Less than a week into WWE’s new partnership with Fox and coming off a Hell in a Cell pay-per-view that confused some devoted fans, the WWE appears to be betting that fans will appreciate a heavy dose of ex-champions from other combat sports. Cain Velasquez, who became the UFC heavyweight champion in 2010 after pulverizing Brock Lesnar, showed up on the Friday SmackDown premiere to briefly ground and pound his old rival and current WWE champion. And former unified boxing heavyweight champion Tyson Fury—still the undefeated lineal heavyweight title holder—also appeared to exchange words with Braun Strowman, words that gave way to a madcap brawl three nights later on Monday Night Raw.
Those kinds of names have always drawn big-time media attention from journalists outside the wrestling press. And this is a venerable practice: Boxers and other acknowledged tough guys have been entering the squared circle to lend their legitimacy to predetermined bouts for over a century, either as referees or as participants. The more important question for serious followers of the sport, however, is how this will affect the wrestling product. Across its multiple brands and divisions, the WWE arguably boasts the deepest roster of skilled wrestling performers it has ever had, enough that their underused or injured talent could fill several supercards. WWE has the deepest wrestling roster in the history of wrestling for any single promotion.
So where do men like Velasquez, should he indeed sign on the dotted line to battle Lesnar, and Fury, who has shown surprising prowess on the mic, fit into that equation? How do you book combat sports legends whose star power, whose very raison d’être, consists of being a claimant to the status of “baddest man on the planet”? And how, pray tell, do you do that in a federation where the current WWE champion, Lesnar, already lords his own tough-guy status over everyone else on the roster, with his mouthpiece Paul Heyman always making us aware that his client could beat them like so many of ol’ JR’s “government mules” whenever the spirit moved him?
Here history can be quite instructive. First of all, wrestling’s transition from shoot fights to predetermined exhibitions occurred only through the acquiescence of the toughest grapplers going. Fearsome grapplers like “Strangler” Lewis, Stanislaus Zbyszko, and Lou Thesz understood that they sometimes needed to lose to less skilled but more colorful or celebrated opponents, and so they did—most of the time. Lewis put over college football goliath Wayne Munn, a well-known hulk who was so feeble on the mat that he was easily pinned by Zbyszko in a famous double cross a few months later. Even Lou Thesz, who spent seven decades in the sport and detested “gimmick” wrestlers, did what was right for business when he dropped his version of the world title to hard-charging ex–Chicago Bear Bronko Nagurski in 1939.
The pro wrestling industry as we know it was built on the backs of a slate of tough guys who weren’t afraid to lose for the sake of box office. They were followed in relatively short order by the big-time shooters of the 1950s and 1960s—pro wrestlers with legitimate submission training—men like catch wrestling pioneers Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson and NCAA wrestling champ-cum–Golden Gloves titleist Danny Hodge, all of whom could bend their foes into pretzels but none of whom would refuse to lie down if the money and the opponent were right (a quick recap of their bona fides: Gotch taught longtime New Japan Pro Wrestling head honcho Antonio Inoki the rudiments of the shoot wrestling he would become so enamored of; Robinson subdued the Rock’s mammoth grandfather Peter Maivia in a bar fight despite the fact that Maivia bit hunks of flesh out of his chest; and Hodge numbers among a vanishingly small number of octogenarians who could crush an apple with one hand).
All of these guys could flat-out wrestle, but they didn’t let it get in the way of their pro wrestling—hell, Robinson even showcased his mat credentials battling amateur standout and long-standing opponent Verne Gagne in Gagne’s 1974 cult classic The Wrestler, a film that put over wrestling as a legitimate sport full of legitimate badasses. And as for the guys who couldn’t wrestle at the level of Thesz or Robinson but had laced up the 16-ounce gloves in the boxing ring, they still worked with promoters to put on a decent show. Colorful performers like muscle-bound Italian giant Primo Carnera, who had worked some predetermined bouts in the boxing ring too, and stocky “Two Ton” Tony Galento, who exploded onto the national scene with his loutish remarks about Joe Louis and willingness to head-butt and foul his foes, hung around wrestling long after they had hung up their gloves. Past his prizefighting stale date, Galento had learned that Carnera was pocketing $3,500 for a single night’s main event and wanted in on that action, so much so that when he was shortchanged by a promoter a few years later, he knocked four of that cheapskate’s teeth out.
