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In this edition of “Five Count,” I’ll be looking at 5 lessons that the crazy and wonderful world of professional wrestling can learn from UFC. I’ll preface this by noting that I’m not the most tenured UFC viewer and as a result this will basically be with a narrow focus on the last couple of years of UFC.
(1) Losing Sparingly Doesn’t Kill Star Power
Honestly, this lesson might be more for wrestling fans than wrestling promoters. As fans we live in a culture these days where if a wrestler we like loses, it’s a negative. That it’s gonna hurt their ability to be a big star. And to a certain extent it is true, but the vast majority of fans take it way too far. Yes, losing frequently will hurt anybody. Yes losing too often when you’re trying to build momentum is damaging. But losing sparingly doesn’t hurt anyone. Even in an actual sport that is sold on who wins and loses, losing sparingly isn’t damaging.
Now, I accept that there’s always a way of arguing against this and there’s no way that I’m going to cover every sort of response to this notion. There’s about a million and one caveats that need to be put in place. The most important one being that there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to losing. You don’t want your top draws to be losing frequently but losing here and there? As long as losses are viewed as blips and they maintain the personality traits that make them so popular, the odd loss here and there isn’t just fine, it’s even good!
Look at Ronda Rousey. She lost. It happens. Did that make her any less of a draw for her next fight? No, she did the same buyrate with Amanda Nunes as she did with Holly Holm as the then unstoppable force. In fact, you could probably argue that despite doing the same buyrate as the Holm fight, the biggest PPV Ronda did was the one after she lost. It sure didn’t hurt her.
Same story for Conor after he lost. He came back and did the biggest buyrate in UFC history after he lost to Nate Diaz. Losing sparingly doesn’t hurt, in fact it’s actually good. People want to see how stars react to adversity, how they overcome defeat. Stories draw and how stars react to losing is a story that continuously captivates the interest of viewers.
And this isn’t a UFC thing, either. Brock lost to Goldberg. He’s still a star right? Brock losing probably helped hype his next match more than any win could ever do. If Goldberg loses at Wrestlemania and comes back for another match, will he not be a star anymore? John Cena got SQUASHED by Brock Lesnar and he was pretty alright afterwards.
The odd loss for a top star doesn’t do big damage. So fans, calm down if the guy you want to see be a main eventer loses the odd match, and promoters, don’t be afraid to beat your top stars every now and again, they’ll be just fine.
(2) Losing Can Get You Over
So wait, not only can wrestlers afford the occasional loss, but sometimes losing can actually be good??? For whatever reason the art of getting a wrestler over in defeat has vanished from modern day wrestling, yet in UFC we frequently come away from fights thinking as much of, if not more of the loser than the actual winner.
Take for instance, the Demetrious Johnson vs. Tim Elliot fight for Mighty Mouse’s Flyweight Title. Tim Elliot undeniably came away from that fight more popular than when he went in. And it wasn’t like he really put up a strong challenge in terms of threatening to actually win the fight. But what he did do was surpass expectations and because of that he came away with more than what he went in with. Winning isn’t the only outcome of a contest that can get you over. Tim Elliot got over because he went the distance with an unstoppable juggernaut who was way above his standing in the rankings. He got over because even in defeat he showed personality than people reacted positively to. Now granted, whether that means anything the next time Tim Elliot fights is questionable due to the nature of UFC and the difficulty in capitalising on “forgettable momentum” like that.
Another similar example would be the Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs Karolina Kowalkiewicz fight from UFC 205. That was a one sided fight but because Joanna has been such a dominant champ, the fact that Kowalkiewicz managed to get her reeling at just one point in the fight, on top of the fact that she lasted through a 25 minute ass kicking, got her the bigger ovation at the end of the fight than what Joanna received, and had fans asking for a rematch between the pair despite a fairly one sided fight.
Probably a better example would be the Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi fight from UFC 207. Choi was the type of fighter who was garnering some hype further down the card from his flashy KO wins but the Swanson fight got him over to a degree that all those wins never could do. And arguably more over than a bog standard win over an established fighter like Cub Swanson would have done. Instead they had an absolute classic fight that was universally adored and created a lasting buzz. Sometimes the performance is more important in making you a star than the outcome itself, and if that can be true for a legit contest like MMA is then it’s sure as hell true for professional wrestling.
The lesson for wrestling promotions is that they need to make better use of roster hierarchy’s. The defeat that gets you over generally needs to happen with the loser fighting an uphill battle against someone above him in the hierarchy of the promotion. Think of the Jeff Hardy vs. Undertaker Ladder Match from 2002 as a brilliant example of this point. That match wouldn’t have worked half as well if Jeff was somewhat established as a guy who has competitive matches against the guys at the top of the card.
The babyface who takes a serious ass kicking but is defiant in defeat is a tremendous hand that wrestling promoters in promotions all over the world should be using more. As is the wrestler who takes on the guy far above him in the hierarchy but lasts way longer before losing than someone at his level ever normally lasts. As is the guy who never wins but gets over because he’s so good in the ring and it leaves fans clamouring for him to just get one win. New Japan have played this hand perfectly in recent years with Tomohiro Ishii & Tomoaki Honma.
