As we reported a bit earlier, UFC is now personally invested in being Strikeforce’s direct competition, in a move that will almost assuredly work out in the UFC’s favor. Dana White seems to be taking this whole “Fedor Emelianenko” thing pretty seriously, so now he’s set the wheels in motion for head-to-head programming. The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about this was remembering the actions of another bombastic promoter encountering something similar in the late 1980s: one Vince McMahon.
While the then-WWF and their rivals the NWA always were involved in indirect competition, something changed in 1987 when a scheduling war erupted.
NWA was set to air their Thanksgiving tradition and historically one of their largest shows of the year, Starrcade, on November 26, 1987. Vince McMahon came up with the bright idea that he would create his own Thanksgiving tradition, the Survivor Series, and air it on the same night. There was only one catch: at the time, most cable companies were only able to offer one live PPV event at a time. Vince made the cable companies’ choice simple by informing them that any cable company who chose to carry Starrcade over Survivor Series would be barred from showing any future WWF PPVs. Faster than you can say “Hulk Hogan”, Survivor Series was picked up by most of the cable companies and did a 7.0 buy rate as opposed to Starrcade’s 3.3.
Oh, did I mention that Starrcade ’87 was the NWA’s first pay-per-view ever?
Even after cable companies warned Vince not to pull stunts like that again, in 1988 Vince presented the first Royal Rumble live, for free, on the USA Network at the same time The NWA’s Bunkhouse Stampede aired on PPV.
The NWA, fed up with Vince’s antics, decided to give the WWF a taste of their own medicine and presented Clash of the Champions, a free PPV-caliber event live on TBS directly opposite Wrestlemania IV. The following year, the NWA tried it again, putting up a Clash of the Champions event opposite Wrestlemania V, with its colossal main event of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage blowing off their year-long storyline and feud. Although the Clash featured a 60-minute iron man match between Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair that is widely hailed as one of the greatest matches of all time, the event underperformed both ratings-wise and in terms of live attendance. NWA decided not to double-book against the WWF any longer, and that was the last time the companies went head-to-head until the fabled Monday Night War began in 1995.
By the second Clash, of course, Vince McMahon had stopped going head-to-head because he had nothing left to prove. He was trouncing the NWA in every way imaginable and making scads of money. Starrcade, which was a Thanksgiving event for five years without fail, immediately moved to December after the first Survivor Series one-upped them.
NWA/WCW is out of business now, following a years of poor business decisions, but they suffered a huge drubbing during that early head-to-head fiasco. It is unlikely that anyone like Ted Turner is going to swoop in and bail Strikeforce out if they get too whipped in a head-to-head promotional war. And make no mistake, if UFC really wishes to go head-to-head with them, Strikeforce is going to lose, and lose badly.
Fedor, in choosing to sign with Strikeforce, may have inadvertently doomed the promotion. If Dana White really is pissed off and bitter about how everything went down, and if he really is willing to be as petty and territorial towards his competition as Vince McMahon used to be, he’s going to be every bit as successful. Vince McMahon spent years systematically putting his competition out of business, mostly through sheer assholery and stubbornness. Dana White absolutely has the talent and the brand name to be able to do the same, if that’s what he’s interested in.
I see one key difference here: competition was what made WWE so good. It continually stepped up its game because it had to, because at times the competition was breathing down its neck or kicking its ass. Now WWE is largely boring, and rarely takes chances, because there’s no reason to; it’s the only game in town. UFC is, in most of the public’s mind, already synonymous with MMA, and has rarely, if ever, had a promotion it considers true competition. UFC can afford to be the only game in town, and has acted like it for a good long while. A vindictive Dana White is a terrifying Dana White.
Pray for Strikeforce.
(Thanks to Wikipedia and the Observer for the historical assistance.)