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Brock Lesnar's UFC return is uncharted territory for pro wrestling industry

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The curiosity that has always been Brock Lesnar's MMA career took another turn on Monday morning when it was announced that Mark Hunt, perhaps the hardest puncher in the UFC, would be his opponent at UFC 200.

The announcement and Lesnar's claim he's coming back due to being unsatisfied with how he was robbed of the prime of his career by diverticulitis came at a convenient time - right before UFC 200, and after Conor McGregor was pulled from the show. UFC 200 was going to do well with a Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones light heavyweight title fight, but it may not have challenged the all-time records.

Lesnar claimed the conversations for his return went back three months, saying he made the first call to Dana White long before the UFC pulled the McGregor vs. Nate Diaz fight from the show. 

It's a unique situation because it's the first time Vince McMahon, the billionaire owner of the WWE, has ever put one of his top attractions in a situation totally out of his control.  Lesnar, who works a part-time schedule for WWE, mostly big events and does regular television appearances building those events, is next scheduled for SummerSlam, on Aug. 21 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. A UFC win by Lesnar would absolutely strengthen his image and name value to WWE with the eyes that are on UFC 200.

But what about a loss? And there are different types of losses. The intrigue with Hunt, is that he may not be the best fighter in the heavyweight division, but he also may have the highest chance of delivering the worst kind of loss, the walk-off knockout that is his specialty.

From a pro wrestling standpoint, the worst kind of loss opens up unanswered questions. This is uncharted water. Nothing like this has happened in modern American pro wrestling or MMA so there's no precedent as to how the worst kind of loss would resonate to the pro wrestling audience. The key aspect of Lesnar's appeal is his physical presence and the feeling that he's legit, an aura no active pro wrestler in the U.S. has. Would a devastating knockout hurt that perception? 

In Japan, there have been wrestling stars whose careers were hurt badly, at least short-term, due to losing MMA fights. But that was also more than a decade ago and a completely different culture when in regard to both pro wrestling and MMA. Pro wrestling in Japan was taken as more of a sport and its athletes were believed to be real fighters, even if their pro wrestling matches were known not to be real. Pro wrestling and MMA were regarded as sister industries, unlike in the U.S. where everyone knows they are completely different entities.

New Japan Pro Wrestling, the largest company, was devastated and pro wrestling itself fell greatly in popularity in that country partially due to many of its wrestlers doing high-profile MMA fights and not doing well. It's only since having a full separation that the popularity of pro wrestling there has rebounded, although it's nowhere close to what it was 15 years ago.

The WWE business and popularity, while far from its peak, is stable. Lesnar is not a weekly character so while the Lesnar character is at risk, really the WWE business is not.

More than 15 years go, WWE did a actual legitimate television tournament called "Brawl for All." It combined boxing with oversized gloves and takedowns, but allowed no kicking, ground work or submissions. The winner, a tall journeyman wrestler who used the name Bart Gunn, was then put on the 1999 WrestleMania show against boxer Butterbean, in a real fight. WWE officials believed that he actually had a chance, since it was well known Butterbean was very popular at the time, not hardly a skilled boxer. But Gunn was knocked out in devastating fashion in less than one minute. WWE then released Gunn, feeling there was nothing they could do with him. Now, Gunn was hardly the superstar Lesnar is, but the mentality in 1999 was that his suffering the bad knockout killed his marketability. He never returned to the company.

But the perception of pro wrestling is very different today. Fans used to debate about what would happen "if it was real," between the top guys. Today, with MMA, the pro wrestlers are respected as purely performers and there is no illusion that it's either real or that the competitors are world-class fighters.

After the word got out on Saturday night that Lesnar was coming back, while Hunt was certainly heavily rumored as the opponent, the feeling was it was the most risky foe possible and made no sense from a WWE standpoint to put a top star in that position.

It opens up a lot of questions. Was WWE fooled by Hunt's 12-10-1 record and being 42 years old and believes Lesnar, a former NCAA champion in wrestling who did well in UFC previously, will win? Do they believe that even if he does get knocked out that wrestling fans won't care and Lesnar will keep his aura anyway. After all, Lesnar retained that aura even though he lost in the first round in his last two UFC fights?

Or perhaps, is so much money involved in a deal made by UFC to get the rights to use Lesnar that WWE believes that the financial rewards coming from this fight are worth the risks of putting Lesnar in a situation completely out of their control.

There is also the question of what Lesnar at this stage will mean for business. Hunt makes for a more intriguing spectacle than most opponents. But after Lesnar lost the title to Cain Velasquez, his next main event, with Alistair Overeem, did less than 550,000 buys. So losing the title was a major hit to his MMA drawing power. He's been gone for years so the curiosity should be there. Still, he and Overeem on paper looked like bigger box office than it turned out to be. This time he's part of a show with three title matches and a loaded undercard.

If Lesnar was coming back because he has unfinished business and wants to give one last try at high-level sports competition as his 39th birthday approaches, that would indicate more fights if he was to win. But he has to say what he did, even if he's coming back simply because there's too much money for him on the table to walk away from. Lesnar has said that he doesn't care about sports trophies, only his bank account, and in the end, this was a chance to make millions of dollars.

A few years ago, Lesnar had agreed to come back to face Fedor Emelianenko in an event UFC was looking to put on at Cowboys Stadium. That was also a high-risk fight. Exactly where McMahon stood on that risk was unclear because Emelianenko's father died right before the deal was finalized and Emelianenko said he was no longer interested in fighting.

Ironically, at this point, Emelianenko is back fighting and such a fight would have been bigger box office than Hunt. But perhaps UFC has given up on the ghost of chasing Fedor

Another aspect from a WWE standpoint is the injury risk of such a fight. WWE is very strict about concussions, and Lesnar is battling someone who is as high a risk to deliver a concussion as almost anyone.

In 2015, Bryan Danielson, who wrestled as Daniel Bryan and who may have been the most popular wrestler in the company, was pretty much told to retire by McMahon even though some of the best concussion experts in the country gave him full clearance. Danielson resisted for several months, while not being allowed to wrestle. Eventually, while undergoing more testing which showed a lesion on his brain, he accepted that his career was over.

Lesnar claimed that with four-and-a-half years away from the sport, that he second-guessed his decision of less than 15 months ago of signing a three-year deal with WWE. At the time he turned down more money from the UFC, but the WWE figured to have more longevity for him.

Without directly saying so, he took what most considered both the safer and smarter option.

"Because I couldn't live with that decision," Lesnar told ESPN's Hannah Storm after a tape played of his previous announcement that he was retiring from MMA. "Going back to that interview. It was a hard decision for me to make. That decision has haunted me for the last 15 months and I couldn't live like that for the rest of my life. I'm a big believer of I don't want to be sitting 20 years from now saying I should have done it."

Of course that was the situation he faced in 2015 when his WWE contract expired, and he chose pro wrestling.