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The WWE-ification of UFC

From Conor McGregor to Brock Lesnar, the squared circle has swallowed the octagon

Getty Images/WWE/Ringer illustration

The brawl that broke out after Khabib Nurmagomedov’s victory over Conor McGregor at UFC 229 on Saturday night has now officially become, as UFC president Dana White might say, “part of the story.” Whenever the UFC decides to schedule the McGregor–Khabib Nurmagomedov rematch, you can count on seeing Saturday night’s melee in the promotional videos to help sell it, just as the footage of McGregor trying to throw a dolly through a bus window back in April became the promo grist for all the hype leading up to the first fight.

It’s all part of the story. And stories such as these — the melees, outbursts, personal attacks on religion and family, geopolitical discourse, charges of criminal mischief, and record-breaking pay-per-view buys — are the ones only the fight game can tell. McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov was always a dark pairing, and the UFC did its best to turn that darkness into lore. The UFC is a sports league, sure, but it’s built upon sagas as much as it’s built on standings.

You might say it’s a little like pro wrestling.

That’s why there were a few silent fist pumps in the back when Nurmagomedov scaled the fence and leaped like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka at one of McGregor’s cornermen, and Nurmagomedov’s guys scaled the wall the other way and sucker-punched McGregor. A million cell phones turned into surveillance cameras all at once. It was a moment of bedlam for the UFC, its very own “Malice at the Palace.” From ringside I could see guru Tony Robbins’s bodyguards, who were ready to throw down if the brawl spilled their way, and Anthony Kiedis, who was yelling into his cell phone for his car to get back to the drop-off point STAT. White said that the governor of Nevada, who had been sitting cageside for the UFC’s biggest fight ever, literally ran out of the arena. (The governor denies this.)

After the hysteria had passed and it was clear nobody was hurt and nobody was going to press charges, you could practically hear UFC officials mumbling “holy shit” under their breath. And not necessarily the bad kind of “holy shit.” The astonished kind of “holy shit” that gamblers with a lot of money on the table might say when they hit 16 against the dealer seven and somehow draw a five. The “holy shit” that comes with narrow escape. The capital Holy Shit that takes over your face with a smile. There’s another kind of “holy shit”: the loud chants of a pro wrestling audience after seeing something they’ll never forget.

Back in 2010, Nick and Nate Diaz achieved cult status by brawling on national television in Nashville, right in the center of the cage after their training partner, Jake Shields, fought in a Strikeforce main event. That particular incident left CBS’s Gus Johnson lamenting to his national audience, somewhat comically, “These things happen in MMA.” Unsurprisingly, the Diazes are both icons in the game now.

The truth is, when all hell breaks loose in MMA, big things seem to follow. McGregor’s second fight with Nate Diaz was trending toward being a top five PPV, but it wasn’t until the water bottles started flying during the UFC 202 press conference that it became guaranteed to be the best-selling fight in UFC history. Dana White always shakes his head and worries aloud about how the Nevada Athletic Commission will drop the hammer on the offenders, but he knows a little lawlessness goes a long way. (He also knows that the NAC isn’t going to punish itself by banishing people who make money for the state.)

So forget his post-fight “disappointment” — that’s part of the process. White is going to use the post-match melee to sell the next fight. If the UFC has learned anything over the years it’s that, just like in pro wrestling, the drama of bad blood developing in real time is worth millions. This is the new storyline for UFC. The die-hards will always tune in for the fights, but the public at large needs its curiosity piqued. It helps when the fighters fucking hate each other and the fans are invited to be as emotional as the principals themselves.

The Double Turn

Back in 2011, Jon Jones and Rashad Evans were training partners at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, happily uninterested in fighting one another — even though Evans had been the light heavyweight champion and was closing in for a second chance, and Jones was the very clear future of the sport. Both fighters solemnly swore to never do the other harm. They put syrupy emphasis on words like loyalty, as if the media and fans couldn’t understand the strength of such familial bonds. Jones, after all, was a pastor’s son filled with the spirit; Evans was a kind of shepherd, showing young Jones the ropes.

A few months before UFC 126 of that year, as he was getting set to fight Ryan Bader, Jones was asked for the millionth time if he’d consider fighting Evans, who was scheduled to take on Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to try to recapture the light heavyweight title at UFC 128.

“Absolutely not,” Jones said, half insulted at the very thought. “If Rashad Evans won the belt, which I’m hoping he does, my only goal would be to be the toughest contender there is, and keep whipping butt without being champion. I’d stay at 205 and be the second best. That would be my goal.”

Yet after Jones thumped Bader, news broke that Evans was out of his fight with Rua due to a knee injury. The UFC tabbed Jones to stand in against Rua for a chance at history: becoming the youngest ever UFC champion at just 23. Jones, with Evans’s blessing, eagerly agreed. He beat Rua in dominating fashion, transforming himself into one of the UFC’s biggest stars overnight. Not long after, Jones — this time from the catbird seat — changed his tune and said he would be open to fighting Evans.

