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  1. #1
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Take Up Thy Wrestling Boots and Walk #230 - Wrestling and MMA



    One thing I don't think people take into account enough is the relationship between professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. People talk about it and focus on different things at various times depending on what happens to be foremost in the wrestling fans mind at any given time. But the kind of sustained focus that uncovers something of the true interrelation between the two is something that we tend to avoid doing.

    Right now, I think what we can see is that the WWE has had to reach into MMA to find people that come with a legit fight background to counterbalance the damage that they have done to their own stars. This has been tried in the past with the import of guys like Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn into the WWF, and of Tank Abbott into WCW. But I don't think anyone would deny that while the attempt to get eyes on the various shows in the Monday Night Wars was relevant, the question has become far more pertinent to the core of wrestling in the last decade.

    Let's go back to the beginning. Brock Lesnar returned to the WWE with major fanfare in April of 2012 and was almost immediately installed as a monster without rival. Let us not pretend that this was primarily related to Lesnar's previous WWE run – this may have worked with some fans but I guarantee you that you are in the minority in this. I don't doubt that there are some people who still had a fairly opinion of Lesnar when he left and wanted to see him come back, but by focusing on your own take of this issue you ignore the fact that Lesnar's stock was at rock bottom with most of the audience when he left and remained that way for a long time afterwards.

    It shouldn't be a surprise, either. Lesnar's televised win/loss record in 2004 was literally 4-4, so far from being an unconquerable beast he was pulled into the same kind of 50-50 booking that affected everyone else, and has blighted most of the roster since. That record isn't just a temporary thing before he left but actually extends all the way back to the previous Summerslam. Basically, when he left Brock Lesnar wasn't ‘The Next Big Thing'; he was just another guy.

    It was while he was away that Lesnar rebuilt his reputation and turned himself into a star. His attempt to play in the NFL got a lot of news coverage but foundered out pretty quickly and this initially led to yet more derision amongst the wrestling crowd – in that way that many of the fanbase will love you until you have the temerity to want to do something else instead, at which point you are dead to them. But of course, the story didn't end there – during his time wrestling in Japan, Lesnar transitioned into the world of MMA, winning his first match.

    His second was his debut in the UFC and that threatened to derail him once again, as he lost to Frank Mir. At the time Mir was somewhat seen as damaged goods – though a former world champion he'd lost the title due to a motorcycle incident and didn't have the most stellar record since he returned, and his win over Lesnar was seen as a black eye for the huge former wrestler, and was indeed read as an embarrassment for pro-wrestling generally. Of course, in hindsight, this underplays not just Mir, who'd keep fighting in UFC for another eight years, but also Lesnar, who sold PPV'S and consequently found himself fighting for, and winning, the UFC world title.

    This is what rebuilt Lesnar's reputation, and if you only follow wrestling and not MMA you could easily have missed that. But there's no denying the facts, and those are that during the period that Lesnar was fighting regularly the UFC was in a boom period and was more popular than the WWE. His rematch with Frank Mir sold more PPV's than any Wrestlemania you might care to name, even those at the height of both the Hogan and Austin boom periods. And during that time, Brock Lesnar proved that he was no simple sports entertainer, but a legitimate wrestler who could also take you to the mat and be destructive with his fists.

    It was Lesnar's success in the octagon that rebuilt his reputation from the lows of 2004 and 2005 and it was that legitimate background that led to the scale of the pop when he returned, and to the WWE identifying him as someone that would have the kind of significance that made it worth cashing in on the streak for him. Whatever you think about that decision, none of this would have happened had he not crossed over and proved that he was more than the WWE had been presenting him in the early years of the Millennium.

    Since then, the WWE have dipped into the MMA well several times, particularly to bolster their burgeoning women's division. Ronda Rousey is probably their most high-profile signing of recent years and the one who comes with an in-built draw-factor, but she's obviously also accompanied by the rest of her ‘four horsewomen', Jessamyn Duke, Marina Shafir, and probably most notable of all, Shayna Baszler.