And fans, still mostly willing to suspend disbelief despite periodic revelations about how the sport was fixed, absorbed all of this because it could all be accommodated in the narrative of wrestling as they understood it. Maybe Danny Hodge was the best wrestler and a heck of a boxer as well, and maybe announcers would remind fans of those facts, but he could still be beaten by the unique logic of the sport: grabbing the tights, brass knuckles, or some other bit of skulduggery. And Lou Thesz was an elite-level submission grappler, but he would lose to less skilled wrestlers like ex-CFL player Gene Kiniski if he respected them personally. It was all part of the game, part of the spectacle of wrestling, as real-life fighters were drawn into the sport and made to abide by its many tropes and unwritten rules.
But what if pro wrestling, predetermined but rigorous, were to get realer than real? What if we needed to put the sport’s toughest guys to the test, to see how they’d fare against other combat athletes? In 1976, Karl Gotch’s protégé Antonio Inoki, whose wrestling style incorporated some strong strikes and throws, had been staging exhibition fights against martial arts masters and dangled a huge payday in front of Muhammad Ali. Ali, who had grown up following the exploits of pro wrestlers like Gorgeous George, assumed this would be an easy night’s work — fun, theatrical wrestling with lots of razzmatazz and showmanship. But it became clear that Inoki wanted a shoot, and although there remain plenty of questions about the rules and limitations imposed on the two men, the result was clear: 15 tedious rounds of Inoki mostly crawling around crab-style on the mat and kicking at Ali’s shins, ending in a judge’s draw but resulting in what were apparently career-altering blood clots in Ali’s legs. It was some kind of sport, certainly, and perhaps even the most obvious forerunner to today’s mixed martial arts contests, but it wasn’t all that interesting.
Pro wrestling, by contrast, satisfied a crowd because it could be staged to excite them at regular intervals. Matches wouldn’t devolve into “lay and pray” affairs like the wrestling matches of the early 1900s or the mat-bound Ultimate Fighting Championship contests before MMA referees were empowered to stand up the inactive fighters. Nor would wrestlers merely poke at each other like defensive-minded boxers, intent on accumulating points while minimizing damage to themselves. In spite of that, wrestling promoters periodically seem to forget this crucial selling point of their sport or at least seem to think they can move beyond it. Bring in the supposedly real tough guys, they think, and give the fans a taste of authentic combat.
The results can be less than satisfying. Inoki’s obsession with mixed martial arts, and the popularity of MMA in Japan in the late 1990s, prompted many wrestlers to try their hand in Pancrase, Pride, and elsewhere. Sometimes that worked well, like when still-active New Japan star Minoru Suzuki won the “King of Pancrase” open-weight title in 1995 or Billy Robinson–trained Kazushi Sakuraba went from UWF-i midcarder to the vanquisher of several leading sons of the Gracie jiujitsu family. And sometimes even wrestlers who lost—as Yoshihiro Takayama did in a “Fight of the Century”–level slobberknocker against former UFC champ Don Frye—were elevated as a result of their impressive showings. But mostly the fighters ended up like Yoji Anjo, who was steamrolled in all of his pro fights, or like Nobuhiko Takada, who allegedly sought to preserve his reputation by paying stars like Mark Coleman to take dives for him.
But that didn’t prevent shoot-style fighting from becoming a driving force in the Japanese pro wrestling of that period, with even notably artistic “strong style” veterans like Shinsuke Nakamura forced to utilize their college wrestling pedigrees to gain some credibility in mixed martial arts. Nakamura, initially outfitted in much less fashion-forward attire than he presently wears, rode some submission victories to the top of the New Japan Pro-Wrestling heap. But he didn’t care for this approach to wrestling or for how it led to the elevation of good fighters, like hard-headed Kazuyuki Fujita, over good entertainers. Of his own G1 match against Fujita, who held his own against the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Nakamura said in his autobiography, “At the time, I was giving it everything I had, you know? But I guess now, it’s like I realize what I was missing. I was too serious; I had no room for play.”
The pendulum would swing back to much more story-driven, pro wrestling–oriented performance in New Japan, but not before fan interest had dwindled significantly. Vince McMahon, to his credit, never doubled down on shoot fighting as the house style, but he certainly took advantage of the UFC’s rising popularity when he signed both Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock in the late 1990s. Shamrock had actually cut his teeth in pro wrestling, before he learned the various hooks and submissions abroad, and Severn, despite a stellar NCAA wrestling pedigree, had been taking pro wrestling bookings for years before his debut.
The result of those signings, as well as the company’s decision to host the 1998 Brawl for All mixed martial arts event featuring talent from its own roster, led to some very confused booking. Shamrock and Severn battled various opponents in predetermined bouts and mostly prevailed aside from losses due to cheating or disqualification, because they were considered to be two of the “baddest men on the planet,” but neither won the WWE title despite being kept strong. Severn was actually entered in the Brawl for All, where he easily overwhelmed the Godfather in the first round, but withdrew from the tournament in the second round, possibly to smooth the path forward for his old college wrestling opponent “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, who was getting long in the tooth but was still thought to be a legitimate badass himself. “Williams hadn’t been involved in real competitive grappling, let alone no-holds-barred fighting, for at least a decade,” Severn wrote in his autobiography. “None of it mattered anyway, because Bart Gunn knocked out Williams a few weeks later to screw up the creative team’s plans. Not protecting Steve Williams probably cost the company a lot of money.”
