I've read and heard Luke Thomas' CONSTANT and FUTILE attempts to separate pro wrestling from MMA on his radio show and on other shows and transcriptions on bloodyelbow.com. I don't disagree that it is important to regularly distinguish MMA from the Vince McMahon interpretation of pro wrestling that is known as the WWE. One of the main reasons Vince DIDN'T BUY THE UFC was because his own people pointed out to him that as soon as his name was associated to the UFC the UFC brand would become worthless because everyone would believe everything was fixed. And it would ruin the appeal of the product the UFC is known for and consequently defeat the purpose of the acquisition. So, yeah I concede that constantly interspersing an unbalanced pro wrestling perspective into an MMA context can confuse not only the fans but also the promoters themselves and perhaps be even damaging to the integrity of MMA as a sport since the only objective in pro wrestling is to make money. In MMA sometimes you need to make certain match ups for the benefit of the sport even if said match ups won't draw a hill of beans (Edgar vs. Maynard for example). You have to value the sporting component at the potential expense of a money making match ups from time to time. MMA is as much about pure athletic competition as it is event based spectacle and if you let an otherwise ignorant promoter or performer in MMA become too wrapped up in the spectacle nature of event promotion they can very easily lose sight of the core objective in MMA and pervert what it is all about. We've seen this sort of perversion happen quite frequently in Japan especially with Pancrase and much of the history of Pride is littered with cases of spectacle being prized over sport (some would say much of Wanderlei Silva's lengthy title defenses against unworthy Japanese fighters to be the product of Japanese promoters desperate to find another Sakuraba). I also completely agree that the current American paradigm of pro wrestling that was molded by the McMahons over the past 30 years is far more harmful than good to not only its viewers but especially its participants and the list of dead ex-WWE performers over the past 20 years is a testament to this perspective.
But in the US, there is no danger of the UFC being confused about what it's objective is and they have come the closest in MMA's brief history of finding a balance between the sporting and spectacle nature of the event based product they promote. This leads to what Luke doesn't understand about why pro wrestling and MMA are inextricably linked, and it is the main reason and perhaps the only real reason. It may also be why it's hard to get a more 'regular' sporting audience (whatever that really means) attracted to the UFC and it is by no means because some internet pundits throw around pro wrestling terms when describing some of the UFC match-ups, it's because the two products SHARE THE EXACT SAME BUSINESS MODEL since the inception of the UFC. They appeal and market to the exact same types of fans by default, fans that are accustomed to shelling out $30-50 / month for a show. You simply will never attract the 'mainstream sports crowd' in large numbers if that is the main product you're pushing unless there is a major paradigm shift in viewing habits of the majority of the 'mainstream sports' viewing audience. IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MMA BEING 'REAL COMPETITION' AND PRO WRESTLING BEING 'FAKE COMPETITION'. That's just a line pro wrestling haters regurgitate because they have no real idea what they don't like about pro wrestling other than it doesn't fancy their taste. And good luck arguing about taste.
From UFC 1 the core business model for the UFC has been pay-per-view. This makes the UFC a competitor with WWE pro wrestling; both pay-per-view based businesses that promote sports/entertainment event style shows 1-2 times a month. The very nature of pay-per-view is to sell spectacle over substance. It's similar to the movie industry in this way. Sure a quality art house film like Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" or good documentary like "Hands on a Hardbody" may have more substance and redeeming value than "Avatar" but guess which film is going to be far, far more successful? Luke tries to make the case for fans to not simplify MMA into a pro wrestling context in the following excerpt from his talk with Jordan Breen on Jordan's radio show transcribed on bloodyelbow.com:
"How much more interesting is human success and fallibility and the contradiction between them and trying to make sense of it all. That, to me, trying to unpack that and make sense of it and roll with it and have fun with it, that to me is so is why sport will always beat pro-wrestling and not to say that pro-wrestling hasn't been hugely at popular. Obviously the 80s were the hey-day, but that... I mean, listen, who is The Rock, right? Who is that guy? Well, Dwayne Johnson is Dwayne Johnson. The Rock is a character and Dwayne Johnson is an actor. It is a human caricature played by a human being. But, to me, Dwayne Johnson as entertaining as some of The Rock's rants may have been when I was 18 years old or whenever, Dwayne Johnson's life is vastly more interesting and you know or even locally, let's take John McCain. I don't care whether you like John McCain or hate him. Here's a guy who was a war hero and also left his first wife for his second for really no good reason, you know this is a guy who has served America for many years, fought for America and was tortured in prison, I mean my God one of the best Americans ever, and you know... kind of just left his family hanging and to me that is the essence of who we are. I am many, I contain multitudes. To me, you know, that is why I enjoy sports so much more. Chael Sonnen, for all his inanity, I bet he's a much more interesting guy than sort of this person he portrayed himself to be and I think if pro-wrestling fans lose that, then you lose part of the reason why sports and our athletes who participate in our sport, THAT is what makes them so interesting...I would just say that you're only cheating yourself, you know, you're only hurting yourself. You're only giving yourself a very narrow window into a world that I would ask you to believe is significantly more complicated and significantly more interesting because of that complication. You know, you don't have to have final resolution about somebody, you know somebody's either black or their white, and I mean that sort of as a moralistic thing, ah, well they're evil or they're good or they're strong or they're weak. You know, they're much more than that and you don't have to have a satisfying feeling about them being predominantly one or the other. You could just say, I don't know who they really are and I say that all the time about people and that's OK and that's still, to me, vastly more interesting than anything else. And people change over the course of their career. BJ Penn isn't the same guy he was earlier and that's human development that has changed him. He's a father now, he's got lots of money now, he was a two-division champion, you know he's a much different human being than he was before, you know why lose sight of that?...Well, I can say this, I don't know pro-wrestling terminology and I think I'm probably a lot more informed because of it."