    While Duke and Shafir have barely featured so far, Lesnar, Baszler and Rousey have each run through the majority of the opponents that they have come up against. Rousey is as yet undefeated, both in singles competition and in tags, and on TV and PPV. Since beating Undertaker at Wrestlemania XXX and ending the streak, you can count the number of clean losses Lesnar has suffered on the fingers of one hand while his victories include almost every contemporary major star. Baszler's involvement has been more limited as she's only moved in the orbit of NXT but with that more circumscribed pool she has a similar kind of trajectory. Since moving to the WWE Shayna has only tasted defeat a couple of times. On TV and the Network the only women to have their hand raised after a singles match are Kairi Sane and Ember Moon, and both of these women can be said to have ended up losing the decisive battle in their respective wars with Baszler. I believe Candace LeRae has also upset her on a house show, though since it wasn't televised the impact of that is obviously far less than it could have been.

    Now at one level, this is just a good way to make stars and is based in traditional, proven wrestling methods. You want to make someone a star, a threat then you have them win matches. The more matches they win, and the more convincing those victories are, then so much the better. But at the same this has drawn fire from some fans because this is a privilege extended only to those stars coming in from outside the pro-wrestling landscape, while those who have taken the more traditional path to the WWE have been enchained by the 50-50 booking that has been a common trope of the company for most of the past couple of decades.

    But there's another dimension to this, which is that by booking people who have come in from the UFC or the world of MMA more generally to go over WWE stars at such a rate, some fans see an implicit message as to the superiority of mixed martial arts. Basically, the WWE broadcast their own inferiority within their own narrative, by saying that anyone can come in from the world of mixed martial arts and outperform people that have been doing this for their entire life. Remember that within the kayfabe world (and consequently in the world of narrative) wins and losses matter. Your performance as a performer matters a lot less than your performance as an athlete.

    This, then, begs the question, what is the best way to present the relationship between wrestling and MMA?

    A couple of months back I was talking with the fine LoP main page writer, SirSam, who had this to say.

    ‘I think of it as different forms of sport like rugby league and union. There is some crossover that is worth mentioning in a promo but both are still "real"'

    I love the way Sam thinks here, not so much because this is actually what is happening but because this is exactly the way that it should be presented. If you want a narrative that isn't prejudiced against talent from a wrestling background the ‘two codes of grappling' approach is the only way to do it, and indeed was something used to great effect in the first year or so of Ken Shamrock's move into pro wrestling. Of course, one can't ignore that WWE presentation for the entirety of the 21st century so far makes such a duality impossible. It's hard to look past the double bind that the WWE find themselves in – or rather, have placed themselves. The very lack of legitimacy in storytelling that leaves them needing to import that legitimacy from other places stems from the wrestling aspect not being consistently treated as a code of grappling in its own right. Had wrestling been a code, consistently treated with the appropriate gravitas, and not merely a TV show that picked up and dropped its sporting pretensions for the McMahon's convenience, there would be very little need to chase after a Brock Lesnar or Ronda Rousey in the first place.

    These are the narrative implications of MMA's relationship with wrestling. But there is another dimension to it as well, one that is far more ‘real world'. To explain this, we need to take a step back.

    Think back to the Attitude Era, for a moment. At that point in time, it seemed like half the world was watching wrestling. The WWE audience might be slightly larger now, but this comes from opening up other markets. The market share in both the US and the UK was far higher back then – my very unscientific measure of this is that when I think back to the years 1998-2000, three-quarters of the men roughly my age could hold a reasonably informed competition about either the WWF or WCW.

    Let that sink in for a moment, because to people who've started watching since then this is going to be an alien concept. But back in that period if you were the right gender and the right age then you could take to most of your peers about wrestling. In fact, the people who didn't know what Steve Austin or Goldberg had been up to on the last show were stranger than the wrestling fans.

    That peak period did not extend beyond the closure of WCW and ECW. The WWF audience that had peaked in 1999 was in a shallow decline by that point, a decline that became steeper as 2001 progressed into 2002. Not only did fans fail to revert, as expected, to watching the WWF as the only game in town, but the company's own fanbase continued to diminish. Between Wrestlemania X-7 and X-8, wrestling was once again a lonely environment, as it had been in the mid-90s; lonelier still, in some respects.