And poor Bart Gunn, as tough as he was, got booked in a boxing match at WrestleMania XV against Eric “Butterbean” Esch. For all of Butterbean’s limitations as a boxer, he was still a professional, and Gunn was not. In yet another unscripted bout, the Bean dispensed with Gunn in 35 seconds—a fun knockout but hardly a crowd-pleasing thrill ride. (Interestingly, Tyson Fury actually holds the lineal Brawl for All championship.) “It was like swatting a fly, because he couldn’t really box the way a professional could,” Esch told me when I interviewed him last year. “Fighting under boxing rules did him no favors.” As with all losses, Gunn, who had been building a slight tough-man reputation, suffered the worst fate that can befall any wrestler: He was made to look weak, and he couldn’t even defend himself with a cheap referee’s pinfall like when Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kurt Angle escaped a likely submission hold a few years later by quickly “pinning” MMA fighter and Tough Enough trainee Daniel Puder.
So Vince McMahon and company clearly understand the value of keeping the talent strong—most of the time anyway. The return of Brock Lesnar from his MMA detour, during which he vanquished a few middling UFC heavyweights before getting demolished by Cain Velasquez, changed the game. When the Beast came back, he wasn’t merely some college wrestler, someone on the order of Shelton Benjamin or Chad Gable only supersized, he was an unstoppable force. One by one, he obliterated icons like John Cena and Randy Orton, then turned his fury to rising stars such as Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, and (most recently) upstart WWE champion Kofi Kingston. Goldberg beat him once with a spear and jackhammer, and Seth Rollins beat him twice with luck and groin shots, but how else could you do it? Lesnar performed his handful of power moves, much reduced from his previous and considerably more mobile version, and in the process crushed his foes, staying on top despite a much-reduced travel and appearance schedule.
Lesnar, of course, will still do a job if it’s good for business. The Goldberg story line worked for what it was, and his moments of vulnerability, as against Rollins, have proven interesting. The WWE then doubled down on former UFC champs, recruiting Ronda Rousey for its expanding women’s division. The division had achieved prominence through its homegrown stars—Charlotte, Alexa Bliss, Sasha Banks—and Rousey beat all of them during a 232-day run as the Raw women’s champion, which ended with a loss to Becky Lynch and the decision to go on hiatus. Rousey, like Lesnar, worked as hard and as well as anyone with her level of experience could be expected to work, but did she take the shine off the many worthy NXT developmental prospects who were now plying their trade on the main roster? And when she returns, who on the roster actually has a reasonable case for beating her one-on-one, fair and square, aside from maybe much less successful MMA fighter Shayna Baszler?
Such questions will fall to WWE’s creative team to determine, as will the appropriate use of Tyson Fury and Cain Velasquez. The towering Fury will surely level Braun Strowman when they throw hands at the company’s next Saudi Arabian supercard, then fade into history a good bit faster than fellow heavyweight champion Mike Tyson after he memorably promoted and then refereed the match between “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV. Off-color remarks notwithstanding, Fury can work the mic with the best of them, but with a rematch looming against heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, his immediate future certainly isn’t with the WWE. Cain Velasquez, by contrast, has already worked with the Mexican promotion AAA and demonstrated some sharp ring skills and genuine passion for the sport. He’s never been as jacked as Lesnar—heck, he’s not even as jacked as AEW’s John Moxley—but he’s an elite-level athlete who could perhaps find a long-term place on the WWE roster.
But the question remains, as it also does for AEW after it recently signed former NCAA wrestling star, former WWE wrestler, and budding MMA fighter Jake Hager: What do you do with these folks after you bring them on? Do they beat everyone, including all your other toughest people, and stay near the top forever, like Lesnar has and Rousey, whenever she returns, probably will? Or do you perhaps let them get lost in the shuffle, as the WWE did with Dan Severn and (to a lesser extent) Ken Shamrock two decades ago? No matter what happens, the creative teams at the WWE and AEW should keep one thing well in mind: The fans are buying tickets to see top-notch pro wrestling, not the shoot fighting or the heavyweight boxing, and today’s bumper crop of athletes schooled in the language and performance of pro wrestling not only shouldn’t be overshadowed by outsiders but deserve every opportunity to shine on their own merits.