Since when does the UFC do anything that Luke is talking about when it comes to promoting fights? On rare occasion they do a PrimeTime but the majority of those shows are like expanded Countdown shows with a better soundtrack and more expensive production values. Rampage vs. Rashad's primetime was mostly just trash talking for about 21 minutes of each 23 minute episode.
One of the first things obvious to any serious pro wrestling fan is that the only exposure Luke has had to pro wrestling has been the Vince McMahon WWE product of the past 20-30 years. He'd be pretty surprised to know that there are far more variations on how to promote pro wrestling, some that may actually be more to his liking, than he realizes. His example of The Rock is interesting because, if he knew what he was talking about, he'd know that for a long while Dwayne Johnson's character of 'Rocky Maivia' was promoted as a 'face' but thoroughly hated and rejected by the pro wrestling audience. His 'heel turn' and his natural charisma and gifts on the mike are what actually got him cheered over time. This points to an interesting example of the audience dictating to the promoter rather than vice versa which illustrates why very intelligent people like Dave Meltzer, Bryan Alvarez, Wade Keller (heads and tails more fair and level headed than Luke) have interest in pro wrestling. The ability to manipulate an audience is a craft in and of itself and when done wrong can have disastrous results. Studying the nuances of promotion is an effort far more intelligent people than Luke Thomas have dedicated years of their life towards. Is it potentially dangerous to be too immersed in the con game of pro wrestling? Well sure but only if the fans don't realize its a con (and pro wrestling fans have known this for years) and if the con artist loses their perspective on reality and begin to live their character in their daily lives which is fascinating from a spectator perspective but usually tragic for the performer. But this is no different than the problems that method actors find themselves facing after years and years of making films. In Luke's recent MMA Nation show, he spends the last 10 minutes of his show taking another swing at pro wrestling saying that Brock Lesnar's (of all people) performance at UFC 116 was one of the most moving moments he had ever seen in sporting history and 'THAT WAS WHY PRO WRESTLING CAN NEVER COMPETE WITH MMA' or something to that effect. Is the guy sane? Where does he think Brock learned to talk on a mike? Does he think Brock would have been able to speak his mind and play games with Joe Rogan as comfortably as he did after the Carwin (or Mir or Herring) wins without his pro wrestling training? The best pro wrestling promos always have a thread of sincerity to them. Does Luke honestly think winning the WWE world title isn't a major accomplishment, perhaps a neigh impossible accomplishment in the life of a pro wrestler? The competition is totally different of course but you are still competing with thousands of other pro wrestlers for the top position in the largest promotion in the world. Of course not all the competition is performed in-ring, but it is the competition out of the ring that interests many pro wrestling fans in particular the more informed fans. Has Luke ever seen Brock Lesnar's last match in SummerSlam against Goldberg where he was thoroughly booed because the fans had already learned that Brock had just resigned the day before despite the WWE never announcing the news formally at that point? Pro wrestling fans look at pro wrestling almost like an interactive drama, really no different than say American Idol or a male soap opera like Entourage. The level of dedication and sacrifice and risk and pain and suffering a pro wrestler has to endure to find long term success is equivalent if not more difficult than what an MMA fighter must experience. Of course a pro wrestler has to rely on other skill sets besides his athletic abilities and fighting talent but it's extremely difficult nonetheless. The only distinction is that in MMA a successful performance is a little more objectified and not so subjective. When you knock some one out or make them tap, there is no disputing your performance was successful. In pro wrestling, a good performance can be measured any number of ways (drawing money is the most clear cut) however the interpretation of the results is ultimately up to the whim of the promoter. There are several cases in pro wrestling where what many perceive to be a successful performance by a pro wrestler is repeatedly ignored by a pro wrestling promoter while inferior performances are rewarded by the same promoter. Due to the strong subjective nature of evaluating a pro wrestling performance, politics plays a heavy hand in the progress of a pro wrestler's career. But this is no different than watching the Academy Awards or watching a figure skating competition or a dance competition.
Unfortunately, you'd have a better chance of getting the UFC to co-promote with M-1 than getting Luke Thomas to show an ounce of humility and recognize that there are people far smarter than him interested in analyzing the layers of the pro wrestling game. There's a reason why there are so many very intelligent pro wrestling fans in Canada and Japan when compared to America. But I digress.