    When it was clear that there were millions of fans that had gone missing from the landscape, other companies were formed specifically with the goal of trying to find those fans. The most obvious example of this was TNA – it's on the record that the Jarrett's formed that company with its Tennessee base as a way of trying to tap into the old WCW market. Again, that was almost completely unsuccessful – even at its peak the popularity TNA had around half the audience for Impact that WCW had at its nadir with Nitro. And while there are some shoots of recovery that people can point to in the growth of some smaller promotions and the expansion of NJPW into international markets, generally speaking, wrestling has continued to decline in popularity around the world.

    I can't offer a distinctive answer to the question of where did those fans go. What I can do is cast my mind back to who was watching wrestling back in that era and try and see how many of them are still watching, and what they are doing instead.

    The connectivity of the internet is very useful for this kind of task.

    The truth is most of that audience that abandoned wrestling in the aftermath of the Attitude era shows very little sign of returning to the fold, and have replaced wrestling with ‘legitimate' sports. The Attitude era wrestling fans are actually the base of the growing MMA community here in the UK, while many others have thrown themselves wholesale into watching boxing, still very much the dominant combat sport here in the UK.

    Now, this is unscientific, as I say, and should be tempered with the fact that this is only the observations of one man based around one group, and one must obviously sound a note of caution about reading too much into it. Still, though, there are a few things that one can infer.

    One is that the fans who made the last boom have shown next to no interest in returning to wrestling for more than fifteen years now and that every angle we might point to in the interim hasn't made so much as a dent in the consciousness of anyone outside the hardcore fans. The second is that although there are people out there who want to distance wrestling from sport, the bulk of that audience seems to have left the business behind for things that sit more comfortably under a sporting umbrella. Wrestling has some obvious advantages over MMA and boxing, including the ability to assert a level of quality control, but for various reasons, the majority of people have crossed over from one to the others.

    I'm not sure exactly when I made that transition myself, but I can remember when I realised that I had. It was in a fairly middling match at Bellator 206 last September, between Keri Melendez and Dakota Zimmerman – a match that will have been forgotten by many, to be honest. But I can recall that during that match there was a sequence in which one of the competitors was able to turn the other over and reverse out of a negative position into a more positive one. I'll never love MMA the way that I loved pro wrestling, at the apex of my affection for it. But right there, at that moment, all the old feelings came flooding back, and it was exactly the same as the way that wrestling at its best had made me feel in the past.

    In many ways, this is one of the biggest problems that wrestling has to deal with right now and the true nature of the relationship between MMA and pro wrestling. People associated with wrestling have pointed out that guys like Conor McGregor have been using a wrestling-style presentation to greater effect than anyone in wrestling for some time now. And then not only do you have the bulk of the old audience deserting wrestling for MMA, but you have people like me – associated strongly with wrestling even in times where everyone seemed to be watching the show – also finding that MMA offers more of what old wrestling did than contemporary wrestling manages to give you. In short, if wrestling needs to be more than a minority pastime to be healthy – and I'm not sure that it does – there's plenty of evidence that they've given up too much ground to MMA, and will probably have to continue to reach across the aisle for the kind of stars, and a level of excitement and prestige, that they can no longer generate themselves.

    I'd love to have a neat way of rounding this off, some conclusion that I can draw, but the truth is this isn't the kind of issue that you can draw a line under and just wrap up. The connection between wrestling and MMA is engrained and though it's difficult to articulate precisely where it begins and ends it isn't going anywhere, and while they probably aren't going to haemorrhage fans out that way anymore there's also no real clear line you can draw to getting them back in. It's a nebulous issue, and that's one that makes writing a coherent self-contained piece with a neat flourish of an ending quite difficult – but at the same time, that's real life, and I can't force the issue to fit the shape of a column any more than the people in wrestling can force this issue to a more pleasing resolution. It simply is what it is, and that's an end to it, and this.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    The Brain
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    WWE's struggle to build credibility on their own means they like to borrow credibility from MMA stars. Sad, but true. I feel like there is some historical precedent for something like this, think of all the football players who transitioned either part time or full time in the past and were presented as credible quickly, but the comparison breaks down as none were launched straight to the top like the likes of Ronda or Lesnar. I honestly have never had the slightest interest in MMA but I know there's a big fanbase for it, I just with the company was capable of presenting stars of their own on that high level. Nice piece Pete, as always!