Such a shocking — or shockingly predictable — revelation changed everything. Evans very publicly talked about feeling betrayed by Jones’s “snake move.” It was very much a pro wrestling set-up — shattered trust, back-stabbing betrayal, vows of revenge, and hurt feelings. If it wasn’t quite up to the level of Sammartino-Zbyszko, maybe it’s because the stakes were actually more meaningful: It was leading up to a very real and very inevitable fight. The atmosphere surrounding the match was charged with emotional complexity. All that backstage drama helped deliver one of the biggest pay-per-views of the time at UFC 145 when Jones finally took on — and defeated — his former mentor.

What Jones pulled off was, in WWE parlance, a heel turn. His deceit turned Rashad Evans, once hated for his in-cage arrogance and swagger, into the babyface. They reversed roles, the rare but wildly enthralling double turn. Though it can be a disquieting thing for MMA purists (if there are any of those left) to contemplate, the more the UFC tries to be a version of the WWE — basking in the drama, arranging confrontations, selling heroism and villainy, underdogs and ubermensches — the more it succeeds.

You know who understands that better than anyone? The UFC’s new ownership group, Endeavor, formerly known as WME-IMG. When an entertainment conglomerate invests $4 billion into something, as Endeavor did in 2016, they tend to go with what they know. The new owners know that we’re all suckers for a soap opera, especially when it can be disguised as a car crash.

The Main Event Promo

There’s no greater example of the UFC borrowing a page from the WWE’s book of psychology than UFC 226 in July. The light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier was challenging Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight crown and looking to become only the second fighter ever to win simultaneous titles (joining McGregor). It was a real superfight set-up, featuring perhaps the best heavyweight of all time (Miocic) against an unsung great (Cormier). Per the UFC’s usual style of hyping a fight, the historical aspects were played up as best they could be. The problem was that despite his talent and his folksy charm, Miocic simply couldn’t draw. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fight itself — which Cormier won via knockout — didn’t generate nearly the buzz that the aftermath did.

That’s when Cormier, a self-confessed pro wrestling mark who seems destined for a role in the WWE some day, did what a pro wrestler might under similar circumstances. He grabbed the microphone from Joe Rogan and staged his next move by daring a Goliath to come confront him.

“Listen to DC, listen to DC,” he told the crowd in Vegas. “There’s a guy that I’ve known for a long time. He’s a wrestler. He’s an All-American. He’s a former UFC champion. I never thought I’d fight him, but Brock Lesnar, get your ass in here.”

Lesnar, who was conveniently seated at ringside, happily obliged, climbing into the octagon and walking right up and pushing Cormier. Cormier, restrained somewhat comically by a single, semi-elderly security man, yelled at him, “Yeah you’re strong, but everybody’s strong. Push me now, yougo to sleep later.” He pushed Lesnar back with all the strength of a blown kiss. The crowd went wild. Both guys were smiling, having broken onto an ethereal plane that you don’t traditionally see in the UFC. It was the kind of thing that belongs in the squared circle.

A lot of people winced. Some people hated it. But all agreed that a Lesnar vs. Cormier heavyweight title fight was something they suddenly had to have. Forget about whether or not Miocic deserves an immediate rematch (he probably does) — a Lesnar fight instantaneously dwarfed everything else. It was big. It was ridiculous. It was fitting for a twilight fighter like Cormier, a company man who at 39 years old deserved to get that WrestleMania-style match that he desired.

It was so pro wrestling that it was practically homage. Cormier and Lesnar were working the puppet strings of the fight world’s imagination knowing that when they end up making the walk to the octagon — presumably at some point early in 2019 — they can cut the shit. That’s the UFC’s ace in the hole: No matter how phony the set-ups are, the fights it delivers are real.

How do we know the UFC was complicit in the whole thing? Lesnar was still suspended by USADA for a doping incident dating back to his last UFC appearance at UFC 200 — days before Endeavor purchased the UFC — and had no business being anywhere near an octagon. And yet the UFC practically sprinkled rose petals at his feet as he made his way to Cormier. Security had moved him to the cage door before Cormier started jawing. And to be real, that jawing was about as scripted as any WWE promo.

The UFC just announced that Cormier will be fighting Derrick Lewis at UFC 230 on November 3 — an ass-saving roll of the dice to help bring some star power to a middling show. But it’s not a road bump — think of it as another chance to hype up the Cormier-Lesnar match, which is pencilled in for the first quarter of 2019. (Lesnar, for his part, is wrestling for WWE in Saudi Arabia the night before UFC 230.) So long as Cormier survives Lewis, when the Lesnar fight becomes official, you can bet your life the UFC will use the confrontation — contrived or not — on the promo material to help sell the fight.

The Rise of Characters

The UFC has been compared to the WWE somewhat uncomfortably for years. MMA traditionalists get upset at it — how can you compare something “real” to something that’s not? — and White has gone to great lengths to dispel any connections between the two promotions. Of course, the fighting is real, but the WWE-ification of UFC can’t be ignored. Everyone is cutting promos, and the UFC finds itself marketing the antics. It started with Chael Sonnen before the Anderson Silva series. Every time a microphone found him, he fell into character as a gangster from “the mean streets of West Linn,” a suburb of Portland known for its colorful rose beds. This mind-set has found its way to people like the contender Colby Covington, who is the most transparent heel currently in the UFC, always wearing his MAGA hat and occasionally showing up at the White House for photo ops with Donald Trump.

