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Why Alberto Del Rio has suddenly become a sought-after MMA fighter

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With the success as draws of Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley, combined with the demo play of an Hispanic star, Jose Rodriguez, the former Alberto Del Rio in WWE, is having huge money thrown his way if he wants to fight.

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The name Jose Rodriguez wouldn't even be known by the most ardent MMA fan.

Yet, Rodriguez, who turns 38 in May, perhaps before he would even fight again, is the subject of a significant bidding war for a multiple fight deal.

And nobody is even certain if Rodriguez even wants to fight.

The craziness revolves around a strange period in MMA, and the unique apparent cross-section relationship with American pro wrestling. It's a situation that both sides are vehement in public denying exist, and for good reasons on each side. But business practices tell a different story than public words.

Rodriguez is better known by his pro wrestling name, Alberto Del Rio. In the past week, Bellator promoter Scott Coker has publicly stated that they are in the running for the former World Wrestling Entertainment star.

Rodriguez was a strong amateur wrestler, most notably placing fourth in the Pan American games in Greco-Roman wrestling at 211 pounds in 1997, at the age of 20, after placing third in the world that year in the Junior (20-and-under) world championships. He was training for the 2000 Olympics, but instead, went into the family business of pro wrestling. While wrestling in Mexico, he did 14 MMA fights between 2001 and 2010, compiling a 9-5 record against mostly unknown competition, past his famous head kick knockout loss in Pride to Mirko Cro Cop. He did almost all of his fights wearing a mask, using the name Dos Caras Jr. It should also be noted that he was never a full-time MMA fighter, just did real fights under his masked persona in Mexico, Honduras, Japan and Spain, where his father and uncle were huge stars, while still working full-time as a pro wrestler.

Dos Caras, his father, was arguably the best heavyweight pro wrestler in the history of Lucha Libre, Mexico's more acrobatic version of pro wrestling. His uncle, Mil Mascaras, is, undeniably the biggest heavyweight pro wrestling star that ever came from Mexico. During the 60s and 70s, Mil Mascaras was more than a pro wrestling star, but a cultural icon in Mexico, as well as to Mexican Americans in the U.S. and a colorfully costumed television hero to a generation of kids in Japan. Known as "The Superman of Wrestling," the bodybuilder with a strong background in wrestling and judo, starred in a number of 'B' action movies and adorned magazine covers in all parts of the world. Even today, some four decades after the heyday of Mil Mascaras, you could not go to a Halloween public celebration in a Mexican part of a major U.S. city and not see at least someone wearing the famous mask of his uncle. A few years ago, the Mexican government released a Mil Mascaras postage stamp.

Because of the unique circumstances regarding his departure from WWE, his family history, and changing U.S. demographics, Rodriguez has found himself one of the luckiest men ever to be fired in recent memory.

As Alberto Del Rio, he was a genuine headliner for most of his four years with WWE. He played a rich Mexican aristocrat villain. For a time he would come out for television matches with a different new $100,000 car. The long-term goal was to introduce him as a villain, but eventually have him flip and stand up for Mexican-Americans, and then become one of the company's signature stars.

What he had going for him was bloodlines that were almost royal to Mexicans, and movie star looks. He was also nearly 6-foot-4 and with the kind of physique that those in charge of a cosmetic business love. He also speaks well in both languages.

With Latinos making up an increasingly large percentage of the U.S. population, and with Mexicans traditionally supporting both boxing and pro wrestling at more than double the level of their non-Hispanic counterparts, the idea of a genuine Mexican idol, who is fluent in both English and Spanish, was understandably high in WWE priorities.

That's the same reason he's in demand in MMA right now. The idea is that he, between the family, promotional ability, and celebrity status with the Hispanic media in the U.S. and Mexico, that he could get a promotion a level of publicity in an untapped market that nobody else could. But still, he was not a world beater in his first run in MMA, and age is not on his side. Unlike C.M. Punk and Dave Bautista, he never gave the impression he wanted to return to fighting. He can probably make in the range of $500,000 or more annually in a pro wrestling world with greater odds of long-term success.

Pro wrestling is a strange business when it comes to stars. Even the best promoters have a checkered history of picking stars that click. Rodriguez seemed to have a lot going for him, and you can argue what the reason was he never reached the hoped-for levels. He was a star, but not a star at the level of a star of a Brock Lesnar or a Punk.

