The world of entertainment (or should that be sports-entertainment?) got a big shock in the past week when lineal boxing heavyweight champion of the world Tyson Fury turned up in WWE. The outspoken and controversial fighter appeared in the crowd on the first-ever live broadcast of the wrestling company’s flagship show ‘Friday Night SmackDown’ on FOX. During the show, he got into a confrontation with giant grappler Braun Strowman. He’s since followed that up with an appearance on Monday Night RAW, during which the two men clashed again.
On the back of his second appearance, it now seems apparent that Fury has signed a short-term agreement with the world’s largest wrestling company to fight Strowman in a wrestling contest. On paper, it seems like good business – it draws fresh eyes to WWE’s product, and it also helps Fury to gain recognition in America, which he’s made no secret about wanting to achieve. But will it turn out to be a smart move in the long term?
A Controversial Figure
There’s no doubting the fact that Tyson Fury is what’s known as ‘box office’ in the boxing world. He draws huge crowds wherever he goes, and he makes millions of dollars every time he fights. He’s undefeated, and the only blemish on his record is a draw with Deontay Wilder – a fight which many boxing commentators and experts believe Fury won. He’s a legitimate tough guy and brings credibility to the theatrical world of WWE. If credibility was the only thing he brought with him, there would be no questions to answer. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Fury is a man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and what’s on his mind isn’t always palatable to audiences. In the past, Fury has been accused of sexism and homophobia. He’s used homophobic slurs against his opponents and has suggested that women should be at home in the kitchen instead of taking part in sports. He’s also had a high-profile battle with alcohol and substance abuse – one which saw his license to box being temporarily withdrawn while he sought treatment. Since returning to the ring, the Tyson Fury story has been one of redemption. He’s spoken of being a new man with a new outlook on life, and a strengthened Christian faith. His words alone haven’t been enough to satisfy those who still carry a dim view of him because of his past behavior.
Bringing Fury into the fold is a move that seems to run contrary to WWE’s current presentation philosophy. Although their TV shows were once known for blood, guts, and scantily-clad female performers, the company has spent much of the past decade cleaning up its act and pitching a more family-friendly, PG-orientated product. The contests in the ring are less violent than they once were. The women on the company’s roster are now recognized as talented athletes instead of eye-candy, and represented as being equal to their male counterparts. Fury, with his baggage, feels like a square peg in a round hole.
WWE has used controversial and colorful personalities to draw mainstream media attention before, of course. Floyd Mayweather jr – perhaps the most gifted boxer of the past twenty years – once competed in a match at WrestleMania. Mayweather, though, is an astute businessman with a keen understanding of how to behave in order to make money. The money WWE spent on Mayweather was less than the money they made out of using him. He was a safe bet. Putting money into Tyson Fury is more like playing mobile slots. Nobody knows how much they stand to earn from playing mobile slots until they’ve placed their bets, and spun the reels. If Fury were a mobile slots game, he would be an extremely volatile one. So far, everything has gone to plan, but a combination of live television, live microphones, and Fury’s habit of saying the first thing that comes into his head could yet prove to be a disaster.
Taking all of that into account – along with the fact that WWE has already parted with big money to bring in another legitimate fighter in the shape of the UFC’s Cain Velasquez this month, why would they want to take this risk?
The answer to that question may lie in the fact that for the first time in almost twenty years, WWE is no longer the only big-name game in town when it comes to wrestling. The fabled Monday Night Wars came to an end in 2001, when WWE purchased their old rivals WCW. Since then, although smaller rival promotions have sprung up, nobody has been able to rival Vince McMahon’s company for size or spectacle.
All that changed earlier this year, when All Elite Wrestling was founded. The upstart company is bankrolled by the Khan family, who own the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have deeper pockets than McMahon, and have acquired a prime time slot of their own on Wednesday nights on TNT. Fronted by well-known wrestling stars like Chris Jericho, Cody Rhodes, and Kenny Omega, AEW represents a totally new type of challenge for the Connecticut-based wrestling leviathan.
Some industry experts even believe that the younger, hipper, edgier company (they have a TV-14 rating and are able to push the envelope further than WWE in terms of content) represents an existential threat. With WWE now a publicly-traded company with a share price that’s sensitive to such developments, existential threats must be responded to with fresh strategies. Tyson Fury, who almost certainly wouldn’t have been considered a viable personality to appear on WWE programming a year ago, might be the face of that fresh strategy.
At the time of writing, the move appears to be having the desired effect. WWE and their new boxing star have made mainstream news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, and the company can probably look forward to a ratings boost because of the increased attention. Is it a means to winning this new wrestling war, or a short-term gimmick that could backfire and do them more harm than good? The only way we’ll find out is to watch and follow along – and that’s exactly what WWE wants us to do.
Odds on Deontay Wilder putting in an appearance in All Elite Wrestling? We wouldn’t bet against it.