Hateable? Damn right he’s hateable. He is also 9-1 in the UFC with six straight wins and is just enough of a tool to get the polarizing welterweight champion Tyron Woodley over in a title fight. People love to hate him. Just like they love to adore a wiry tie-dye-wearing, ass-kicking hippie like Sean O’Malley, who posts videos of toking up with Snoop Dogg, and the Afro-sporting “Violent Bob Ross” Luis Pena, who lives at an animal sanctuary in Missouri, and Nik Lentz, a chewed-up piece of leather who writes poems, not unlike “Leaping” Lanny Poffo.

We’re seeing the blurring of lines between fighters and characters. The UFC can’t get enough of it. And we’re even seeing the UFC embrace its beleaguered stars in ways it never did before, especially those stars whose careers have become stranger than fiction — fighters like Jon Jones, at one time considered the Michael Jordan of MMA, whose many fuck-ups are now not just part of the story, but nearly the whole story.

When Jones came back from his last suspension to face Cormier at UFC 214, the hype promos were centered on Jones as a dichotomy: both MMA’s GOAT and its most discomfiting reprobate. There were shots of him in court, in handcuffs and wearing an orange jumpsuit, with allusions to drug use and the felony hit-and-run incident that left him stripped of his title. The UFC sold it as a kind of redemption story, as crudely and as viscerally as possible, painting him as the hero but cautiously leaving room for anyone that wanted to see Jones a heel.

Unlike with the WWE selling a character, the UFC was selling the sad truth, only in a linear sense: Jones’s story was being ladled out as ongoing saga. It worked. Just like with pro wrestling — and with General Hospital — people have come to follow the daily story lines in the UFC, and the juicier the better. Jones got busted again after reclaiming his title in that Cormier fight, this time for testing positive for the anabolic-androgenic steroid turinabol. He was suspended for 15 months after striking a deal with the California commission (to become an informant!), stripped (yet again) of his belt, and is now officially in the process of completing his umpteenth comeback. He’ll fight his old rival Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232.

One of the fights people want to see after his return bout? A heavyweight bout with Brock Lesnar. The two biggest asterisks in MMA going at it, one a generational fighter who can’t stay out of his own way, the other a part-time behemoth with a sword running the length of his thorax. The UFC could market it any way it wants. Two former champions going at it. Two of the biggest names in MMA history. Two red flags flapping in the wind. Who cares if they’re not even in the same weight class? Jones has forever flirted with the idea of moving up to heavyweight. The fight would do massive numbers. It’d be an incredible story.

The Million Dollar Melee

Knowing that tensions between Nurmagomedov and McGregor were on a hair trigger, the UFC genuinely tried to prevent an incident at UFC 229. When the fight was booked, White took his time bringing the fighters together for the initial press conference. In the end, the UFC opted to hold it at an empty Radio City Music Hall, which maintained its cathedral silence as McGregor attacked Nurmagomedov’s father, his politics, and his affiliations to a “snitch terrorist rat,” by whom he meant his manager, Ali Abdelaziz. There weren’t thousands of drunken Irish drowning out Nurmagomedov’s responses, like we’ve seen in so many other McGregor press conferences.

There was just a seething fighter from Dagestan, waiting for the moment he could do harm to the MMA’s biggest name — that moment he could smash the UFC’s golden boy. The seeds were planted well before then. They were planted the moment Nurmagomedov became a threat to the lightweight throne and people began to talk about a potential Conor-Khabib fight. The feud grew when Nurmagomedov got into it with McGregor’s training partner Artem Lobov in Brooklyn, and McGregor showed up at the Barclays with his droogies and attacked the bus. It became a full-blown blood feud when Nurmagomedov won the lightweight title that weekend, a prize recently stripped from McGregor during his star-making walkabout in the boxing world.

When Khabib leapt out of the cage and into the crowd, he might have been going off script. Hell, he might have been breaking the law. But he found his voice — his character — in the process. The melee was more important than the match. Now that the factions have warred both in and out of the octagon, it’s a proper rivalry.

The UFC minimized the exposure between the two fighters. The UFC also knew that by separating them it sold a kind of tension in the room, a caution that when the undefeated lightweight champion and the greatest draw the sport has ever known come together, there would be fireworks. There was menace in the subtext and in the B-roll. Why was the UFC keeping Nurmagomedov and McGregor apart? Check out the promo material, where McGregor is trying to throw a dolly through the bus. Sublimating chaos while openly airing it: This is pro wrestling distilled.

It’s hard to deny that this is the direction the UFC is going, with real life imitating art. Nurmagomedov and McGregor were part of a brawl after so many measures were taken to prevent it. That sounds like more than just a crazy event that happened in Vegas. That sounds like part of the story.

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