The story of why the Alberto Del Rio character, and the real life Jose Rodriguez, are no longer in the WWE reads almost like a wrestling skit.

On Aug. 5, during the afternoon before a television taping in Laredo, Texas, Cody Barbierri, the WWE's Manager of Social Media Live Events, was eating at company catering. When he was done, he apparently didn't clean off his plate. When someone asked him, in a bad attempt at humor, Barbierri allegedly responded, "That's Del Rio's job."

Rodriguez wasn't there but the word quickly got to him. He took it as a racial remark, and confronted Barbierri. Rodriguez said he didn't appreciate the remark, and wanted an apology. Barbierri refused. Rodriguez allegedly slapped him, hard.

Rodriguez was first told by management that he would be suspended for two weeks, but two days later, with the company fearing a lawsuit, Rodriguez was told he was being fired. He was told there were extenuating circumstances and to sit tight, and he would be hired back when it blew over. The company already had one lawsuit at the time for a wrestler allegedly roughing up a backstage employee, and felt a second lawsuit wouldn't be good for something similar.

Rodriguez flat out said that if he wasn't rehired before the end of the phone conversation, he would never work for the company again.

After doing media in Mexico where he explained the incident, he became a very sympathetic character in Mexico, and most of the matches he has wrestled in that country in recent months have been sellouts.

How this relates to MMA is that every MMA promoter is aware that the Mexican-American audience has carried boxing for the last decade, and supports pro wrestling in large numbers. It should, by all rights, be similarly large for MMA. But aside for a short period of momentum for Cain Velasquez after he beat Lesnar to win the UFC heavyweight title, and until his loss to Junior Dos Santos, the feeling is MMA has only scratched the surface with that demo--a demo that will increase in size and importance in this country in future years.

There is a feeling that what can conceptually work for a company that isn't the UFC, is to take advantage of UFC's weakness in building around a genuine Mexican marquee idol.

While he won't be able to use the Alberto Del Rio name he's best known for, and Dos Caras Jr. really doesn't work in a real sport, Rodriguez is now a symbol of standing up for Mexican pride, the sympathy of losing his job because of it, and has a strong level of notoriety.

At least three major fight promotions, all of which have existing television deals, are after him. Sources close to him have said UFC has not made an offer, and Bellator, through Coker, is the only one that has publicly come out. That doesn't include his weighing offers from at least five significant pro wrestling organizations around the world. Among them are a Japanese group; the AAA group in Mexico, where he recently won their version of the world heavyweight title; Ring of Honor, the longtime No. 3 group in the U.S. that is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting; TNA Wrestling, the No. 2 group which was recently canceled by Spike TV and is trying to reinvent itself on Destination America; and Lucha Underground, an upstart on both the El Rey Network and Unimas (a syndicated Spanish language network) that has as backers some major entertainment figures including Robert Rodriguez and Mark Burnett of Survivor fame.

This comes at a time when the pro wrestling/MMA crossover is making more news than in a long time. Phil Brooks, better known as CM Punk, who headlined numerous shows, including pay-per-view events, with WWE, against Rodriguez, has just signed with the UFC. At 36. his situation is far different from Rodriguez, Lesnar and Bobby Lashley. They were all top-tier amateur wrestlers before going into pro wrestling. Brooks, who is expected to start training in a few days at Roufusport in Milwaukee, with the likes of Anthony Pettis and Ben Askren, has never competed in any fighting discipline previously.

According to Google searches, a very good measure of public interest that has historically correlated well with box office when it comes to fighters and wrestlers, there was roughly 12 times as much public interest in the announcement of Punk's UFC signing on Dec. 6 than that of former light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson two weeks later. As a pure publicity play, Punk, who has never competed in a legitimate sport, has gotten UFC more sports publicity than one of the most well-known and highest paid fighters in UFC's history coming back.

But for all the notoriety and publicity that signing a former WWE star can get a company, and for all the promotional ability that most learn in pro wrestling, at some point they have to actually fight.

Lesnar, the former UFC heavyweight champion, has his WWE contract expiring at the end of March. Lesnar, who turns 38 in July, got one of the sweetest deals ever negotiated by WWE head honcho Vince McMahon, where he would only do three pro wrestling events per year, all on pay-per-view shows and earn well into the seven figures annually.

