A new era dawns on Saturday as UFC present their first card since a merger that has seen them come under the same umbrella company as wrestling giant WWE. UFC 287 will be the first show from the MMA corporation since parent company Endeavor completed a deal to bring WWE under the same banner.
Fans of UFC might have extreme feelings about a predetermined “sports entertainment” product being promoted alongside a legitimate athletic competition. But the two companies have more of a shared history than fans of either may care to admit.
WWE were instrumental in helping raise awareness of UFC in the early days, when this new hybrid sport was greeted with suspicion that saw it as a lawless, animalistic pursuit. WWE signed former UFC champion Ken Shamrock in 1997. ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’ had been a professional wrestler before stepping into the Octagon in the company’s nascent days.
Having won the inaugural UFC Superfight championship, WWE chairman Vince McMahon was keen to capitalise on the aura of America’s newest tough guy. In doing so he introduced his audience to the concept of MMA and the UFC itself. Shamrock would perform martial arts demonstrations against UFC fighters like Vernon White live on WWE broadcasts. Rather than shying away from Shamrock’s past in a sport US senator John McCain had branded “human cockfighting”, they embraced it in order to leverage Shamrock’s reputation as a hardman.
The door swings both ways and in later years, UFC themselves would embrace the WWE audience. Brock Lesnar would make the transition from multi-time pro wrestling champion to UFC Heavyweight Champion in the late 2000s. ‘The Beast Incarnate’ would go on to have three fights break the 1 million buys barrier on pay-per-view. His rematch with Frank Mir in 2009 remains the most-watched non-Conor McGregor UFC PPV ever.
UFC president Dana White tried to repeat the trick when he signed former WWE superstar Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks in 2016. Lesnar had been a decorated collegiate wrestler while Brooks did not have a combat background. The ‘CM Punk’ signing didn’t work as well as Lesnar's at the box office or in the cage. Brooks went winless in his two fights, while his fights reached a fraction of the audience.
It will be interesting to see what level of co-promotion does take place now Endeavor controls both entities. McGregor is already having fun with the notion of becoming involved, tweeting a picture of himself holding the WWE Championship. Current champion Roman Reigns’ manager Paul Heyman has fired back in character, perhaps laying foundations for some sort of storyline down the line.
Lesnar is back in WWE now too, as is trailblazing former UFC headliner Ronda Rousey. While it feels unlikely that the two will ever fight professionally again given their advancing age and years away from the cage, their name value in MMA could be used for promotional purposes.
Given how dyed-in-the-wool fans of each company can be, an entirely joint-promoted card seems pie in the sky. What is more likely is perhaps WWE being an avenue for UFC fighters who are coming to the end of their careers. Someone like Jorge Masvidal, who faces Gilbert Burns on Saturday, is riding a three-fight losing streak. But his name value and charisma could see him become a natural fit for WWE. Rousey and Shamrock were both revelations when crossing codes. The likes of McGregor and Masvidal could make the same transition.
There would also be a benefit to pooled scouting efforts. Gifted collegiate athletes could be sort out by the Endeavor group and be given a shot at both industries, in order to find the one they fit into. With so much competition from the NFL, NBA, boxing and other sports, it makes sense that WWE and UFC club together to secure promising athletes for themselves.
It is early days for this seismic corporate merger. It could either change the landscape of both companies forever, or it could see Endeavor make incremental changes while maintaining the general flavour of both brands.
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