One of the things that was interesting about the CNBC documentary, From Bloodsport to Big Time, was that at one time, Lorenzo Fertitta had been eager to sell the UFC to the McMahons and WWE, with one of the purposes in mind to enable it to get a cable deal with Spike (which UFC eventually got anyway). And it got me thinking about how things may have turned out had Vince McMahon actually made the purchase. Reportedly the offer was way too low, and didn’t come close to the amount of money that Fertitta had already sunk into the enterprise, but what if he had laid out a few more bucks and completed the deal?
This is not a tongue-in-cheek column, mind you. We’re not going to talk about whether the WWE hierarchy would have instituted “Texas death matches”or anything like that. If we’re going to take a look back at history with a “what if” angle, however, we need to explore just what might have happened had the WWE taken over what has become, for all intents and purposes, the top combat sports enterprise in the world.
What makes it particular intriguing is that we have seen the results of McMahon’s venture into so-called “legitimate” sport. Actually it’s happened a couple of times. The first was when he operated the short-lived World Bodybuilding Federation, which existed from 1990 to 1992. Who could forget the “WBF BodyStars,” people like Mike Christian, Berry DeMey, Johnnie Morant, Jim Quinn, Mike Quinn, Eddie Robinson and Gary Strydom, among others. Vince tried to give them “personas,” which didn’t quite go over with the bodybuilding community or the public.
The steroid investigation into McMahon eventually tainted the organization, led to the defection of the biggest name, Lou Ferrigno, and took all the wind out of its sails..
Then there was, of course, the XFL, which started out strongly, delivering NBC twice the ratings it had guaranteed to advertisers in the first week, but soon fell sharply. The XFL had a lot of hopeful innovations, not all of which were bad. There were also some annoying components, like announcers and cameras which intruded on the action, and rules that seemed to change on the fly during the season. And there was a lot of bitter cold weather in the league’s northern cities, because the season began in February.
Probably the most memorable thing about the XFL was Rod Smart, a player for the Las Vegas team who had the phrase “He Hate Me” on the back of his jersey.
What we’re leading into is that there were two principal things that eventually did the XFL. One is that the media was predisposed to trash the league, simply due to the presence of the controversial McMahon, who hadwaged war in the past with the establishment over a few of the scandals that surrounded his WWE. The emphasis on T&A as well as the over-the-top promotional techniques of the league only gave the nay-sayers more ammunition.
Another thing was the prevailing suspicion on the part of fans and some media – admittedly ridiculous but in some ways unavoidable – that outcomes of games might be somehow scripted to favor one team in particular or a dramatic scenario that could be played up on the broadcasts. In point of fact, this was something that hurt the XFL before it even got out of the box. When one’s reputation precedes him, it’s a tough thing to overcome.
I realize that he had much in the way of cable TV and pay-per-view savvy, and may have had some initial success in increasing the fan base, but if McMahon had wound up buying the UFC, these difficulties eventually would have, in my humble opinion, gotten squarely in the way of the growth of the brand, and its acceptance as legitimate. It is one thing to develop storylines and personalities for the competitors. But my feeling is that with McMahon this kind of thing would have been forced, and there is no way that you can orchestrate the development of a star without ‘steering” the outcomes a bit, not necessarily by rigging the results but through artful matchmaking, as is done in boxing. That is something that is antithetical to what has built the UFC to this point under the stewardship of Zuffa.
Also, everyone realizes that gradually, the mainstream media has come around to perceiving the UFC with much more credibility, and this has in turn allowed the brand to cross over to more mainstream audiences, with the effect driving up pay-per-view audiences and inserting it more directly into the public consciousness. This would never have happened for the UFC with McMahon at the helm, because the media would have never given him the time of day with another attempt at “legitimacy.”
And of course, all the steroid stories, the excessive deaths of competitors in the WWE and pro wrestling in general, and the public outcry that has followed, would cast a heavy pall over anything the WWE was involved in.
This is only explanation I can think of that McMahon has not yet ventured into mixed martial arts. Even though his product and Lorenzo Fertitta’s product have some fans in common, that’s where the similarity ends. And although the fans can tell the difference between one thing and another, it’s still difficult to separate McMahon from any of it.