  3. #3
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    I've never watched an MMA match before but it's clear that it is quite popular. The negative impact that these MMA stars have on wrestling is quite palpable as it is making WWE look weak in comparison. It's like saying straight up that MMA is legit and because of that WWE stars, who pretend fight, do not stand a chance against a real fighter. Vince is shooting himself in the foot by decreasing the credibility of his own brand. Then again, he doesn't care about that. The only thing he cares about is a draw.

    Interesting thoughts to ponder on, Prime.

  4. #4
    Lamb of LOP anonymous's Avatar
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    I actually quite like the connection between the WWE and MMA. I think any cross-sports connection with "more popular" areas is positive as you're essentially hiring a pre-built star. It also gives them the opportunity to get their personality across, do their own thing and become what they want to be, something which I think MMA and over sports don't do enough. Boxing is another interesting one. I genuinely believe the WWE struck gold when they started reaching out to Mayweather. They should be trying to go for the guys who're reaching the end of their boxing career, or who can't quite cut it and be giving them a chance. They have the name recognition but they also have the discipline and the experience of intense schedules that so many potential stars seems to falter on. There needs to be more Kurt Angles and Ken Shamrocks. Less people given the Lesnar/Rousey treatment and more people getting the Angle treatment where they're given a full-time chance and they take it. There will be failures but the successes make it all worthwhile.

    As for moving over to "serious" sports, I totally get it. Especially as the WWE has become increasingly poorly booked and cartoonish. But I don't think that the fault of anyone except the writing team and their inability to create something special. I genuinely believe if the WWE was watchable today, the fans would come flooding back. It's about the buzz and about the water-cooler (sorry for the American terminology) conversations. Those have gone and the WWE needs to find them and they'll get finds back. I actually think there's a thirsty market out there, just waiting to be given some juice. And they'd find time to watch the WWE in the same way they can watch boxing or MMA.


    Good stuff.

  5. #5
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Mizfan - Yeah, there's always been a kind of cross-current of people from other sports. I think the difference is that because there were existing stars, the need to rush someone into position was never really there. But there's no one with Brock Lesnar's legitimacy on the men's roster, and no one who drew the way he did for the UFC - even Cena can't say that. Similarly, there's no woman in the company with the individual name recognition of Ronda Rousey, as an Olympian and the woman who really put women's MMA on the map. So yeah, they get rushed to the top to solve a problem, which maybe perpetuates another one, but there's not a lot you can do because you need stars. So I don't know that there's a way out of it other than affording one or two other guys the same kind of protection? Tough to say with any certainty, isnt it?

    Don - Yeah, you're not wrong there. But as I said in the column and just above to Mizfan now, I'm not sure what option they have other than to make them look weak. They've gone too far down to the road now, and you can't just magic up a star. If you can't make them, it doesn't change the fact that you need them, and you need to bring them in - and lord knows that you don't pay top dollar for a star and then take the shine off them by beating them around the country like all the other talent you've messed up. They're far too expensive for that. So yeah, it exacerbates a problem, but not doing it doesn't make the problem go away, and you've got a whole other problem of having no draw. It's a complete quagmire.

    Nony - I don't have a huge problem with them compared with some people - it's generally those people less worried about things like legitimacy and believability that have a problem, though I don't think they've really considered the wider effect on the wrestling business if they were to have their way. I guess again, the issue with doing Angle/Shamrock in this day and age is that there is no star to offer them cover, in the way that Bret/Shawn/Taker/Austin were for those guys. The newer generation are paid top dollar to come in and be stars, because there is no one filling that role already - if there were, they wouldn't come in the way that they did. But again, you can't just 'make' stars, there's a whole structure and framework involved in that, and the main roster seems to struggle with it. The Shield are the closest thing that we've seen in recent years, and I think it's safe to say their starpower as a trio far outweighs their drawing ability as individuals.

