Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez’s recent signing with WWE may signal a turning of the tables in a battle for talent that UFC has been winning for the past decade-plus.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, professional wrestling was peaking in popularity and was infinitely more visible than UFC, who had no TV presence to speak of and was struggling to stay alive on pay-per-view. Elite college and Olympic athletes such as Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar were able to be wooed by the then WWF as the money and fame that could be attained through a career in professional wrestling dwarfed that of a mixed martial artist. That is if fighting was even on their radar at all.
Angle was recruited by the WWF very soon after his gold medal win in 1996 and he debuted on WWE TV in late ‘99. Likewise, Lesnar signed with the WWF in 2000 and debuted in 2002 for a run that saw him walk away from the company in 2004. UFC and MMA were so far off the public radar in this era, that to go from the Olympics or the NCAA Championships to the UFC would be seen as a desperate effort to continue competing rather than a logical next step in their careers.
Similarly, the 90s saw several UFC stars abandon the promotion for pro wrestling. Ken Shamrock, one of UFC’s earliest stars and attractions, already had a pro wrestling background and made the move to the WWF in 1997, as did his UFC rival Dan Severn. Shamrock left the WWF in ‘99 but his tenure likely made him a bigger star to the public and helped his eventual UFC return.
But when UFC grew in popularity beginning in 2005, this all appeared to change. Professional wrestlers, most notably Lesnar, made the move to MMA. Lesnar left wrestling, not necessarily for the money, but due to fatigue from the lifestyle. Others such as Bobby Lashley made the move after not quite making it to the top level in WWE. Lashley never got the call from UFC but compiled a 15-2 record fighting for Strikeforce, Bellator, and other smaller U.S. based promotions.
Professional wrestling and WWE specifically stagnated around this time period. With little competition, and slowly but surely declining ratings and pay-per-view numbers, MMA started to look like the more lucrative option for some.
As UFC exploded in popularity and fighters such as Chuck Liddell and Georges St-Pierre became mainstream celebrities, the line often heard from many pro wrestlers in interviews was “If this was around in my day, I’d definitely be in UFC.” This can also be interpreted as “If I could do this I would because I could probably make more money.”
Of course, not every pro wrestler is cut out to be a UFC fighter, but college and Olympic athletes who may have been recruited to WWF in the 90s likely saw MMA as a more viable option after 2005. Unabashed pro wrestling fan Daniel Cormier likely would have signed with WWF once his amateur wrestling career was done if not for the allure of fame and fortune as a top UFC heavyweight.
But now, in 2019, the tables seem to be turning back to pro wrestling’s favor. Velasquez, a longtime wrestling fan, has left UFC entirely and signed with WWE for a matchup with Lesnar at WWE’s “Crown Jewel” event, a custom event bought and paid for by known murderers. The deal is said to be for multiple years, but it is the Saudi money coupled with WWE’s new TV rights package that is able to pay unprecedented salaries to Velasquez and other talents.
This isn’t to say UFC doesn’t have the money to retain fighters such as Velasquez. They just signed a new TV deal themselves. But as we’re learning, UFC isn’t keen on letting salaries escalate along with their revenues.
Lesnar, after playing UFC and WWE off of each other year after year seems to have settled with WWE permanently and even CM Punk, who left WWE to pursue an unremarkable UFC career may be back in the fold.
What will truly be telling over the next couple of years will be if the college and Olympic athletes who may have made the move to UFC will take a closer look at professional wrestling if they dangle enough dollars in front of them. This would require WWE to recognize the talent and see the potential a high-level wrestler or other combat athletes could have as a pro wrestler. Angle, Lesnar, and Ronda Rousey have all demonstrated that there is some relation between having an aptitude for combat that can translate to worked pro wrestling.
Cain Velasquez is certainly not the first MMA fighter to take a stab at pro wrestling, but he may be part of a new trend of following the money.
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