Grapples and Oranges: Thanks to Lesnar, wrestling no longer suffers in comparison.
Grapples and Oranges: Thanks to Lesnar, wrestling no longer suffers in comparison. Credit: AP Photo/Eric Jamison

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Mike Mahoney took a 90-minute drive to Milton, Del., on Saturday. He’s a professional wrestler and promoter working the indie circuit throughout the mid-Atlantic region who has spent most weekends for the last decade trying to sell his “Massive Mike” ring persona, and maybe some action figures in singlets, to crowds of between 20 and 120 folks per night.

But this time around, the commute and the hawking of wrestling-related merchandise didn’t seem as much like work as it sometimes does to Mahoney, who grew up in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast D.C.

No, these days, Massive Mike is feeling a little more, well, massive.

“It’s all about Brock Lesnar,” Mahoney says.

On Nov. 15, Lesnar gave pro wrestling its finest hour—or finest eight minutes, anyway—by KO’ing mixed martial arts legend Randy Couture in an octagon in Las Vegas to take the UFC heavyweight championship, the premier title in ultimate fighting’s premier federation.

The knockout came in only Lesnar’s fourth mixed martial arts (MMA) bout, which comes after years of working the ring for WWE, the only pro wrestling federation that still matters.

On paper, Mahoney’s pro wrestling and Lesnar’s pro wrestling don’t have a lot in common.

Lesnar’s old employer, Vince McMahon, will host another taping of one of his weekly TV shows, Raw, next week inside a crowded Verizon Center. Good seats will cost you $75. (Abe Pollin’s coliseum isn’t too far from the spot modern pro wrestling was born—at 13th and W Streets NW, the site where Turner’s Arena once stood. WWE can be traced back to that building, where McMahon’s dad, Vincent J. McMahon, built up a regional empire by filming weekly shows for his D.C.-based promotion in the 1950s and broadcasting them throughout the Eastern seaboard.)

Mahoney works VFW halls, rec centers, county fairs, and any other space that’ll let him set up a ring; last weekend’s event was at the Milton Community Civic Center, a venue that had never hosted a wrestling card before. All tickets were $5.

The matches were produced by Mahoney’s promotion, Maximum Championship Wrestling. He stepped away from the ticket and merch tables long enough to let his Massive Mike persona take over and beat a wrestler known as the Great Kitsume #3.

I first met Mahoney, a McKinley Tech alum, several years ago while doing a story about a cable access wrestling show he worked on, Inside the Squared Circle. I called him this week after Lesnar’s MMA conquest to gauge the impact of a wrestler dominating a pastime where the results aren’t taken as gimmicky, to see if Lesnar’s glory trickled all the way down to pro wrestling’s lower rungs.

And to hear Mahoney tell it, this was indeed a case of one quick strike for a pro wrestler, one giant leap for pro wrestling.

“To say I feel personal pride is an understatement,” Mahoney tells me. “This is vindication of everything I’ve ever felt or said about professional wrestling and wrestlers. Brock Lesnar is a helluva athlete, as wrestlers are. Yeah, it’s entertainment, but I’m tired of reading articles about the ‘fake’ pro wrestler, that wrestling is a joke. We’re a joke? Well, this fake, this joke just beat your real deal. That’s redemption for all of us.”

Lesnar’s ascension has not incited an equal and opposite reaction from everybody with MMA leanings.

“Is there shame? No! Is there shame that Randy Couture lost to a guy who is three inches taller and [45 pounds] heavier and 15 years younger? No!” says David Plotz, former senior editor of Washington City Paper, current editor of Slate, and all-around Mr. Smarty Pants. “Couture shouldn’t have even been fighting Lesnar.”

Plotz says he’s never gotten pro wrestling, but he became hooked on ultimate fighting while watching little guys use exotic fighting techniques to beat big guys in UFC IV, a pay-per-view event in 1994. (The Lesnar–Couture match was the feature bout of UFC 91.) He has been regarded, in my household at least, as the Thinking Man’s Human Cockfighting Fan since 1999, when he wrote “Fight Clubbed,” a Slate article that stands as mainstream media’s first defense of ultimate fighting. Back then, UFC’s future looked bleak, and Plotz wrote that ultimate fighting’s “flameout from national sensation to total irrelevance is a tragedy of American sports, a cautionary tale of prudishness, heavy-handed politics, and cultural myopia.” Plotz specifically blamed the downturn in UFC’s fortunes on Sen. John McCain, a boxing proponent who in the mid-1990s had personally pleaded with governors from every state to ban ultimate fighting.

As McCain whined and ultimate fighting waned, pro wrestling entered a Golden Age, with WWE and World Championship Wrestling, Ted Turner’s rival promotion, dominating cable ratings and producing record pay-per-view buy rates.

But ultimate fighting didn’t go away. And over time, with a pro wrestling–esque emphasis on personality rather than technical tools—see: Chuck Liddell—UFC got McCain and his fellow naysayers to tap out. And the sport, or whatever you want to call MMA, now grapples with pro wrestling for the hearts of American adolescent males and the dollars of their parents.

So the WWE/UFC rivalry brewed even before Lesnar became the biggest name ever to try to make the jump from the scripted to the unscripted. Rather than risk a Kimbo Slice–like flameout, UFC boss Dana White rushed Lesnar, who was the biggest draw in UFC the minute he signed with White, to the top of the card.

Bob Mould—who, along with being D.C.’s most accomplished resident rocker and dance DJ, is a former scriptwriter for World Championship Wrestling—thinks the melding of wrestling and MMA talent could be especially good, businesswise, for UFC.

Mould says he already chuckles at how much MMA has taken from wrestling, particularly the way UFC’s reality show on the Spike network, Ultimate Fighter, sets up story lines that can translate into ring rivalries.

“That’s what the kids love wrestling for: It’s a weird combination where it is fighting, but there’s also that soap opera,” Mould says. “And UFC is using that show to build issues.”

But Mould, who is also a big MMA fan, wonders if UFC will push a guy who made his name under Vince McMahon over the homegrown talent.

“UFC’s got a gold mine that they probably aren’t going to exploit,” says Mould. “They’d be wise to capitalize on all the hatred for Lesnar. All the MMA guys are going to be chasing after him now, to regain the honor of MMA. In Lesnar, they’ve got a natural heel on their hands.”

Even if Lesnar never brings in fans, he’s already bringing competitors to MMA.

Mahoney says wrestlers who have worked for him on Maximum Championship Wrestling events have told him they’re considering giving the, well, real thing a shot.

“Why not?” Mahoney says. “As we sit today, the best there is in MMA is a professional wrestler.”