Don’t be afraid to beat people but if you do then make a story out of the loss. As long as there’s a story for fans to get behind, losing in the right way can sometimes do more good than just winning.
(3) Anyone Can Be A Big Money Draw
Star power doesn’t come with an asterisk. You don’t have to be over a certain height to have star power. You don’t have to be over a certain weight to be a draw. You don’t have to be a certain gender to develop a mainstream fanbase. UFC has well and truly dispelled WWE’s philosophy that you have to have certain qualities in order to be a big star.
And in fairness to WWE they are already somewhat learning this lesson. Because of the success of Ronda Rousey they’ve started featuring the women in more prominent positions and are giving them more opportunities to become stars. Not in their own right or in their own bubble, but stars of the show period. And even though big men still have a distinct advantage in terms of being given opportunities more easily, WWE isn’t a big man’s world anymore.
There is still a resilient reluctance to go all in with someone who doesn’t fit their perception of what a big money draw is. C.M. Punk wasn’t the biggest guy in the room. He didn’t have a physique that left you in awe. He wasn’t even the most technically gifted performer at his art. He sure as hell wasn’t the easiest person to deal with. But when he talked everybody listened. Is this starting to sound familiar to UFC fans?
Triple H probably watches Conor McGregor fights wishing that WWE had an asset like him but the reality is they did. His name was C.M. Punk. No, he didn’t “look like a star” and he really wasn’t your ideal poster boy and, sure, he was a nightmare to deal with from a management point of view. But when he talked, he could sell you anything he damn well pleased. And that’s Conor. When he talks you listen. He talks you into wanting to see him perform, he creates unforgettable moments; win or lose, you want to see what he does next. And he had that rebel aura that everyone always gets behind. It worked for Austin, it worked for Conor, and hell it got Donald Trump into the Whitehouse. Conor McGregor is living proof that C.M. Punk could have been so much more than WWE ever allowed him to be and that there’s no “prototype” of what connotates being a star.
(4) UFC, Like Wrestling & Like Any Form Of Entertainment, Is A Star-Driven Business
“Oh, it doesn’t matter who is on top anyway, it’s the BRAND that draws.” Don’t you just love how people keep rolling that line out about WWE these days. And granted it is true to a certain extent that the WWE brand in and of itself is a draw and that fans will go to a WWE show regardless of who is on the show. But UFC is living proof that a hot brand can only drive business so much and the only thing that will drive business to a really hot level is the star power of individuals.
This just reinforces the need for any wrestling promotion to create stars and not be reliant on the brand name being the draw. Yes, the brand name being a selling point is a massive asset to have, but it’s star power that is needed in order for business to really be booming. There’s a reason why a great UFC main event like Bisping vs. Henderson won’t do even a third of the buyrate that any McGregor or Rousey fight would do, just like there’s a reason why when you add C.M. Punk to a Stipe Miocic-headlined PPV, the buyrate more than doubles.
Far more people pay to see stars than they do talent, and that’s what causes WWE’s inability to draw big numbers outside of WrestleMania. They have so much talent and so much great wrestling content, but that doesn’t appeal to a large scale audience if it isn’t intertwined with the star power of individuals.
(5) PPV Is Not A Dead Platform
When WWE launched the WWE Network over three years ago now, everyone was proclaiming that PPV was a dying business and that WWE wouldn’t be losing out by exiting that platform, which really was nonsense at the time to anyone not drinking in the cool aid. If you’ve got a hot product that people want to see, they’ll pay PPV prices for it. Even in 2017!
The key part of that sentence however is “hot product.” Conor McGregor is a hot product and does monster PPV numbers. Ronda Rousey was a hot product and did massive PPV numbers. WrestleMania was a hot asset and did huge PPV numbers right up to the end of the PPV era. Floyd Mayweather was a hot product and did giant PPV numbers. If it’s the hot, the people will come. But if it’s not, they won’t.
UFC itself is a hot product, but that doesn’t mean it will do big PPV numbers on the brand name alone. The buyrates for PPVs without a Conor or a Ronda or even a Jon Jones are generally always around the 200,000 mark which is nice, but it’s not numbers that you’d point to in arguing for PPV being a thriving platform. For WWE, putting the B PPVs off PPV and onto their own network was a brilliant move, but they messed up taking at the very minimum WrestleMania off PPV, and arguably Royal Rumble and Summerslam, too. By doing so they’ve wasted away huge sources of annual revenue and UFC is proof of the mistake that they made, proof that PPV can be a massive source of revenue ALONGSIDE an exclusive streaming service.
For WWE, it’s likely too late to do anything about now. But if the stars align and a new promotion gets hot enough to even consider running PPV, go for it, but only if you have a really hot asset to do it with.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons for WWE to learn from Elimination Chamber including the Bayley title win, Naomi’s in-ring skills, more
(“Five Count” is a Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who presents a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)