It’s a new year, and the world’s most reluctant partnership is set to start the pay-per-view calendar. On the pro-wrestling side of things, we have WWE’s Royal Rumble, one of the so-called “big four” and the first step on the road to WrestleMania, a yearly period of big returns, big story lines and hints at the roadmap for the coming year. In MMA, we kick things off with UFC 169, a show dominated by smaller fighters, with the added, rare twist of having two titles on the line.
People have been demanding title unification in the WWE for what seems like forever, but now that it’s finally here, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed. At TLC 2013, Randy Orton reunited the World Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship, bringing together pro-wrestling’s two major titles for the first time in almost twelve years. Over in the UFC, fans have recently had to come to terms with an even more underwhelming title reunification. In MMA, if a fighter is injured, and unable to compete, a temporary champion is usually crowned, known as an interim champion, who defends the belt like a champion until the “real” champion returns. At that point, the champion and the interim champion fight each other to crown the “undisputed” champion. UFC 169 was supposed to see such a fight until returning champion Dominick Cruz re-injured himself, leading to the title being simply given to interim champion Renan Barao, who will make his first defence against perennial number one contender Urijah Faber.
At least the WWE’s undisputed champion, Randy Orton, can lay claim to actually winning his title in the ring, and, like Barao, he’ll be defending his unified belt on pay-per-view for the first time at the upcoming show. In a dramatic break from MMA tradition, the Royal Rumble will see an instant rematch of TLC’s main event. Whilst an instant rematch to a title fight that ended with a clean, definitive win is virtually unheard of in the UFC, it’s standard procedure in the wrestling world, and a change of stipulation, in wrestling lore, basically makes it a fresh match. That’s not to say that rematches in the UFC don’t happen, Barao and Faber have met before, last Summer, and, just like the last meeting between Cena and Orton, it was the current champion who emerged victorious.
Given the importance of a strong title picture in the lead up to WresleMania, and given Barao’s recent performances, and his previous victory over Faber, it’s likely that we’ll see both champion’s keeping their titles for the coming months.
The fans who hated WWE having two main event titles must be beside themselves at the state of the title picture in the UFC. The UFC currently has nine title belts (soon to become ten). Eight are male belts, organised by weight at roughly 15lb. increments, and the ninth is for women only and has a cut off of 135lb. Theoretically, all titles are equal, but, historically, just like in boxing, the heavier titles tend to garner the most mainstream attention, with the heaviest four titles consistently drawing more than the lighter four.
In wrestling, every title very much has it’s place. The WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship stand at the top of the pyramid, followed by the Tag Championship, the Intercontinental Championship and the US Championship, with the Diva’s Championship at the very bottom. In wrestling, it’s also relatively common to have every title defended on every pay-per-view, compared to the UFC, where, traditionally, each pay-per-view only has one title much.
Here’s where UFC 169 stands out. For the first time in a while, the UFC will be promoting two men’s title fights on the same card, and both of those titles will be in the lower weight divisions. In wrestling terms, this is the equivalent of having no WWE title match, but, instead, main-eventing with the Intercontinental and US Championships back to back. Of course, the comparison doesn’t entirely work, because UFC fans are used to only seeing the Heavyweight Championship defended two or three times a year, but the promotion technique is similar; making up for two weak matches but putting them on the same show. Still, the UFC titles in question, the Featherweight and Bantamweight Championships, are still very much viewed as minor titles, often won and lost on smaller shows, foreign shows, and freely televised shows rather than the more traditionally North American based, heavily promoted pay-per-views.
To wrestling fans, the idea of a show being promoted without any of the WWE’s biggest stars is unthinkable, but this just goes to highlight one of the major differences between the companies, where match quality is usually more important to UFC fans, whilst storyline and atmosphere is more important to WWE fans (although the reverse is of course still important). The UFC also demonstrates the drawing potential of well protected titles, rarely defended, and rarely lost, compared to the WWE’s frequently and often flippantly revolving roster of champions, where the titles have lost much (in the case of the main event belts) if not all (in the case of the mid card belts) of their significance in the eyes of the fans. To fans of the UFC, the champion is the best, and whoever the champion is, no matter what the weight class, matters, and is of value. Not so much in the WWE, where the champion is often completely irrelevant, and where it’s common for champions to not even main event major pay-per-views, an unthinkable break from combat sports tradition in the MMA world.
If there’s one unique thing that can be taken from every Rumble, it’s a brief glimpse into WWE’s future plans. Of course, in a company so famous for it’s self-destructive obsession with constantly rewriting everything, such glimpses aren’t always helpful, but they’re at least interesting and a little revealing. The hot tip for 2014 is Roman Reigns, the man always marked out as the face-iest of the Shield, and, arguably, the entire point of the group from the start in the sense of long term planning. Some people are going so far as to predict Reigns winning the entire Rumble and going on to headline WrestleMania. Whilst this seems unlikely, it’s certainly not impossible. There’s also the chance of a return to the main event scene for Daniel Bryan. Many wrestling fans still haven’t forgiven WWE for ending Bryan’s run as the face of the company so quickly, and, given recent events on RAW, the Rumble would be the perfect moment to try to recapture some of the magic that came out of SummerSlam 2013.
