Jim Ross Talks Becoming an MMA Fan, James Toney, Brock Lesnar and more (Pt. 2)
Heavy.com: Did you first start following mixed martial arts when Brock signed with the UFC, or were you a fan before?
Jim Ross: No, I actually became a fan of MMA way back in the day when Royce Gracie was becoming relevant to the American public. When it was a little more of a freak show. Royce Gracie was a star. He was the straw that stirred the drink with his jiu-jitsu. And it was so intriguing to me because it was such an art form. He didn't look like an imposing physical specimen. But he had such amazing technique in that art. People just didn't understand the guard, submitting someone from the bottom. In the Bob Meyrowitz days, they billed the thing in a much more coarse fashion. But then see Royce Gracie come in, and he's an artist. He wasn't a bare-knuckled bad ass that kicked everyone's ass in a bar and took home your girlfriend. He was a quiet guy that somehow manipulated your joints to where you either broke something or tapped. I was always a fan of boxing from the days of the old Friday Night Fights. My dad was always a fan. So my love of football, John Wayne movies, those were moments I remembered spending with my father. Boxing was another one of those things. But there was a period where the boxing business came unraveled. There are so few fights that mean anything. I asked someone to name the top three or four boxing heavyweights in the world, and they couldn't. You have to do a Google search. It's not something that rolls off your tongue. And nowadays, if you're not talking Mayweather or Pacquiao, you don't have a money fight. So boxing becomes irrelevant, and then all of a sudden, you have this new mat sport coming along called mixed martial arts. And when I saw that it wasn't a Bruce Lee movie, and I liked the ground and the striking, I knew it wasn't something I couldn't understand. I got hooked on it. But the guy who was most relevant in my mind was Royce Gracie, because his style was so unique, whereas a lot of those guys were just big monsters trying to knock your head off. That just wasn't Royce's style. There was an art form to it. There was a science to it. And I bought into the science of it, into the techniques and the fundamentals. And that's what really hooked me.
Heavy.com: Speaking of boxing, the UFC recently announced that they'd signed James Toney to a deal.
Jim Ross: I saw that. First of all, the UFC does a lot of things wisely. The signing of Toney alone got them a lot of publicity. It will make regular sports fans like me curious. I'm wondering if James Toney will take his MMA training as Herschel Walker. If Toney will commit himself like Walker did, with his ability to strike, you may have an attraction on your hands. How old is James?
Heavy.com: He's 41.
Jim Ross: Well, the meter is running on that deal. You have to hope that he's going to commit to training. I've seen him fight plenty of times. But we all know that when you destroy a one-dimensional fighter's vertical base, their time is running short. I don't know how much practice he's had blocking a single-leg takedown, and that's being very elementary. His hope is going to be that he can be so good in the stand-up that he'll be able to survive on this skills alone for awhile. But a lot of it is going to depend on who he fights and how he's booked. Joe Silva is a very shrewd guy and a very smart guy. If you know that James Toney means money on PPV somewhere down the road, it would be advantageous to put him with other stand-up guys right now. The key is all in how they build the fight. Can they maximize Toney? Can they stress his mystique, that he always has that puncher's chance of knocking someone out and winning? Can you market that mystique to the pay per view buyer enough where they are interested enough to pay to see him fight? That's the question.
Heavy.com: Let's shift to Brock Lesnar for a bit. You worked closely with Brock for several years. Brock never seemed to enjoy pro wrestling or the life you have to lead in order to be in that business. Do you think Brock has finally found the one thing he loves to do?
Jim Ross: Oh yeah. He's found the perfect storm for himself. I recruited him out of Minnesota for WWE when I was executive vice president of the company, in charge of talent. He wrestled for Jay Robinson, and Jay was roommates with Jerry Brisco, one of the guys I worked with. Of course, Jerry's brother Jack, who just passed away about a month ago, was a national champion at Oklahoma State at 191lbs. He lost one match in college. He was one of those heroes that I talked about earlier. He was a football star. He was the most recruited high school athlete in Oklahoma his senior year. He signed a letter of intent to play football at OU, which was a tremendous thing in that era. And then he changed his mind. The NCAA, at that time, would let you sign another letter of intent for another sport, so your first letter of intent wouldn't be legally binding. And Jack signed a letter of intent to wrestle at Oklahoma State. So he was a folk hero here when I was growing up, and he also became a great star in pro wrestling. So Jerry was a great recruiter and really helped us a lot. I think we met Brock as a junior at Minnesota. And how could you not be attracted by the look of this guy? There are a lot of parallels between MMA and pro wrestling. Now, the MMA purists, and maybe some of the MMA management, would not want to freely admit this. But looking at marketing of a star, making a star, marketing a PPV? There's a lot of similarities. The issue is that pro wrestling matches are pre-determined and MMA fights aren't. But if you exclude that element, then they have a lot in common. There are heroes and bad guys in MMA just like there are in pro wrestling. You can hear it when the guys come to the cage. Some are booed and some are cheered. So we saw Brock, and we saw a guy that was an amazing athlete with a phenomenal look. He was a natural 285lb guy with freakish quickness, agility and balance. He was pretty sure that he wasn't interested in pursuing wrestling internationally when he finished college. I didn't have any conversations with him regarding MMA, because he wanted to make some money right away. Of all the guys that I signed, and I signed some intriguing guys like Steve Austin, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and others, he made it to the seven figure level faster than anyone we'd ever signed. I don't think there's been anyone in the history of the business who made that much money, and as quickly, as Brock Lesnar did. I think the thing that really turned him off of wrestling was the insane travel schedule. It just takes so much of your time. You're either at work or you're traveling to work. Travel, travel, travel. It can be challenging. I think he liked the money. Who wouldn't? He was very good at it. He was incredible. He did things that big men just aren't supposed to do. The shooting star press he did off the top rope? I've seen small guys do it, but never anyone that was around 300 pounds.
