A year ago, there was much speculation regarding whether Brock Lesnar would choose WWE or UFC, as the man who’s held championships for both promotions was deciding if he wanted to stay with professional wrestling or jump back into the world of mixed martial arts. Lesnar ultimately signed a contract to continue competing inside the squared circle, but WWE and UFC will both benefit from his star power in the summer of 2016.
Lesnar will take on No. 8-ranked UFC heavyweight Mark Hunt at UFC 200 on July 9, returning to the octagon for the first time since Dec. 30, 2011. Six weeks later, he’ll have a match at WWE’s SummerSlam in Brooklyn, New York, though his opponent is unknown at this time.
Lesnar’s impact in both WWE and UFC makes him a one-of-a-kind athlete. He was the biggest UFC star of all time before he left MMA, and he’s one of the biggest WWE superstars to debut since the turn of the century.
“I’m a crossover athlete,” Lesnar said on “SportsCenter” last week. “I’m the modern-day Bo Jackson, people.”
UFC doesn’t release pay-per-view numbers, but Lesnar’s been the star of many of the company’s top-selling events. He defeated Frank Mir in the main event of UFC 100, which reportedly set a record that still stands with 1.6 million buys. His fights against Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez and Randy Couture were the main attractions on PPVs that reportedly sold at least 1 million buys, something that’s been done only an estimated 11 times.
Conor McGregor emerged as MMA’s biggest star last year, and he might have surpassed Lesnar as the company’s biggest all-time draw. It’s an argument McGregor has made, and one that Lesnar has no interest in disputing, but the 38-year-old will get a chance to show his value to UFC when he returns after an extended layoff.
Lesnar is well-known among MMA and professional wrestling fans, but the South Dakota native doesn’t have the same crossover recognition as McGregor. Compiling a list of the world’s most famous athletes, ESPN recently ranked McGregor No. 37. Lesnar’s return to UFC had not yet been announced, but there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have made the list at all.
“I think if you were to do Q-scores on the street, if you were to ask people, ‘What do you think of Brock Lesnar?’ I think there would be an overwhelming number of people who wouldn’t be familiar with him at all and wouldn’t care what he was doing,” Syracuse University professor and Sports Business Journal columnist Rick Burton told International Business Times.
"I don’t think it’s a very big brand, and I think that UFC and WWE are bigger brands than him.”
UFC 200 has been billed as the biggest event in the company’s history, but it lost some of its luster when McGregor’s rematch with Nate Diaz was taken off the card in favor of a Jon Jones rematch with Daniel Cormier. But the inclusion of Lesnar adds some intrigue, and the former heavyweight champ will play a major role in the company likely setting another PPV record.
Lesnar’s impact on WWE isn’t as easy to quantify, especially now that WWE’s pay-per-view numbers aren’t very relevant because the company’s biggest events are also broadcast on the WWE Network. There’s no doubt, however, that Lesnar is one of wrestling’s most popular draws, and John Cena might be the only wrestler who’s more valuable to the company.
While his exact salary is unknown, Lesnar is believed to make more money than almost any wrestler, falling behind only Cena, despite working a limited number of dates for the company. WWE has allowed Lesnar to perform part time, competing in just 24 matches since he rejoined the company over four years ago. By comparison, Cena wrestled well over 100 times in 2015 alone.
Lesnar’s return in 2012 was considered a disappointment in terms of PPV buys, but his match against Cena helped generate 251,000 buys at WWE Extreme Rules, which was an increase of 35,000 buys from the same PPV in 2011. He’s had such an impact that WWE put its top title on Lesnar from August 2014 to March 2015, even though he didn’t have a routine presence on “Monday Night Raw,” a weekly program on USA Network.
A large part of Lesnar’s appeal in WWE is the realism he brings to a product that forces fans to suspend so much disbelief. His matches often feel like a real fight, and his UFC success is proof that he’s a legitimate fighter.
It’s unknown if Lesnar will be anywhere near the dominant force he was at the height of his MMA career. He left UFC after two consecutive losses, though he was battling diverticulitis, a digestive disease, and he’ll be just three days away from his 39th birthday when he steps inside the cage at UFC 200. Hunt is even older at age 42, but the little-known fighter from New Zealand won two fights by knockout since November, and Lesnar may struggle to last beyond the first round if he isn’t fully ready.
Hunt is the early favorite, but the end result may not matter much. Burton believes Lesnar needs to keep his name relevant by staying active in either UFC or WWE considering the short shelf life for fighters.
And while his fighting career might not last much longer, Lesnar appears to be a strong bet for both UFC and WWE. He should help boost PPV sales for UFC 200, despite McGregor’s absence, and he’ll bring even more recognition for SummerSlam by August, for which WWE will reap the publicity benefits of his July fight with Hunt no matter the outcome.
“I’m a prizefighter,” Lesnar said. “Titles don’t pay bills. I fight for money. I’m making money. They’re making money. Everybody’s making money. That’s what this is all about.”