September 11, 2006
The MMA snowball
By NICK TYLWALK -- SLAM! Wrestling Columnist
Conventional wisdom can be a funny thing. Once it gets going, it has a snowball effect that makes it almost impossible to avoid, much less stop. Right now, it seems like you can't enter into a discussion about the state of pro wrestling or hit your favorite wrestling site on the net without touching on the topic du jour, mixed martial arts, and the conventional wisdom that they are wrestling's biggest foe.
The pro wrestling and MMA worlds have overlapped for quite some time. My first exposure to anything MMA came back in the late '90s in the form of former Ultimate Fighting Championship stars Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn, when both men were competing in the WWF. Since then, we've also seen the likes of Tank Abbott and Tito Ortiz involved in wrestling, while former wrestlers like Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg have committed themselves to MMA roles. Clearly, there's a connection between these two forms of entertainment that isn't going away.
What's also clear is that MMA's popularity in North America continues to rise. UFC pay-per-views can bank on hundreds of thousands of pay-per-view buys each time out, making them a more consistent success than WWE or boxing cards. The Ultimate Fighter show on Spike TV has proven popular enough to get renewed several times, and has a better time slot than TNA Impact. Once looked down upon thanks to its "no holds barred" pit fighter mentality, the UFC has legitimized itself as mainstream entertainment.
But are the UFC and other MMA groups really drawing their fans away from pro wrestling? Many people see a stagnant wrestling industry and the aforementioned UFC numbers and assume this is the case. Even creative people inside wrestling, like ECW's Paul Heyman are feeling it, as evidenced by his comments to Ottawa Sun columnist Tim Baines last week:
"Look at the hottest stars of MMA. The hottest college wrestling stars. Muay Thai. Jui jitsu. That's what I'd like to see as part of ECW. Wrestling is not just bodybuilders and ex-football stars any more."
Perhaps this is the ultimate consequence of Vince McMahon's decision to play down the "sports" part of sports entertainment over the last decade, even though the WWE found its greatest success with more reality-based storylines. Increasingly, would-be competitors (like TNA) have emphasized in-ring action over soap opera. Take that to its logical extreme and you get, well, something like UFC, an actual sport according to athletic commissions in various places, one that's all about the thrill of seeing two men trying to beat each other into submission in the ring.
That's not to say that the MMA guys don't appreciate a good storyline or the attraction of a good feud. Over at his MMA blog at FOXSports.com, editor Dave Doyle has pointed out more than once that a good chunk of the UFC audience watch the PPVs after getting drawn in by the personalities they see on Ultimate Fighter, a show that's certainly a spiritual successor to the WWE's Tough Enough. And the ongoing animosity between Shamrock and Ortiz -- which, coincidentally, will be capped off by a third fight between the two on Spike TV in October -- rivals anything wrestling writers could dream up. Oritz, especially, seems like a shootfighter wrapped in a pro wrestler's package, with his larger-than-life personality and penchant for self-promotion.
So with wrestling looking lustily at the MMA numbers and the real fighters seeing the value in memorable characters, what it all boils down to is this: there's still a sizable audience out there that enjoys watching two men face off in a ring or cage. This columnist still prefers the art of a 20-minute scripted match that tells a story over a 49-second KO or submission, no matter how skillfully accomplished. But the choice between the two is largely a matter of personal preference, and the MMA snowball shows no signs of slowing down.
And now for something completely different...
Thanks to SLAM! Wrestling head honcho Greg Oliver, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Trish Stratus before WrestleMania X-7 a few years ago in Houston. Even though the meeting was brief, the Canadian bombshell struck me as particularly down to earth and someone worth supporting. This stood in stark contrast to my opinion of Trish when she first entered the WWE, as I saw her basically as just another pretty face (and body) who saw wrestling as just another way to make a name for herself.
Stratus' transformation into the female face of the WWE seems even more impressive now as she prepares to depart for marriage and other endeavors. While she may not be remembered as the best female wrestler ever, she certainly deserves credit for becoming one of the most improved wrestlers (of either gender) over the past decade or so. When you reach the point where you are carrying other competitors in the ring instead of being carried yourself, that's no small accomplishment, and Trish definitely reached that point.
In fact, it's hard to imagine the women's division without Stratus in it, since she was often one of the few competitors worth watching. Mickie James is pretty entertaining, Victoria is decent, and Lita is at least wrestling again. Other than that, the female roster works much better as eye candy than actual wrestlers. There's no getting around it -- Trish will be missed.
For that reason, I'm actually looking forward to the women's title match at Unforgiven. Trish and Lita's encounters over the past few weeks haven't been too aesthetically pleasing, but I have my fingers crossed that they will be able to pull off something memorable. We all know that Stratus' "retirement" may not be permanent -- this is wrestling, after all -- but just in case it is, I hope she goes out on a high note. For the effort she's brought to the ring and the spark she gave to the WWE in general, she definitely deserves it.
Nick Tylwalk has been a SLAM! Wrestling contributor since 1998, and his column, Walkin' That Aisle with Nick Tylwalk, appears most Mondays. Comments, compliments and complaints can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to see a response to your question or comment in a future column, please include your full name and hometown in your e-mail.