A Modest Response: MMA Style in Pro Wrestling

Mixed Martial Arts in Pro Wrestling seems to be a quickly emerging trend in the product. Recently, in a TNA 10 Thoughts, for no discernable reason, I reviewed PWG’s Bryan Danielson vs. Low Ki and further back in this very column, I went over TNA’s Samoa Joe vs. Kurt Angle. Both of these are examples of the influx of this style, but the question remains, what does it mean?

MMA style in wrestling is far from a new idea and can be seen in Japan as early as the 1970s in perhaps the most famous wrestler of in Japan, Antonio Inoki’s Strong Style. This style lead, almost naturally, to the worked shoot promotions which gave New Japan (the Japanese WWE) a run for their money. These promotions, notably UWF and the pinnacle of the form, UWF-I, took a much more realistic approach to wrestling, where the storylines in the ring remained, but the maneuvers that required more of a suspension of disbelief, notably top rope and irish whip maneuvers, but also moves that required obvious opponent assistance, all being shunted out. These promotions success lead to the rise of MMA, with the most notable shoot promotion, PRIDE, doing great attendance and forcing (at least as he saw it) Inoki to shift priorities. Much to fans chagrin, at the turn of the century, many MMA guys came to compete in New Japan, causing a distinct new style. It was similar to UWF-I worked shoots, but gone were the stories that made them so compelling as the MMA trained, new wrestlers, simply didn’t have the in ring chops to pull off complex wrestling storytelling in the ring. What made matters worse is that several top stars, most notably Yugi Nagata, got to face top PRIDE talent in MMA, only to be destroyed. With this causing business to decline rapidly, the MMA style in Japan quickly took a back seat to more traditional wrestling again, though with heavy striking and more move-countermove exchanges, the influence remains.

Currently, American wrestling seems to be taking a different root towards MMA. TNA and the indies are the ones supporting this drive and WWE involvement seems less likely. Let’s go over why WWE will likely never adopt MMA.

WWE has long been pushing a safer style for their wrestlers, at least since the late 90s and early 00s brought a rash of injuries to top stars. MMA, with a more mat focus, would seem an ideal way to go about ensuring wrestler safety. The problem is, it would require a massive overhaul in the way WWE trains their wrestlers and how much time is spent in development. In order to wrestle MMA style, far more training is necessitated than the WWE’s current, simple but effective, punch and kick heavy offense. In order for wrestlers to be able to successfully pull off both the MMA mat work and, more importantly for the storyline driven WWE, make that mat work mean something in the framework of the match’s story, years more training of a totally different kind would be needed. Since I don’t see the WWE retraining it’s entire roster and fanbase to accept this, they will likely lag far behind on this trend, with Undertaker’s submission choke and a few CM Punk strikes being the exception rather than the rule.

TNA meanwhile is taking an intelligent approach to the mixing of MMA in with wrestling. In saving it for special occasions with guys who are at least solid in the style, like Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe, they are able to make it seem like a special draw that certain wrestlers will bust out to prove themselves. This extra-rare and special match type, if kept up in this manner, has been shown to please fans, and though I disagreed (having more experience with the style than many TNA fans), those who support TNA tended to absolutely love Joe and Angle’s MMA work. This lack of experience will, when kept to rare occasions, make these matches seem special, creating a great way to stand out, without changing the entire show or risking being seen as second rate MMA. With heavy rumors of Bobby Lashley arriving in TNA soon, a great way to help him achieve the stardom WWE foresaw for him, would be letting him become a stalwart of the style since he’s a former army wrestler who recently trained a bit for MMA. TNA, through their use of MMA has a potential new and special draw for their cards and a way to elevate superior wrestlers by making them and their matches stand out.

MMA style on the indies is hardly a new idea. On Ring of Honor’s second ever show, Round Robin Challenge, Bryan Danielson and Low Ki had a standout MMA style match (that I gave *****) with Ken Shamrock as referee. Currently in ROH, at least, Danielson, Rocky Romero, Davey Richards, Austin Aries, and Nigel McGuinness are capable of working that style and likely several others (Albright?, Strong?). The matches which are, in part, of this style often don’t stand out because so many different wrestlers incorporate elements from it. It has long been my opinion that ROH should, like the Pure Title Rules, invent a system for a MMA style title. The draw of this is that with MMA hot, some good, MMA style would draw a few new fans and, since MMA’s top guys can’t go more than every few months, provide a more regular output of the style. To protect against this becoming like Japan, where wrestlers and their skill is overshadowed or looked down upon in comparison, ROH, without the baggage of Japan’s accumulated history on the matter, could go the Strong Style route and present their wrestling and MMA as two distinct styles of fighting. They can mix and match up, but sometimes one is superior, sometimes another, depending on the skill of the wrestler. This would allow those who integrate both success in both divisions and leave them something to do when they aren’t in the World or FIP Title hunts. Building more top draws is a priority for ROH and this would help accomplish that, if done carefully. ROH recently tested the waters of this style at Eye of the Storm with a Danielson vs. Romero match that garnered good reaction. As an occasional draw with its own division, this reaction should be built upon.

So, is MMA style infiltrating wrestling in America a good thing? At the moment, absolutely. In the indies, it’s currently being presented as just another tool of wrestling storytelling. This is essentially what it is when done properly, regardless of how it is presented. TNA has used it as a special draw recently, with somewhat surprising huge success, given that it really is just a stylistic difference akin to that between fliers and heavyweights and mat wrestlers. With that success though, should come a protection and intelligent implementation of the style as a special draw, with the buzz that garners helping to create new stars and hopefully help TNA shed their current WWE-lite status. Overall, MMA style is another tool in wrestling and how it is used, not that it is used is the issue. Those who use it currently are doing it wisely and with great success.

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