Heavy.com: Wrestling fans used to hear about that shooting star press all the time, and it seemed impossible to believe, like one of those Danny Hodge folk stories we were talking about early. Could this guy really do it? And sure enough, he did it.
Jim Ross: And he did it on the grandest stage our business has, at WrestleMania, against Kurt Angle. That was a great pairing for old-school wrestling fans, because you have the 1996 Olympic gold medal winner in wrestling against this heavyweight NCAA champion. Athletically speaking, if you sand the veneer off the showbiz aspect of those two guys, it was a pretty remarkable thing. But the travel got him. And Brock Lesnar isn't the first guy that got burned out on the wrestling business because of travel. It's not a sin. Quite frankly, if the wrestling business had seasons or cycles where the guys were off work, it would be better for everybody. But Brock got burned out and eventually tried his hand with the Vikings. I think it was because of the challenge. Brock loves challenges. He's a real warrior, and he wanted to try something that he knew he was going to be pushed to the max physically and mentally. He hadn't played football since small school, high school football in South Dakota. He's jumping from small town high school football to an NFL team. That's quite an adjustment. When he signed with the UFC, it was a marriage made in heaven. Maybe for his opponents, it was a marriage made in hell. He's a perfect fit for that world, because he can fight a handful of times a year. It gives him time to be himself. He's a family guy who loves to hunt and fish, and he loves solitude and being in his comfort zone. There's nothing wrong with that. He has his priorities straight, and I admire that. But when it comes time to get ready for a fight, he goes into battle mode. It's pretty damn amazing to me. He has to cut weight to make 265, and 24 hours later he's back to 285.
Heavy.com: We talked about the purists not liking the similarities between MMA and pro wrestling. A lot of fans were up in arms about the promo he cut after UFC 100. Do you think he was bringing some of those aspects of his pro wrestling past, or was that simply the real Brock Lesnar?
Jim Ross: I think it was a heat of the moment thing. He went on his instincts and how he felt at that time. He got a little carried away. He's an emotional guy, a very spirited and proud guy. When you look at it in total, here's a guy who has been training on a mat in a combat sport since he was a young kid. He paid the price to be a star from high school all the way to college, the WWE and now the UFC. He comes into the cage and he's in great shape. He's got the right demeanor and he's got the right look. He's got the right skill set. And he's getting booed? He wondered what he could have done to piss off all these fans. It can be frustrating when you've worked so hard to get there. He didn't back into the Octagon, you know. He walked in. He was ready to go. He was inexperienced and very green to that world. But anybody could see that he had the ability, and has proven since he started, to be pretty extraordinary. I think it was just natural, raw emotion that overcame him in that moment. When you're surrounded by a hostile crowd, you can't really prepare how you're going to respond. How do you replicate that moment in practice? How do you replicate that moment in reality? You really can't. You can create it in pro wrestling. And since he was tasked to be a villain in pro wrestling, he was prepared for that moment. If he's getting booed and he's a villain, then he's doing his job very well, even in the UFC. So you encourage it and you go with it. But he got into a real sports environment and got booed because people didn't want to accept him because of his past in showbiz. Frank Mir was a product of the MMA environment. He's a purist. He's a very skilled martial artist. But don't think that Frank Mir doesn't know how to verbally manipulate an audience. He's one of the best. He's the kind of guy that, if I were still recruiting wrestlers for WWE, and he was a young guy that was interested in following that path? He could make a fortune in pro wrestling. He's just got a natural gift of gab. He's very articulate and very intelligent. He's a hell of an athlete, too. Brock just got caught up in the emotion of the moment. It's hard for any of us to understand the motivation that it takes to be a world-class athlete like Brock, to get into an emotional combat sport like mixed martial arts. The crowd feeds your adrenaline. He's an amazing individual. He said what he was feeling. We've all been in positions where we say things we wish we hadn't said. I officiated high school and college sports for 20 years, and I've had run-ins with coaches who just got caught up in the moment. They weren't bad guys, but they just said things that they wish they could pull back, but it was too late. Brock is in the perfect world for him. His best days are still to come. He's learning his craft, and it's quite the learning curve. There's a lot of technique he has yet to grasp, as we saw in the first Frank Mir fight. He left a leg exposed and he got heel hooked. He had to tap. But that was a human error, a mistake of inexperience. And to Frank's credit, he was trained enough to recognize the opening and capitalize on it. Mir could see and feel what he was dealing with -- a living, breathing beast of a man. And he found, literally, Brock's achilles heel and was able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. To me, that's what MMA is all about. You have to turn disadvantages into your own advantages, sooner than later. And Brock is learning to do that.