The Kayfabe of Dana White, James Toney, Fedor Emelianenko, and Strikeforce

I was reading this piece on CageSideSeats, SBNation's pro wrestling blog about how the MMA media treats Fedor's management like they were bumbling Russian villains…

By: Nate Wilcox | 13 years ago
The Kayfabe of Dana White, James Toney, Fedor Emelianenko, and Strikeforce
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

I was reading this piece on CageSideSeats, SBNation’s pro wrestling blog about how the MMA media treats Fedor’s management like they were bumbling Russian villains from a pro wrestling scenario. Bix breaks down the larger cultural/political climate in which our changing perspective of Russians influences our coverage:

… When Pride went under, the negotiations of M-1 Global (his promotional organization) became legendary.  M-1 head Vadim Finkelstein was portrayed by some in the MMA media as a carnvial barker/ringmaster turned svengali, and some people laughed at him just because they thought he had a funny name. Regardless of how much many was thrown at him, Fedor would only fight for companies that would allow M-1 to participate as equal co-promoters, keeping him out of the UFC; leading to deals with Bodog, Affliction, and now Strike Force.  Allegations of mob ties were thrown around, often without anything resembling proof other than suspicions becqause they’re both Russian and shady.   There are legitimate criticisms of M-1, which Leland Rolling is covering at Bloody Elbow, but too much of the time it seems like Finkelstein is being treated like a real life Boris Malenko, the sneaky, evil Russian manager who wears bad suits, and I don’t know how widespread it would be if we were talking about an American-born fighter and his management, especially if the management didn’t have a name that a lot of people seem to find wacky.

That said, who’s to say it’s not at least partially by design?  Fedor is the star, and his reputation has to be protected.  Finkelstein gets to play bad cop and takes the heat himself.  In terms of a wrestling analogy it’s like:

  • John Laurinaiitis firing talent so Vince McMahon doesn’t have to be the bad guy.
  • Motoko Baba making the unpopular decisions in All Japan so her husband Shohei “Giant” Baba would retain his perception as an honest man who was too good for wrestling.


That post led me to this piece on how they expect James Toney will be marketed to UFC fans:

So what made Dana change his mind? Unsurprisingly the answer, courtesy of Dave Meltzer, turns out to be to screw over their opposition Strikeforce, who were apparently negotiating with Toney to face Herschel Walker in a freak show match designed to draw ratings for their next CBS show. 

So what happens from here?  Expect the promotional war to heat up between UFC and Strikeforce, as UFC is already making plans to run a live show on April 17th, the current date for Strikeforce’s next CBS show.  Expect James Toney to be pushed as a major outsider heel to the UFC fanbase, similar to how Brock Lesnar was pushed before his UFC debut.  But will lightning strike twice and the same push work for an aging, washed up, boxer?  We’ll see.

A lot of MMA fans like to believe they’re somehow better than pro wrestling fans and above paying the slightest attention to the doings of the pro wrestling world, but I think the pro wrestling press (such as it is) covers MMA business with a certain knowing eye.

I must say that from a PR perspective, the James Toney announcement took away much of the oxygen that was supporting the Fedor/Strikeforce/Hershel Walker drama that had been generating much online buzz.

We’ll see how it plays from here, but it’s inarguable that Dana White appreciates the art and science of the kayfabe that build the WWE into a multimillion dollar business empire that can fund a U.S. Senate Race. Dana built the UFC as a play off the WWE model, using cable TV to sell PPVs, a promotion-centric approach to match-making and fighter relations, and most of all a narrative approach to the marketing and story-telling of their fights.

The feuds that built the Zuffa UFC — Tito vs Ken Shamrock, Tito vs Chuck Liddell, Chuck Liddell vs Randy Couture, Tito vs Randy — could all have been scripted by Vince McMahon’s creative writing team. The action inside the Octagon delivered most of the drama of course, something Vince’s folk-opera athletic charades don’t, but the promotional buzz was totally in the footsteps of the carnies who built pro-wrestling.

I’m cool with all this for two reasons. First because I have worked in politics and marketing for almost 20 years, I appreciate the artistry of anyone who can compel the public’s attention and tell even the simplest story.

Secondly, because the actual sport of MMA literally evolved hand in hand with pro wrestling. Back when pro wrestling was a real sport, fighters like Mitsuyo Maeda and Ad Santel cross-pollinated Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Western Catch Wrestling. The vale tudo battles of the Gracie family in Brazil grew directly from the old barn-storming catch wrestlers who would take on anyone from the crowd. Their biggest rivals in Brazil, the Luta Livre fighters were explicitly practicing catch wrestling + judo to combat the Gracie’s jiu jitsu. The submission fighters who gave the Gracies their biggest headaches in the 1990s were all Japanese or Japanese-trained catch wrestlers like Ken Shamrock or Kazushi Sakuraba.

We’ll see where Dana goes with his don’t-call-it-a-freakshow promotion featuring stellar athletes like James Toney and Kimbo Slice. And we’ll see if the bickering alliance of Strikeforce/CBS/M-1 Global can answer in kind or if maybe James Toney won’t be the last fighter to be lured away from Strikeforce for greener pastures.

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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