There have been 61 fighters in Ultimate Fighting Championship history who were pro wrestlers at one point or another. There are nine on the current UFC roster. Of the six fighters in the UFC Hall of Fame, three – Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn and Mark Coleman – dabbled in wrestling.
But UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar is the only one vilified for it.
It would be easy to say that the attitude Lesnar has displayed – and not his former profession – would be the reason for crowds' reaction to him in his short UFC career. It would be easy to blame his actions in the cage after he beat Frank Mir at UFC 100 for the reaction of the crowd, fellow fighters and media afterward. Except it wouldn't be entirely true.
When Lesnar stepped out of the dressing room for his first match with Mir in February 2008, no debuting fighter in UFC history was ever so heavily booed. At that point, he had done nothing to be judged on in his UFC career – except that in his two previous careers, as a college wrestler for the University of Minnesota and as a pro wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment, he had risen to the top.
The reaction was entirely based on the fact that he was a pro wrestler coming into the UFC. The reaction came from a fan base that judged him as somehow different from the pro wrestlers who came before him into UFC.
Of course, none of the former pro wrestlers came into the company with so much publicity and such a rich contract. None walked in with the sort of name value and curiosity which led to what was, at the time, among the most purchased pay-per-view shows in company history.
This is not a defense of anything he did after the fight. But the reaction to Lesnar's postfight comments and his flipping the bird at fans is just the latest example of a double standard Lesnar has faced in his MMA career.
What if the Lesnar and Dan Henderson fights and postfights on Saturday night were transposed? If Lesnar had thrown that totally legal but devastating second blow on an already knocked-out foe – and remarked in his interview that he was doing it to shut Mir's mouth – people would have spent the past week demanding that he be banned from the sport. And would Henderson have gotten nearly Lesnar's heat if he had pulled the same postfight antics as Lesnar?
You want to deny there's a double standard here?
As Georges St. Pierre continually took down Thiago Alves in their welterweight title fight, the crowd cheered every takedown. Even when St. Pierre wasn't doing damage on the ground, he was being cheered wildly the entire fight.
In Round 2, as Lesnar had Mir on the ground and was punching his face in less than 30 seconds before the fight was over, there was a loud chant aimed at referee Herb Dean of "stand them up."
This was a first in UFC history. Not the chant itself, but it being done when a fighter was pummeling the other and actually seconds away from winning. It was the first time a crowd hated a fighter so much that they were willing to pervert the entire framework of what the sport is supposed to be – that a fighter should do what he can to finish a fight – simply because they wanted that fighter to lose so badly.
Of all the pro wrestlers who have come into the sport, only two – Lesnar and non-UFC fighter Bobby Lashley – have ever been disrespected by fellow fighters for being a pro wrestler. In Lesnar's four UFC fights, only one opponent didn't throw some kind of variation on "It's not the WWE," at him before the fight. In hyping the match, Mir implied Lesnar was strong but clueless when it came to fighting. Heath Herring and his camp had complained behind the scenes to company officials that it was a joke he was even put in the ring with a fake pro wrestler, and made public comments about how the punches were going to be real.
The only opponent who didn't disrespect Lesnar before the fight was Randy Couture. The only opponent Lesnar didn't trash talk afterward was Couture. Coincidence?
And Mir probably won't be the last, given the fact that his potential next opponent, Shane Carwin, already has played the pro-wrestling card in starting the hype.
"We have no scripts in this port, no predetermined earning amount and no predetermined outcomes," Carwin said.
Saturday night's perfect storm was a moment that will be remembered in the sport's history. It marked the first time that a UFC fighter was the single most talked-about sports personality in the world, as pundits who spent years hyping the likes of Barry Bonds and Randy Moss suddenly found their moral compass and badmouthed Lesnar.
Lesnar never asked to become the biggest villain the sport has ever seen, but he's also smart enough and experienced enough at it that he knows it's not all a bad thing. While running down Bud Light – UFC's leading sponsor – was not the best of judgment, he's turned out to be one of the greatest things for building the popularity of the sport.
Just as tennis had John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and boxing had Muhammad Ali, and football has Terrell Owens, it is good for the sport to have a great villain. You don't want a sport where everyone is like him; but when push comes to shove, Lesnar is great for the sport, just as St. Pierre is in a very different way.
The duality of the reaction of the crowds, in comparing the reactions to what Lesnar and Henderson said, and how Lesnar and St. Pierre formulated their winning game plans, says something pretty significant about the sport and its fan base.
The history of fights which have garnered the most interest and drawn the most money in UFC history, matches built by inflammatory interviews fashioned out of pro wrestling, are what made the sport and saved the sport. The examples are endless – from Tito Ortiz's grudge with Ken Shamrock, to Couture spanking Ortiz at the end of their match, to Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans nearly coming to blows in the crowd. It's a lesson very much worth examining for anyone arguing about what is good or bad for the future of the sport.
That's not even a bad thing. But it's simply accepting the truth of what all of this is, as opposed to living in a world of pretend – and then complaining about somebody because he used to be a pro wrestler.