With that deal coming due, Coker has publicly talked about being interested in Lesnar and has made moves to open up dialogue. Dana White has said that if Lesnar is going to fight, it will be in UFC.

With WWE moving its big shows from a pay-per-view platform to a monthly streaming subscription service platform, and greatly reducing the price, Lesnar's contract no longer makes economic sense. Worse, the company is in the middle of extensive cost cutting. They banked the future of the company on the streaming service, the heavily promoted WWE Network, and numbers have fallen far short of expectations. As of the end of September, WWE, which used to routinely have a profit margin in excess of $50 million per year, had lost $28.45 million in 2014, and that's factoring in $20 million to $25 million in cost cutting initiatives in the summer. The company announced a second round of cuts, in the $15 million to $20 million range, in November.

With those kind of losses, it's hard to imagine them offering Lesnar a similar deal when his current contract expires. But as much as Lesnar liked to talk about Frank Mir having a lucky horseshoe on the night he beat Lesnar in 2008, when he beat Lesnar in Lesnar's UFC debut, Lesnar's timing couldn't be better.

Under normal circumstances, Lesnar would have been able to play the WWE and the UFC off each other, as he has in the past. But now he's got Bellator in the hunt, which, with the loss of Jackson, is looking for a new marquee star who can draw curiosity viewership. Perhaps under other circumstances, given the company's financial issues, Lesnar's leaving wouldn't be a big deal to WWE.

But WWE has long fought the idea that it and the UFC are in competition. The elementary school argument is one is sport and the other is scripted entertainment. But, as Rodriguez, Brooks, Lesnar, and Bobby Lashley have shown, there can be considerable competition for talent.

Exactly how much of the fan base crosses over is a matter of conjecture. What is known is that when Lesnar fought Mir in 2008, approximately 300,000 homes that had never purchased a UFC pay-per-view bought UFC 81. UFC heavily advertised the show to pro wrestling fans. That figure wouldn't include whatever crossover there is of pro wrestling fan who were casual UFC fans, or just had at one point in time, purchased a show out of curiosity.

But the oft-said idea that pro wrestling is for kids and UFC is for adults, that pro wrestling isn't for sports fans and UFC is, is simply not understanding demographics. WWE's two leading television properties, Raw and Smackdown, have median average ages of television viewers of 39 and 46, respectively. In other words, half the viewers of Raw on Monday and Smackdown on Friday are older, and half are younger, than the median. UFC skews closer to 33, the youngest of any major sports property.

The WWE audience is strong from children to older adults, and has excellent television numbers. What hurts WWE's ratings the most is the NFL or NBA and baseball playoffs, showing a large percentage of its audience are sports fans. Both WWE and UFC are strong in particular in males 18-49, and both have similar skews of 65 to 70 percent male viewers.

In addition, WWE has, in its contracts, non-compete clauses that if the company fires a wrestler, for whatever reason, they have a time frame that they can't appear on television or pay-per-view for both pro wrestling and MMA.

They attempted to enforce that with both Brooks and Rodriguez. After each was fired, WWE sent legal letters that stated that due to termination, they could not do pro wrestling or MMA for one year, nor were they entitled to any future money from the company, even from merchandise bearing their likenesses or royalties from DVDs and video games. Both men, because they had made considerable money and apparently had some type of leverage, threatened to sue. In both cases, WWE settled quickly and both are getting their merchandise revenue and had their non-compete clauses dropped.

Lesnar became a financial windfall to UFC. His title fights drew anywhere between 800,000 and 1.6 million buys, numbers impressive enough at the time, and even more impressive today. When his fights, months after they took place, would air for the first time on free television, the audience was often well above double what live fights today are drawing.

That tells you why UFC and Bellator want him. The financial success of Lesnar is also why UFC opened its doors to Punk, and why Bellator wants Lesnar and Rodriguez, has Lashley, and was also interested in Punk.

