A beleaguered Rick Pitino famously lectured Boston Celtics fans that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish would not be “walking through that door.” Dana White has spent the last three years playing that wet-blanket role in pushing a flailing MMA (mixed-martial arts) devoid of its most successful ingredient to date. Brock Lesnar would not be walking through that cage door.
Earlier this week, White teased a return of the greatest draw in the sport’s short history. Brock Lesnar may indeed be venturing from the squared circle back to the octagon. At least that’s what Dana White says (hopes).
“Brock Lesnar’s under contract with the WWE,” White explained at a UFC press conference Monday. “We have a great relationship with him. He’s healthy and he has said that he’s interested in fighting again. We’ll see what happens.”
We have already seen what happened. Lesnar main evented three of the seven bestselling numbered UFCs that all eclipsed one million buys in the domestic market. He headlined the UFC’s bestselling pay-per view (PPV), the second bestselling, and the fifth bestselling. Then Brock left, and so did many of his fans. For-purchase broadcasts featuring talented but tiny men don’t do big money for the promotion. UFC 174 and UFC 177 attracted less than 150,000 buys apiece, and injuries forced the promotion to cancel UFC 176, only the second such PPV junked in the outfit’s history. Exclude the annual summer spectacular–Weidman-Machida for 2014–and the numbers for this year’s pay-per views from UFC 169 through 177 roughly match the numbers from 2009’s UFC 100 headlined by Lesnar-Mir II–the peak of interest in mixed-martial arts. Brock Lesnar’s a big man who draws a big audience.
“Lesnar in the past was a monster pay per view draw for the UFC,” Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer and an expert at revealing accurate PPV buy rates, tells Breitbart Sports. “He headlined their biggest shows and UFC’s best overall numbers coincided with the years Lesnar was fighting. The numbers are lower now for a number of reasons, including a very high injury rate and far more product available on free television. I don’t think he could pull the numbers like he did before, but if he could win big fights at 38 and contend for the championship, he would do very, very well now.”
The UFC could use him. White thinking aloud about a return of the professional wrestling superstar came just two days before Standard and Poor’s announced an expected 40 percent drop in profits for the UFC’s parent company Zuffa. The credit agency’s report found the decline “primarily due to a change to a marquee fight card in the fourth quarter of 2014 as a result of another fighter injury causing anticipated pay-per-view buys and event ticket prices to decline further, as well as higher remarketing expenses for the event, and additional costs related to the company’s international expansion.”
That altered “marquee fight card” refers to an injury of old Lesnar foe Cain Velasquez, who has been holding the promotion’s heavyweight belt while holding few fights. A Lesnar return would immediately give the Las Vegas-based company a star able to sell more tickets and pay-per views than its heavyweight champion–or anyone else in the company for that matter.
Like Gale Sayers, Sandy Koufax, and Bobby Orr, Lesnar’s mystique comes as much from what he might have accomplished as from what he did. The hulking professional wrestler rag-dolled Randy Couture, dominated Frank Mir, and rose up from the canvas to improbably submit Shane Carwin. Then diverticulitis, an intestinal disease that ravaged the UFC’s heavyweight champ before the Carwin fight, got the better of the behemoth. The monster suddenly looked like a man against Cain Velazquez and Alistair Overeem before calling it quits a day before 2011 called it quits.
“His health is fine,” Meltzer assures. “He’s very quiet about his future. He’s under a limited date contract and WWE decides when they want to use the dates. He’ll be heavily involved from January through March. After that, he’s in a very good negotiating position between UFC, Bellator and WWE.”
Lesnar has matured. So has mixed-martial arts. Though Lesnar submitted Carwin with an arm-triangle choke and dropped Couture with standup strikes, he performed mainly as a one-dimensional pugilist who brutally ground-and-pounded opponents through superior wrestling. Aside from his age, a big question looming over the former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion involves his ability to evolve with the sport.
Though the heavyweight division overflows with physical freaks who excel in one aspect of fighting despite exhibiting Achilles heels in other dimensions, well-rounded fighters such as Cain Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum, and Junior dos Santos appear as the cream of the crop. Lesnar beats opponents by relying on one skill set. Velasquez, Werdum, and dos Santos hold more finishing tricks in their arsenal. They put the “mixed” in mixed-martial arts. Lesnar, in a sense, fights as a throwback to the early days of the sport that pitted a specialist in one style against a specialist in another.
Because of this limited skillset, and his quick takeover of the sport via the professional wresting world, hardcore MMA fans often express contempt for the hulk who cut weight to make the 265-pound limit. Professional wrestling marks, rewarding acrobatics and well-choreographed maneuvers with cheers, don’t uniformly applaud Lesnar, either.
“The wrestling fan reaction to Lesnar varies,” Meltzer explains to Breitbart Sports. “Really, MMA fan reaction varies as well. The hardcore viewpoint in both genres often are at odds with what business shows. Sometimes they are on the ball, sometimes they are far off the ball. I’m sure there are people who resent his being pushed so strongly and his limited date deal. Some like him because of his aura. His matches are usually really good, and he works very hard when he’s around. I think most wrestling fans appreciate he’s a big name who brings something to the table. But it’s natural there would be resentment because, unlike everyone else, he’s not on TV every week.”
He won’t be on TV every week for the UFC should he return, either. But if he walks through that door, a reeling UFC banks that a horde of fans will walk through it with him.