The biggest thing that I noticed was that his whole diatribe was like arguing that fans of Hollywood movies are stupid for always wanting the characters in their movies simplified into 'good guys' and 'bad guys' and having a happy ending where all the conflict is resolved in 2-2.5 hours. Of course this promotes a short-sighted view of the world but is Luke thinking the UFC is working any differently? And how does sport inherently promote a more well rounded view of an athlete? If anything, successful athletes in mainstream sports are able to hide their vulnerabilities and true nature far more effectively and do so commonly. It's only investigative journalism, that Luke does very little of, that is able to uncover the layers of humanity behind say Ben Rothlisberger or Andre Agassi or Tiger Woods. Their athletic success or failures are generally just smokescreen keeping fans from knowing anything about their personal lives or their true characters. Failed athletes are commonly vilified and athletic success stories are praised even if the failed athletes are quality human beings and the star athletes are total turds in real life. Only on rare occasion might an athletic performance give you a tiny sliver of a glimpse into the souls of these athletes, but no greater glimpses than you get watching a pro wrestler perform especially a talented pro wrestler. Actually, due to the theatrics associated with pro wrestling I would say it's easier to get a multi-dimensional perspective of the true person that is performing in pro wrestling than in any of the mainstream sports. Athletics in and of themselves mostly don't reveal anything about a person's true nature...O.J. Simpson is just one of SEVERAL cases in point.
Inserting pro wrestling terminology into the regular MMA discourse isn't the fault of a few internet pundits, this is a direct result of the UFC adopting a pay-per-view business model where they HAVE to package, market and sell a fight card once a month to a PAYING audience. This is a direct result of the UFC chasing after one of the largest pro wrestling audiences in the world, the Canadian pro wrestling market. The 55 year old American male that pines for the days of Hank Aaron and was shocked to realize Mark McGuire was a liar, or the 30-40 year olds that huddle around the TV every Sunday and Monday evening to watch Michael Vick's return to the NFL on network tv are not accustomed to having to pay for their pleasure on a regular basis. How different would the NFL and NBA and MLB be if they developed as pay-per-view based businesses? Would they have ever gotten as big as they have? Would the people that are fans of those sports now ever have become fans to begin with? There are far, far, far, far greater hindrances to getting the 'regular sporting audience' interested in MMA than what a few pundits say on an internet site.
From the beginning, whether they realized it or not, the UFC defaulted to promoting to an audience with an already established viewing habit of paying for their entertainment on a monthly basis. While the UFC didn't air monthly in the beginning, I would bet dollars to donuts that the original fans of the SEG-era UFC could be clearly traced to being former or existing pro wrestling fans. Since the fall of WCW, ECW and the consolidation of the pro wrestling industry by the WWE, scores and scores of pro wrestling fans have left the sport and have essentially been dormant for years. The UFC, perhaps not always knowingly, has had very little other choice in terms of who to promote their product to other than the dormant pro wrestling audience that has left pro wrestling over the past 10 years. When you are trying to sell a $50 fight card 12-14 times a year what other choice is there? So as a natural consequence, these fans are going to look at MMA through a pro wrestling filter and some may comment on message boards but this is all a result of the UFC's efforts. Luke's ranting isn't going to change that. And the truth is that if the UFC REALLY wanted to market to a different audience, they would dump their current business model, sign with a major network for a per event licensing deal, take a loss in revenue and air their live cards on free TV 2-4 times a month. That is a completely different approach to establishing viewing habits and akin to asking Hollywood to stop making stupid popcorn fare and start producing well-written, well-acted and produced films with multi-dimensional characters with complex back stories and character arcs...right.
Another thing that I noticed in Luke's diatribe is that he really thinks the internet pundits like himself are far more influential than he thinks. The MMA industry, although not as big as other sporting industries, is far greater, larger and more encompassing than the site traffic on bloodyelbow.com. The reality is that a few thousand fans calling Chael Sonnen a "heel" that got Anderson Silva "over" WILL DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to harm MMA's chances of becoming more accepted by 'mainstream' sports fans that aren't accustomed to paying every month for their televised entertainment anyways. And Luke complaining about it will do absolutely nothing to change anything unless the UFC decides it doesn't want converted pro wrestling fans anymore. The WWE noted years and years ago how ineffective internet blogs really were at affecting their bottom line, and the UFC is starting to note this as well. There are scores and scores of fans that don't even read any internet pages dedicated to MMA and still order if not 1/3 as much as 1/2 of the pay-per-view cards the UFC puts out every year. There are far more of these fans than the fans that know the difference between a "heel" and a "tweener" or "kayfabe" and "getting over". Yet they respond to the product the same way that the pro wrestling fans that post on message boards do.
And finally, regarding pro wrestling being 'fake' and MMA being 'real' while yes the competition aspect of pro wrestling, on its face, is all contrived and pre-determined (99% of the time anyway) and MMA is about legitimate competition (90% of the time anyway) to think there isn't a heavy element of illusion in MMA and a hard dose of reality in pro wrestling is being just purely naive. The reality of pro wrestling is that the competition isn't really so much on the mat, but backstage. The truth about MMA is that as the sport evolves, it is distancing itself more and more from a pure form of fighting yet is still advertised as such.