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When Gable Steveson rallied in the waning seconds of his super heavyweight match with Geno Petriashvili at the 2020 Summer Olympics, captured gold in freestyle wrestling at the age of 21 and celebrated with a spectacular version of his trademark backflip, it was clear there would be interest from the combat sports world in a young man who was named after Dan Gable. Steveson had talked about his longtime affinity for MMA and his interest in professional wrestling, making him a prized prospect for either endeavor.
Obviously, Steveson would be welcome in the MMA world. Top coaches would be interested in working with him, and promoters would be happy to feature him on their shows. The question was whether Steveson would be able to secure what amounted to a scholarship offer lucrative enough to make him consider turning down World Wrestling Entertainment. WWE had courted Steveson back to his high school years and is particularly hungry for young superstar wrestlers, given that its current top stars are an older group. It was going to take a big offer to deter Steveson from going with WWE.
There is plenty of precedent for these types of deals in MMA. Pride Fighting Championships was particularly aggressive in signing Olympic medalists for a couple of reasons. First, the Olympics draw higher viewership in Japan than in the United States and many other countries, and as a result, there was more intrigue about how Olympic judokas and wrestlers would do in MMA. Second, Pride was built around its big TV spectaculars, and that made unique contests for the masses more valuable than for a promotion built around pay-per-view.
Hidehiko Yoshida and Satoshi Ishii were two of Pride’s biggest needle movers, with Yoshida, in particular, being an underappreciated figure for his influence in the sport. Pride also made Rulon Gardner a big offer to fight on New Year’s Eve years after he scored one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history over Aleksandr Karelin. Pride rival K-1 signed charismatic Egyptian wrestling superstar Karam Ibrahim Gaber to a deal, although it went about as poorly for him as seemed imaginable at the time.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has not resisted signing unique prospects to big-money deals. Brock Lesnar is of course the most prominent example, and that signing paid financial dividends likely beyond the UFC’s most optimistic projections. Three weight class world champion boxer James Toney didn’t exactly cover himself in glory with his MMA debut against Randy Couture, but the pay-per-view returns were impressive. The most infamous signing to many is likely the generational pro wrestling star Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, who didn’t belong in the Octagon but at least managed to generate business and buzz in the process.
Other MMA promotions might seem like possibilities for Steveson, as well. Bellator MMA under Scott Coker has looked to develop young elite prospects from an early age, with A.J. McKee proving to be a massive success story. Aaron Pico hasn’t put together the record many expected, but Bellator’s investment in him still seems like a savvy move given how much publicity it received for his debut in Madison Square Garden. If he had won and continued winning—an idea not out of the question given his natural talent undermined by his sometimes-reckless approach—he might be Bellator’s biggest star now. Similarly, the Professional Fighters League invested in Kayla Harrison from the beginning, and she has become its clear marquee star.
There was thus reason to believe that MMA promotions might make a hard push for Steveson. In fact, none did. The UFC reportedly only offered Steveson an opportunity on Dana White’s Contender Series, similar to what it did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. So, Steveson signed with WWE. He might end up doing MMA down the road, like Lesnar or fellow pro wrestlers Bobby Lashley or Jake Hager, but it won’t be any time soon. If he does later, it’s entirely possible his pro wrestling notoriety then will make him more valuable than his Olympic wrestling notoriety does now. However, that’s no guarantee.
The natural question then is whether it was wise for promotions to eschew making strong offers for the pedigreed, marketable young talent to enter into MMA. It’s not a question with an easy answer. Steveson would not come cheap, and it’s unlikely he would pay for his contract immediately. It’s also unknowable how well he would develop as an MMA prospect. Some wrestlers have adapted to striking and submissions much better than others.
There is, on the other hand, a real upside to pulling in famous figures from different backgrounds who have legitimate upside for mixed martial arts. MMA is a star-driven sport, and the biggest stars are the ones who line the coffers of UFC and help out their fellow fighters, as well. If UFC President Dana White had stuck to his guns and not brought in Ronda Rousey, it would have left the company significantly worse off. Not going after Steveson might prove to be a non-story, or it might even get greeted with a sigh of relief eventually. There is also the possibility that it eventually is regarded as a mistake and an intriguing “what if” case.