Nineteen years ago roughly, Bret Hart sat in a bedroom in his Alberta home with a very tough decision. He’d received two very different and very attractive offers from WCW and WWF, one which would make him one of the highest paid wrestlers in the industry, and another that while cheaper, was the most extensive in history and essentially vested him as a true stakeholder in the company. For a wrestler, whose conditioned to believe that the truest sign of success in the industry is to draw as much money as possible, it would be very difficult to turn down the contract worth the most money. Especially for a wrestler like Bret Hart, a child of the business essentially, now being offered something equivalent to a fortune or a knighthood.
Hart took the WWF long-term deal, which was the unconventional, but loyal thing to do. About a year later, Vince McMahon told Hart to ask for his offer back from WCW, because WWF could not fulfill the terms of the contract.
And not since then, in any practical sense, has the WWF/E gone into a pro wrestling contract with which it was staking so much.
Monday, Brock Lesnar announced on ESPN’s SportsCenter that he was retiring from MMA and had re-signed with WWE. Terms turned out to be a limited appearance three year deal worth more than he was making before.
Sure, the Lesnar deal doesn’t have quite the size or scope of the 20-year Hart contract (which would still be active, by the way) but it may mean about as much for what WWE is doing with its business.
In this case, though, everybody got it right. There might be some sports “purists” who abhor when a legitimate athlete chooses wrestling, and some MMA diehards who are disappointed he isn’t coming back, but for the most part the general consensus seems to be this really makes the most sense for everyone involved.
According to reports, Lesnar was offered a monstrously lucrative deal by UFC while on the way to his ESPN interview, having already signed with WWE. UFC had offered him, by some reports, double the WWE offer on a per fight basis. But it still left Lesnar with the tougher schedule and the shoot fighting. For UFC, really, their contract offer would have suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Lesnar as a UFC fighter could probably pop a return rating, sure, and maybe a follow-up if he was dominant enough in his first match. But the more he fought — especially if he lost early — the less interest there would be in the “Beast Incarnate” in the UFC. If the UFC were offering him something like, say, 11 millon dollars a fight, would four fights really return a meaningful investment? What if Lesnar was able to stretch it out to six? The only money was really in the first two.
Brock Lesnar is a 37-year-old linebacker. Look around the NFL and see how many of those exist. Look around MMA, and you don’t see many guys that old, either. The beauty of wrestling is it’s athletic theater, and with theater you can dress up some things which gives a guy a longer career.
For Lesnar, too, there is significant risk and significant doubt. He has been combating with the idea for a year of having left on consecutive losses. For an athlete, you always want to avenge that. But there also has to be some doubt in his mind that he can do it or necessarily needs to. Instead, he puts his body through maybe a month’s worth of work in WWE per year, as opposed to training six or more months of the year for a shoot fight that could seriously hurt him.
From McMahon’s perspective, it’s also a no-brainer. Lesnar serves as the only legitimate commodity left in the WWE. Cena is stale and no longer really a marketable mainstream attraction, and the firebrand CM Punk is now with UFC. Roman Reigns isn’t ready and may never be. They’ve buried everyone else to put themselves in this position and may suddenly be realizing the consequences. And unlike with Bret Hart, McMahon is not stuck in a wrestling war. WWE is the wrestling world’s only *true* super power at the moment. And so a year from now, there’s significantly less chance of needing to bail. They need an attraction to continue to grow the Network, which is growing just like the economy, slowly, but not fast enough.
Amazingly the size and scope of the contract in the face of record losses in 2014 tells you that regardless of who wins Sunday night, World Wrestling Entertainment has hitched its wagon to Brock Lesnar for the next few years. And what’s crazy about that is that nothing about that was for certain until just this Monday. But Brock Lesnar is definitely now “the guy”.
It’s the pragmatic choice for both. Lesnar secures his legacy in both places. It seems agreeable enough that he has nothing truly to prove in UFC except to himself, and he has accepted that. Simultaneously he launches himself into the stratosphere of the singular face of American Wrestling at any one time (see Bruno, Andre, Hogan, Austin, Rock, Cena), and he also only has to do it once in a while, which, conveniently enough, differentiates him from everyone else who is on TV four times per week and stale.
Meanwhile, WWE can kick the can down the road a little bit longer with Reigns, maybe give him a test run with the title, maybe give him Heyman as a mouth piece (it worked for Lesnar), or at least give them time to build Lesnar toward something else as “the guy”. Maybe The Rock, maybe Rusev.
One of the things that drives me crazy about Vince McMahon is his insistence on arbitrary, childish minutiae that often ruins much of the show. The production decision to let the cameras zoom in and blur for every spot drives me crazy, and is a production quality assurance thing that you’d think would drive McMahon crazy, but he loves it. The way in which he dictates to the broadcasters what to say, which completely ruins the semblance of athletic competition, strictly so three puppets can make bad jokes for Vince. The decision to destroy the Intercontinental title and Tag Team division basically because he is bored. On and on.
But he does have a particular talent for surviving. And ultimately, when it comes down to stories in wrestling in which all parties sit down and just agree to do business, Vince McMahon tends to be involved in a lot of those deals. So maybe that’s why he’s the one that’s still around. Pragmatism. After all.
After the announcement was made on ESPN that Lesnar had re-signed with WWE, McMahon tweeted about it and concluded with a hash tag: #CongratstoUs.
— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) March 24, 2015
Now that could be nothing, but knowing McMahon’s tendency for spirited competition and his apparent paranoia occasionally that he is constantly up against the entire world, I can’t help but wonder if he was trying to rub salt in it a little bit at Dana White, or someone else at UFC. Vince always is at his best when he feels like he’s in a fight. And maybe even better when he feels like he’s won one.
Funny thing is, this time he really isn’t in a fight.
And if you get Vince McMahon worked up about a fight when he doesn’t have one. Well. That could be very interesting.
Just when you think I’m out… they pull me back in.