight to compete in the 2017 Royal Rumble, so it’s clear he’s already made an impression in WWE and his legitimate background won’t hurt.
On the indie scene we have Matt Riddle. The King of Bros may only have begun his wrestling career a little over two years ago, but he’s already one of the most highly rated wrestlers in the world. He too has quite a significant history with MMA. Riddle had 13 bouts in his career and won eight of them. He was released by UFC while on a four match win streak after failing a second drug test in a year for marijuana. He retired from MMA completely a year later and then began to take on his “true dream” of being a professional wrestler.
Riddle recently won the PROGRESS Atlas Championship by defeating Rampage Brown at Chapter 42. The way in which he earned the belt was, in a similar fashion to Lesnar’s victory over Orton, very much inspired by MMA. After Rampage kicked out of both of Riddle’s signature moves Riddle rained a flurry of strikes down upon his skull. Foreams, stomps and more vicious looking ground and pound strikes eventually secured him the win. The finish of the match was strange and unique. So much so that it took a portion of the crowd a few seconds to realize that is was actually the end, as it didn’t end with the usual finale of finishing moves. Some may even say it ended abruptly and underwhelmingly, but the brutal finish gave the match a strong sense of realism and made it Riddle’s victory even more surprising.
The list of wrestlers past and present, in both WWE and in the wider world of wrestling, who have competed in MMA is quite substantial beyond the few mentioned in this article, and there aren’t many in the world who haven’t incorporated some style of martial art either in their move set or just in training. MMA-style strikes and grappling have been a prominent part of Japanese wrestling for years. The in-ring influence of MMA in wrestling is clear to see, and the more it continues to be used the more thrilling, original wrestlers will come of it.
But outside of the ring, where else can wrestling learn from MMA and the UFC? WWE was more than happy to promote Lesnar’s in the octagon and, of course, Ronda Rousey appeared in a WWE ring at Wrestlemania 31. No doubt WWE will try to cooperate with the UFC again in the future, and who knows who may appear in Raw or Smackdown one day? Rumors of Conor McGregor having a run in the company refuse to ever completely be snuffed out, and enough WWE superstars have called out the Irishman in the past to gently stoke the flames.
The stars of UFC aside, one massive aspect of the spectacle of UFC that could well be incorporated more into wrestling is how the UFC builds up their fights. The press conferences and weigh ins can, on occasion, be more entertaining than the duels themselves, and it’s there where the hype and rivalries are really set alight. Of course, New Japan Pro-Wrestling already use press conferences, and they were particularly effective in the build up to 2017’s ground breaking Wrestle Kingdom 11. They used conferences to advance stories and give more context for the star studded show, which helped build the emotional investment of the audience. WWE briefly dabbled in post-show press conferences on the WWE Network, but with the amount of back stage segments the WWE loves to use, it’s surprising that they haven’t done more with the press conference idea to build legitimacy and hype for some of their bigger cards. Right now Titus O’Neil’s “Titus Brand” conference is the closest we’ve got.
Fans of wrestling and MMA both often slag off the other’s preferred sport for their perceived downfalls, but this really is a backwards, damaging attitude to have. MMA and wrestling are two completely different entities, and yet they overlap with each other so much. Competition and rivalries force greatness to happen, and the more the two sports continue to be inspired by one another the greater both will be.
Dan Murphy is a staff writer with God is a Geek and has written for Kotaku, Playboy and more. He’s on Twitter @Murbroski.