The bottom line: difficult pass
– Team USA (@TeamUSA)
August 6, 2021
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When Gable Steveson rallied in the dying seconds of his super-heavyweight game with Geno Petriashvili at the 2020 Summer Olympics, won freestyle gold at the age of 21 and celebrated with a Spectacular version of his trademark backflip, it was clear that there would be interest from the world of combat sports in a young man named after Dan Gable. Steveson had spoken of his longtime affinity for MMA and his interest in professional wrestling, making him a prized prospect for either of his pursuits.
Obviously, Steveson would be welcome in the world of MMA. The best coaches would be interested in working with him and the promoters would be happy to feature him on their shows. The question was whether Steveson would be able to secure what amounted to a scholarship offer lucrative enough to make him consider turning down World Wrestling Entertainment. WWE had wooed Steveson since his high school days and is particularly hungry for young superstar wrestlers, given that their current top stars are an older group. It was going to take a big offer to dissuade Steveson from joining WWE.
There are many precedents for these types of MMA transactions. The Pride Fighting Championships have been particularly aggressive in signing Olympic medalists for several reasons. First, the Olympics attracted more viewers in Japan than in the United States and many other countries, and as a result, there was more intrigue about how judokas and Olympic wrestlers would do in MMA. Second, Pride was built around its big TV shows, and this made unique contests for the masses more valuable than a promotion built around pay-per-view.
Hidehiko Yoshida and Satoshi Ishii were two of Pride’s biggest needle movers, Yoshida in particular being an underrated figure for his influence in the sport. Pride also made Rulon Gardner a big bid to fight on New Years Eve after scoring one of the biggest upheavals in Olympic history against Aleksandr Karelin. Pride rival K-1 signed a deal with charismatic Egyptian wrestling superstar Karam Ibrahim Gaber, though it turned out as badly for him as it seemed imaginable at the time.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship couldn’t resist signing one-off leads for big-ticket deals. Brock Lesnar is of course the most vivid example, and this signing has paid financial dividends probably beyond the most optimistic projections of the UFC. Three-class world champion boxer James Toney didn’t exactly cover himself in glory with his MMA debut against Randy Couture, but the returns to the card have been impressive. Perhaps the most infamous signing for many is generational pro wrestling star Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, who was not a member of the Octagon but at least managed to generate some business and buzz in the process.
Other MMA promotions may also seem like possibilities for Steveson. Bellator MMA under Scott Coker has sought to develop elite young prospects from an early age with AJ McKee proving to be a huge achievement. Aaron Pico didn’t muster the record many expected, but Bellator’s investment in him still seems like a wise move given the publicity he’s received for his Madison Square Garden debut. If he had won and kept winning – an idea that is not ruled out given his natural talent undermined by his sometimes reckless approach – he could be Bellator’s biggest star now. Likewise, the Professional Fighters League invested in Kayla Harrison from the start, and she became its undisputed star.
So there was reason to believe that MMA promotions could be a blow to Steveson. In fact, none have. The UFC would only have given Steveson one opportunity on Dana White’s Contender Series, similar to what he did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. So Steveson signed with WWE. He might end up doing MMA on the road, like Lesnar or his fellow pro wrestlers Bobby Lashley or Jake Hager, but that won’t be anytime soon. If he does so later, it’s entirely possible that his notoriety in professional wrestling will make him more valuable than his notoriety in Olympic wrestling now. However, this is not a guarantee.
The natural question then is whether it was wise for promotions to avoid making strong offers for young genealogical and marketable talent to enter MMA. This is not a question with an easy answer. Steveson wouldn’t be cheap, and he’s unlikely to pay off his contract immediately. It is also unclear to what extent he would develop as an MMA prospect. Some wrestlers have adapted much better than others to strikes and submissions.
There is, on the other hand, a real advantage in attracting famous personalities from different walks of life who have a legitimate advantage for mixed martial arts. MMA is a star-driven sport, and the biggest stars are the ones who line the coffers of the UFC and also help fellow fighters. If UFC president Dana White had stuck to his guns and hadn’t brought in Ronda Rousey, it would have made things much worse for the company. Not lashing out at Steveson could turn out to be a non-story, or even a sigh of relief could possibly be greeted. It is also possible that this is ultimately seen as a mistake and an intriguing case of “what ifs”.