    I used to think that the fans would come back to WWE if things improved. I don't any more. I realised I'd seen no evidence of it, and that it was kinda wishful thinking. My new thought is that it's been too long, people have moved on, and they just don't care anymore. The only way they come back is as the parent's of kids who are into it, and even then it feels like a stretch that they'd ever fully get back involved. So yeah, I'm pessimistic about another boom even being possible at this point, because it seems more likely to me that it would have to come from a completely new audience - one that is willing to sit through an interminable number of programming hours in the first instance, and pay out for the network in the second. It seems more likely to me that this is.... just it, from now on.


    And on that unhappy note, thanks to everyone who has read so far, especially to those who have replied.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  6. #6
    Member #25 SirSam's Avatar
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    Have been looking forward to reading this since you posted it PT. Great stuff as always, something I'm very interested in too, my first ever sports writing on the net was actually about MMA.

    I think one thing that you kind of touched on but didn't exactly go all in on is that the MMA's style of matchmaking and presentation isn't just influenced by pro wrestling they have pretty much wholesale copied Vince McMahon's playbook but benefit in a number of ways that pro wrestling can't dream. They have the square offs, the verbal back and forths, the same kind of video packages, build off the same basic personas that wrestling use and are even struggling with the same nostalgia problem that WWE has lost itself too. They of course have the legitimacy of being a real 'not fixed' sport (at least it isn't obvious when/if it happens anymore and even when it was more common was still fairly rare) and also don't have the issue of their fighters fighting in the ring once a week so when someone like MacGregor or Jon Jones actually gets in the cage it feels like an 'event'.

    I wish there was more seperation between the two, I really dislike the MMA style of pro wrestling in all but a very few cases it is sloppy as hell and looks unconvincing, particularly to people who are MMA fans, which you think would be the target audience for these kind of moves. Plus when things like submissions are combined with inescapable pro wrestling 'fighting a submission' & 'never giving up' tropes it means that performers are either exposed for tapping when they should be 'fighting on' or the other combatant has to loosely and only partially execute a submission that should be causing a near immediate injury. I'm still yet to see a Triangle Choke or arm bar that looks remotely convincing and yet some performers toss them out like confetti.

    I think that to target this 'lost audience' that has somewhat migrated over to MMA the key will be to emphasise the sporting and athletic parts of wrestling but to try and combine the two into a convincing style is a fools errand in my mind. MMA is designed to hurt the opponent and in pro wrestling moves have to minimise harm, that means making trade offs that will just make the MMA fan wonder why they don't just watch it get done properly but in the Octagon.

    Also I'm interested that you didn't list Bobby Lashley who has had a significant enough MMA career to be worth the WWE mentioning it a few times however he has not been granted the venerated status of Lesnar or Rousey or even someone on the 'lower tier' star wise of Bazler.



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  7. #7
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    I kind of like Sam's comparison of this to the two different forms of rugby. I agree, it's exactly how it should be presented from the WWE's perspective. Unfortunately, for that presentation to work it would have to be done from both sides. UFC would have to play along and I don't see that happening.

    The trouble is, WWE shouldn't be booking these MMA imports to be so dominant. As I said in a recent column, at least with Lesnar they can claim to have created the beast that conquered UFC and brought him back home, but with Rousey all they are doing is admitting WWE is inferior to UFC.

    As far as the star power thing goes, aside from Brock Lesnar I had never heard of any of these imports until they became associated with WWE. Just like with anyone else, they need introducing to the wider WWE audience at a sensible pace, proving they have earned their spot. They are no different to people coming in from another wrestling promotion.

    The biggest issue with any column like this though, is the idea that WWE needs to try and win back all those Attitude Era fans - a target they can only fail with. What they actually need is to develop a whole new generation of fans. That means appealing to a younger generation, NOT those of us who remember that time period.

