We once again find ourselves in a Brock Lesnar free agency. Somehow, even at 43, the part time pro-wrestler, full time squeaky voiced bodybuilder is stirring up rumours of a return to the octagon. We’ve done this dance several times, and every time the music stops, someone throws up on my shoes and we all get kicked out of the club. Not only is Brock Lesnar not fighting anyone anytime soon unless they enter the perimeter of his 43 acre estate and he mistakes them for food, but we have evolved past the need for Brock Lesnar, and many of his kind. But, what does that even mean?
Brock Lesnar showed up precisely when MMA needed him. A shaved gorilla with a machete emblazoned on his chest like some kind of abandoned Mad Max concept art, “the Beast” stoked the fires of bloodthirsty cage fighting fans from both ends of the spectrum. Being a former pro-wrestler, naturally hardcore fans wanted him sacrificed in the name of authenticity. Pro-wrestling fans, attracted to cartoonish spectacle like moths to a flame, were more than happy to be involved in such a bizarre car crash event.
Of course, Brock wasn’t exactly some scrub solely crafted in the crucible of rope running and flat back bumps, Lesnar was a legit NCAA champion, with monstrous athletic capacity. But, in the eyes of the viewer, he was encroaching on something that simply was not his domain. He needed to serve as an example, which, in hindsight, made no sense whatsoever.
Whether you like it or not, MMA and pro-wrestling aren’t so different; or, at least, they weren’t. Despite what you may have been led to believe, Pancrase was technically the first MMA promotion, having been formed a few months before the UFC held its first event. Pancrase was formed by Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, two professional wrestlers with shoot backgrounds, as a shoot organisation with pro-wrestling sensibilities.
The promotion created a number of competitors whom we now think of part of the very foundations of MMA. Men like Bas Rutten and Frank and Ken Shamrock were key players in Pancrase, and they became so because of the companies commitment to pro-wrestling style flare. From the entrances and announcing styles, to the fight gear and rule set (no closed fists), pro-wrestling coursed through the veins of Pancrase. Rutten and the Shamrock’s understood this, and played off of it well.
Pancrase would lose prominence moving into the late 90s, but its success would feed into Pride, a company that would go on to define MMA in the eyes of many for the better part of a decade. Pride would adopt a rule set more akin to what we now understand to be typical in mixed martial arts, but a pro-wrestling approach to the presentation remained strong.
Pride’s very first event was headlined by Nobuhiko Takada vs Rickson Gracie. At the time Rickson was considered the man in shoot competition, and Takada was a massive star in the world of pro-wrestling. Japan has always maintained a more shoot-style slant to pro-wrestling proceedings, and as such their athletes are viewed through a more legitimate lense than here in the west. It helps that pro-wrestling training in Japan incorporates genuine martial arts. Because of this, as ridiculous as it may now seem, Takada vs Rickson was an incredibly exciting matchup in the eyes of the Japanese fanbase.
Takada would go on to lose to Rickson, twice in fact, but with Pride, something big had begun. The promotion would go on to compete with the UFC until 2007, when the company would fold, because of the Yakuza and stuff – don’t worry about it. Despite eventually going under, Pride did things not even today’s UFC can claim, putting on shows to 60,000 plus fans on more than one occasion.
Pride is remembered fondly by the MMA faithful as a fun and often brutal alternative to the more pedestrian presentation of the UFC, and the company had plenty of pro-wrestlers lining its roster, many of whom are nostalgically looked back on by western fans. From Kazushi Sakuraba to Bob Sapp to Yoshihiro Takayama, Pride towed the line between legitimate MMA promotion and pro-wrestling carnival with surprising competence. They even threw in a little fight fixing from time to time to keep things interesting.
Eventually the UFC would envelop the market, and streamline their production style even further into the realm of legitimate sport. Selling for 4 billion in 2016 and moving to ESPN in 2019, the companies assimilation into mainstream sports is well on its way. Because of this, many people seem to have forgotten where we began.
To wit, when you really think about it Brock Lesnar as a character is as classically MMA as you could hope to find. A gigantic pro-wrestler with a shoot background and terrible tattoos, he embodies the spirit of our origins as good as anyone. All of this is to say, if you hate Brock Lesnar and don’t want to see him fight again, that means you hate Pride, and that’s just science. Checkmate nerds.