In the UFC, meanwhile, UFC 169 is an uncharacteristically prospect empty card. Both title fights contain established fighters, whilst the third fight on the card contains two veterans (more on them later). Out of the whole main card, only John Lineker, who even MMA fans haven’t ever really heard of, could be seen as a potential future name, but that would be clutching at straws.
In a surprising switch on the cliche of young, fresh MMA versus old, dying pro-wrestling, it’s the WWE Royal Rumble that can be expected to offer more youth, freshness and potential.
Loser Leaves Town
There’s a certain type of MMA fan that loves to compare everything to wrestling. UFC likes to claim it’s descended from boxing more than anything else, but many of the fans think otherwise. The cross-over between the two sports goes all the way back to the days of Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott, and a large amount of current UFC fans are former WWF fans who jumped ship during the WWF/E’s relatively recent transformation out of the post-Attitude Era haze and into something more confidently defined, yet more clearly separated from the time many ex-fans consider to be wrestling’s last golden age. You can see the influence of pro-wrestling attitude on MMA from the instant excitement surrounding Brock Lesnar’s UFC debut (a man the UFC would have you believe their fans weren’t aware of before he left wrestling), MMA fan’s comfort with squeezing the sport’s biggest stars into larger than life WWE-ish gimmicks (Super-babyface Georges St. Pierre, late 90’s twiner Nick Diaz, cocky, arrogantly delusional heel Chael Sonnen, loveable thug Rampage Jackson), an eagerness for simple, often cartoonish storytelling (the black and white good vs. evil of Georges St. Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck, or the fast talking, posturing, swaggering alpha-male-off between Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans) and the excitement UFC fans have for fights that come with attached stipulations.
One such fight will be coming at UFC 169, when two of the most legendary and storied figures in the heavyweight division, Alistair Overeem and Frank Mir, face off in what will almost certainly be one of the men involved’s last match. Both men have previously reached dizzying peaks; Mir is a former UFC Heavyweight Champion, whilst Overeem has won every major title outside of the UFC in both MMA and it’s sister sport, kickboxing, before finally becoming the man to retire Brock Lesnar. Since their peaks, however, both men have been on the decline. Mir’s career was interrupted by a motorcycle accident which many people believe he never fully recovered from, whilst Overeem was disgraced by confirmation of the long standing rumour that he illegally abused steroids. Years of damage caused by such abuse have left Overeem’s testosterone levels irreparably harmed, and he hasn’t won a fight since. It’s not an officially sanctioned stipulation, but many fans, journalists and commentators believe that, giving their current situations, whoever loses this fight will, most likely, be fired from the UFC.
Just like wrestling, however, MMA firings and retirements rarely stick. As in WWE, the second a UFC fighter retires, everyone begins talking about exactly when he’ll come back, and retirements tend to have something of a time limit (although, given the slower pace of of the UFC in general, something like John Cena or CM Punk’s recent one week retirements is completely unheard of). Whilst the stipulation isn’t officially recognised, it’s safe to expect someone to face the chop after this fight, but, WWE and UFC fans can unite in their mutual knowledge that, when it comes to saying goodbye to the sport, nothing means forever.
The last comparison is less to do with the two shows, and more to do with coincidental timing. Both WWE and the UFC have recently announced details of future networks and, in the early rounds at least, it’s WWE who have come out ahead, offering, not only their full video library, but also “free” pay-per-views for $9.99 a month. UFC’s network, which costs a similar price, won’t offer free pay-per-views, and that’s the issue that seems to be getting the most attention. The UFC’s defence is that UFC pay-per-views are all relatively equal, at least in theory, where as many of the WWE’s pay-per-views are overtly inferior, and, in the words of MMA journalist Ariel Helwani, more like extended versions of RAW. It’s also worth noting that pay-per-view revenue is significantly more important to the UFC than it is to WWE. 50% of UFC’s income comes from the sale of pay-per-views, compared to between 10% and 20% for WWE.
Still, it’s a risk on WWE’s part. Whilst the generous offer of what is effectively an 80% discount on pay-per-views for subscribers may have won the P.R. war, it’s not guaranteed to pay off financially. Wrestling’s equivalent of Helwani, Dave Meltzer, estimates that the WWE network will need over a million subscribers before it stands a chance of actually making any of it’s money back, where as the UFC network will need barely 100,000 subscribers to turn a profit.
What to Watch
You like pro-wrestling and MMA equally, but you can’t justify forking out $100 for pay-per-views in one week, so which show do you pick? The UFC is offering the full package. Jose Aldo can be relied on to put on a clinical performance, and cement his reputation as, arguably, the best martial artist currently in the world, Renan Barao and Urijah Faber have both been on a devastating run of highlight reel finishes, with a spectacular knock out or submission virtually guaranteed, and Overeem vs. Mir means that the UFC heavyweight division will most likely be changed for ever. The WWE offers a less diverse package, but, arguably, a more important one. WrestleMania is the time when the world remembers, collectively, how much we all, deep-down, still love pro-wrestling, no matter what we think of the current state of WWE, and that feeling begins to blossom the second the Royal Rumble ends. Ignore everything else on the card and enjoy an hour of guaranteed fun, brawling, surprise returns, WrestleMania teases, high-concept spots, legendary appearances and get a sneaky glimpse of the formation of the next generation of wrestling superstars.
If you’re a true 50/50 fan, we recommend the WWE Royal Rumble.