Lashley has been doing pro wrestling with TNA and fighting with Bellator at the same time. In Bellator, he thus far is 2-0, against unknown heavyweight competition. But he has proven to be a major ratings mover. In fights in September and October, hundreds of thousands of viewers switched to Spike at the start of his fights. In both cases, his prelim fights drew more viewers than the main event. On the September show, he was particularly valuable. When he fought Josh Burns, the audience nearly doubled that of the previous fight, which featured former UFC heavyweight Cheick Kongo. The audience increase was even more impressive, and important, because Bellator was going head-to-head with UFC competition on FOX Sports 1 that night.

But WWE is now in its own quandary with Lesnar. Lesnar is the company's world heavyweight champion, and of active wrestlers, is the No. 2 marquee star they have, behind only John Cena. For a time, the No. 2 star had been Punk. To stockholders in a publicly traded company, it's one thing when one top star leaves for UFC, it's quite another if the No. 2 and No. 3 guys both do so in short order.

Within wrestling, most believe Lesnar is MMA-bound, but Lesnar is playing his cards close to the vest and hasn't hinted at anything to anyone past the few in his inner circle, who aren't talking.

Are MMA companies banking too much on the crossover value of using wrestling stars to bring back the casual audience that seems to be gone?

Lesnar's success was a product of a number of factors. One is that he was a freak athlete and great wrestler, and was able to not just beat major name fighters, but win the heavyweight title and defend it twice. But at 38, and lacking high-level technique, the question is how far just being a freak athlete can take him when age has likely eroded a lot of speed and reflexes, as well as wrestling ability. 

There were a lot of circumstances that led to his being able to draw. Some of it was the novelty factor. Today, there is no longer the novelty factor of a pro wrestler doing MMA. But even so, Lashley has been a proven ratings winner for Bellator.

It's almost inconceivable that Punk could beat a legitimate top-tier fighter, let alone ever be in the championship picture. He has some ground skills. He was known for his cardio in pro wrestling, and has run marathons in the past. Without question, he has the gift of gab and is exceptionally strong-willed. If we were to measure a man just based on his desire to succeed in UFC, Punk would probably be the strongest candidate. But he, unlike the others, is not competition tested in anything.

As far as if anyone else from pro wrestling will follow suit with the type of money being thrown around, don't expect a long list. Rodriguez is a unique demographic play. Punk was a huge star taking a risk that virtually nobody else at his level would dare to do.

Dave Bautista, who was a pro wrestling star on the level of Punk and Lesnar and huge MMA fan, fought once a few years ago as a bucket list type thing. He's now 45, and after his highly acclaimed role as "Drax the Destroyer" in "Guardians of the Galaxy," suddenly finds himself with a very legitimate big screen career.

Unlike in other generations, there are not a lot of high-level amateur wrestlers in the pro wrestling world.

Kurt Angle, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, is now 46. Angle talked of MMA for years, and in 2006 Dana White thought he had a deal with him. But that window has to be considered closed at this point.

Nick Nemeth, who plays Dolph Ziggler, won three Mid-American Conference championships at Kent State more than a decade ago, but never placed at nationals. Now 34, Nemeth was a high school teammate and training partner of UFC's Gray Maynard when both were growing up at wrestling powerhouse St. Edwards High School near Cleveland. But unlike Maynard, whose childhood goal was to make the Olympic team, Nemeth only wanted to be a pro wrestler.

Jake Hager, 32, who plays Jack Swagger, placed seventh in the 2006 NCAA tournament as a heavyweight, behind future MMA fighters Cole Konrad (first), Steve Mocco (second) and Velasquez (fourth). He toyed with the idea of fighting after college. He chose pro wrestling, and really isn't the level of star where his doing MMA would create a huge level of interest.

Harry Smith, 29, the son of the British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith and nephew of Bret Hart, who uses the name Davey Boy Smith Jr., has trained for years with fighters. He's considered one of the best at catch wrestling in the country. The late Billy Robinson, who coached Smith and Josh Barnett, said before he died last year that if he could have Smith for 18 months, he'd be UFC heavyweight champion. Smith, who has toyed with the idea of MMA for years. He has limited competitive experience past gym training and some grappling competitions, and is not a well-known pro wrestling name in the U.S.

Similarly, the WWE has a number of top level amateur wrestlers in its training program in Orlando, Fla., including Chas Betts, a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. But none of those wrestlers have had the television exposure to where anyone would know them and them doing MMA would create casual audience interest.