  8. #8
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Sam - Thanks for the kind words mate. You're right, MMA has taken the pro wrestling playbook and does thing that wrestling used to do and is just as successful, if not more, than wrestling used to be. I'm not sure I'm actually overly concerned with wrestling emulating the style of MMA in-ring, though that's clearly another way that they are chasing legitimacy even if - as you say - I'm not sure it fully works. I also think that a knock on effect that I didn't mention that you're kind of alluding to here is that MMA has changed the way a lot of people see a tapout. If you've any familiarity with actual grappling you know that when you're in the right kind of hold and it's tight, there's nothing you can do to get out of it. It's not about grit, or fighting through. You give up, and it's a fool that doesn't because they are going to sleep, or they are going to get something broken. MMA and it's popularity has raised people's literacy about that, I think, which actually presents wrestling with yet another credibility problem.

    I'm not really sure that it's about targeting that lost audience, really, because as I said in the column.... I think they're gone now. Trying to bring them back in might just be a waste of time. It's more that there's never really been a successful wrestler without legitimacy and even though everyone else has gone over to MMA, that's the only place you can really bring it in from, consistently. Hey, boxing has had enough of it's own problems to be providing a conveyor belt of talent to wrestling.

    You make a good point about Lashley, because at some level he trades off this idea of legitimacy - he almost certainly wouldn't still be a big deal in wrestling without it - but at the same time he doesn't have as much of it as some of the others. Possibly because he isn't seen as a star at the same level in the WWE, and in Impact his name alone was seen as sufficient drawing power? But he's definitely in the mix while being something of an outlier, it's a good shout.

    Billington - I don't see why MMA have to recognise it, too, to be honest. You only really need to keep the illusion up during your own show for it to affect your audience. And to be honest, Rugby League fans have been pretty snooty about Union not being 'real athletes' for most of the last century, but it hasn't stopped Union being the more popular game.

    I did cover the argument you are making here in about MMA looking dominant in the column. As I said there, though, when you've already shat the bed you've got to do something to cover the fact that you have no stars. Just saying it makes them look weak.... well, it doesn't solve the problem long-term and it leaves you in a hole short term. Booking them strong makes a lot of business sense in the short term which might buy them time to address the longer term issue, if they have the sense to tackle it.

    You may not have heard of Ronda Rousey, but the mistake you are making here is thinking of your own experience as paramount. Rousey is hugely famous, whether you've heard of her or not - famous enough that I know dozens of Brits who have had of her while MMA is still really a minority sport here, so you can just imagine the scale of her fame in the US, or in those countries like Brazil where it's a major sport. The others are less so, which is why Baszler has been featured in NXT and the MYC and the like and the others don't get the same treatment. But it would be an insane business decision not to bring Rousey in hot, and not to strike while the iron is hot and interest is high, before she just becomes 'one of the others'.


    I actually agree with you on the last point, but I don't see it as a problem with the column because I wasn't trying to suggest that you bring those fans back. As I've said a few times in the feedback and strongly implied in the column, they look like they are long gone to me. The point is that outside of a small core, there's very few people who have ever gotten into wrestling without at some level 'believing' in the star that they follow. That's why the wrestling audience is so small now - only those few who can and do, are left, aside from the malcontents who hang around because they've been watching for years and don't know what else to do. So the question then becomes whether or not it's even possible to create a new generation of fans after the damage done to wrestling in the past 20+ years. We assume that there is, but actually there's very little evidence - and no evidence, ever, to suggest that you can do it without legitimacy, and stars. And for those at this moment in time, the WWE has no choice but to import them.



    Alright thanks for reading and replying guys.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  9. #9
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    Yeah, I live near Bath these days. Lets just say the snootiness about which type of Rugby players are the real athletes may be the other way around in my neck of the woods

  10. #10
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Haha, I don't doubt it - though that was a much harder sell when the game was amateur, and league were indisputably better conditioned because they were paid professionals.

    Union has always had a snootiness about the 'type of game' that they play that counteracted the thing about athleticism, anyway.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  11. #11
    Member #25 SirSam's Avatar
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    League is all one body type these days so you could probably argue they are 'more athletic' but it's not exactly going to help if they have to pack into a scrum at tight head.



    @Sir_Samuel

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