Let’s get this straight: The Ultimate Fighting Championship is finally co-promoting again. It’s not with another mixed martial arts promotion, though. It’s with professional wrestling’s industry leader, World Wrestling Entertainment.
That’s the underwriting in the news that former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar is returning to the Octagon to face Mark Hunt in the UFC 200 co-main event on July 9 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The announcement that Lesnar is coming back to the UFC four-plus years after he retired from MMA competition has been treated like any other popular fighter’s return. It’s welcome, even long-anticipated. Yet the fact Lesnar has an existing WWE contract -- his UFC 200 assignment required WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon’s approval to crossover from pre-determined pro wrestling outcomes back into shoot fighting -- hasn’t resonated. This is a talent exchange between the main promoters in pro wrestling and MMA.
The UFC has been notoriously anti-co-promotion since Pride Fighting Championships burned it on the matter. The Japanese organization never reciprocated sending talent into the Octagon once UFC fighter Chuck Liddell competed in two Pride Fights, with UFC President Dana White’s blessing, in the fall of 2003. Liddell stopped Alistair Overeem with punches and then suffered a TKO loss to Quinton Jackson. It took Pride crumbling for Pride talent to turn up in the UFC.
Co-promotion has been a reoccurring subject in MMA since Pride accepted Liddell in its ring. Of course, a major sticking point for former Pride heavyweight champ Fedor Emelianenko never competing in the UFC was the Russian’s insistence that the UFC treated his arrival like a co-promotion with his backers. Affliction was in the co-promotion business but didn’t last long enough to make an impact. Short-lived Showtime Sports property EliteXC co-promoted with Strikeforce in early 2008, and Strikeforce later co-promoted Emelianenko and exchanged talent with Dream. The UFC has rebuked any co-promotion or talent exchange. However, Lesnar’s initial run hinted at it happening, and his return has now solidified it.
When Lesnar lost the UFC heavyweight crown to Cain Velasquez in October 2010, The Undertaker watched in the crowd, and MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani captured video in which the pro wrestling legend dished some choice words to the fallen Lesnar. It was a not-so-coincidental seed that sprouted when Lesnar re-signed with the WWE post-UFC and squared off against The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 30 and other key events. The UFC aided a WWE storyline prior to Lesnar having renewed contact with the WWE. Now, whether the UFC likes it or not, Lesnar competing in the Octagon at UFC 200 plays into whatever storylines the WWE has for “The Beast Incarnate.”
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Lesnar’s first UFC run ended in December 2011 following two main-event losses due to strikes a year apart. The UFC didn’t contractually stand in Lesnar’s way when he appeared back in the WWE not even a whole four months later. It’s clear Lesnar’s star power lets him call such shots without interference from either side of the fence because a functional relationship between the UFC and WWE exists.
Which begs the question: Will co-promotion ever benefit anyone beyond the 38-year-old Lesnar?
Fighters can prosper from driving up their price outside the UFC, whether in another MMA promotion, boxing, kickboxing or pro wrestling, then return demanding a more significant fight purse. It’s a possibility in free agency, which remains in its infancy in MMA and requires massive strides to be on par with other major sports.
There are also the implications on the pro wrestling side. When former WWE world champion Phil Brooks, aka “CM Punk,” who is now a UFC contracted fighter, left the WWE, he mentioned on Colt Cabana’s podcast that World Wrestling Entertainment leaving behind pay-per-view for its in-house WWE Network might negatively influence the talent’s paychecks. According to Brooks, pay-per-view was a positive bump to his bank account and the WWE failed to explain how the WWE Network would bridge that gap for talent. Wouldn’t WWE pro wrestlers, seeing Lesnar pull in a seven-figure payday on pay-per-view elsewhere, wonder why they aren’t afforded the same opportunity?
What do these UFC fighters and WWE performers have in common? They are both independent contractors, and they are likely curious how Lesnar is cashing double the paychecks without becoming embattled in a legal quagmire.
Then there’s the United States Anti-Doping Agency issue. Lesnar comes back to the Octagon with the UFC exempting him from the standards of the USADA, which is in charge of testing fighters for performance-enhancing drugs. It hasn’t been a full year since Deadspin reported the Ultimate Fighting Championship knew Vitor Belfort was inflated with testosterone ahead of his 205-pound title shot against Jon Jones at UFC 152 in September 2012 and let the fight go on. That and everything associated with the USADA occurred after Lesnar had already retired. It’s important to look with healthy skepticism at the UFC granting Lesnar an exemption from the USADA’s protocol to provide written notice and be available for testing four months prior to return.
Lesnar is an all-time pay-per-view draw. It’s naive to believe he’s only been preparing for his return to the UFC and his opponent Mark Hunt since the matchup was first reported. It’s not lost on Hunt, either. “The Super Samoan” told FOX Sports Australia he believes Lesnar is “juiced to the gills.” All of the above is ammo for Hunt to make such statements.
If the UFC is going to exempt athletes from USADA regulations, especially with the Belfort report implicating the promotion on the wrong side of justice, why have the USADA in the first place?
Lesnar walked out of an ESPN interview that questioned him on performance-enhancing drug use during his initial UFC run in 2008. That’s not implicating him in guilt then or now, but it raises the question about how he’ll react to inquiries about the UFC exempting him from USADA standards or why his training camp is coming together in such a shotgun fashion. Not to mention in Lesnar’s 2012 memoir “Death Clutch,” he admitted to a painkiller addiction related to pro wrestling. That stemmed from a heavy performing schedule, which he has not had to keep in his most recent time in WWE. Still, many fighter-safety issues are raised with Lesnar’s short-notice reentry into the UFC via the USADA exemption.
Lesnar’s UFC 100 to UFC 200 journey is non-linear, spread across two iterations of combat sports, and full circle. Lesnar only became UFC heavyweight champ after beating Randy Couture via second-round TKO at UFC 91 in November 2008. Couture, in the year prior, had set out to maximize his value outside the UFC by fighting Emelianenko. It was lack of co-promotion that forced a protracted legal battle between the UFC and Couture, eventually leading Couture back into the Octagon against Lesnar.
The UFC spent much of UFC 199 celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali, while fretting about advanced reports regarding Lesnar’s spot on UFC 200 before its video package could reveal “The Beast” was back. Lesnar’s UFC return is being treated as a one-off fight; he is expected back in WWE for SummerSlam in late August. This entire situation brings up the fact that the Muhammad Ali Act does not currently apply to MMA. It might be considered toothless in boxing circles, but it’s desperately needed in MMA to protect fighters from exploitative conflicts of interest that prevent them from maximizing their value during their competitive lifespan.
Future proofed financial protections are the number one obstacle fighters must clear to leave their respective sport with their faculties intact. The kinds of paydays about which Lesnar is bragging in the WWE and UFC benefit directly from co-promotion. It’s not going unnoticed.
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.