LAS VEGAS/NEW YORK -- I had to go to both. Conor McGregor left me no choice.
I'm not a violent guy. I can't remember the last real fight I was in and hope to keep it that way. But there's nothing I enjoy more than watching fights, real or scripted, in the UFC and WWE. I guess it's kind of like how I love playing violent video games like Grand Theft Auto and yet I disapprove of robbery and reckless driving in real life. I think I can enjoy one without indulging in the other.
Despite my love for both and the similarities I might attempt to enumerate between the UFC and WWE to friends who like one but not the other, there's no thread that ties the live experiences together for me. They're completely different -- and equally mesmerizing -- for different reasons.
The beauty of the UFC is that it's reality television playing out inside the confines of a caged Octagon. You know the stakes that are in play for both fighters when they square off, and no one in the building knows what's going to happen. It could all be over in 25 seconds or 25 minutes, and both could inspire an ecstatic reaction from the crowd. In fact, the shorter match with the more thrilling finish will always elicit the loudest reaction from the crowd.
WWE, on the other hand, is live theater played out against the same backdrop of 15,000 screaming fans in an arena, but the stakes, of course, aren't the same. If Brock Lesnar loses a match, I'm not wondering about his career being over; I'm wondering what the WWE writers have in store for his character next. If a match ends in 25 seconds, I'm not excited about the dramatic ending; I'm apathetic to the uninspired booking of a match that was an afterthought.
There are moments when the lines between the UFC and WWE blur. There was no better example than last week, when McGregor successfully hijacked much of the mainstream promotional tour WWE had scheduled for its superstars leading up to SummerSlam while he was promoting UFC 202. McGregor took shots at WWE and its wrestlers like he was ready to switch professions.
If you didn't know any better, you'd think McGregor was planning on hopping on a flight to New York after his much-anticipated rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 202 to be at SummerSlam.
He wasn't. I might have been the only one crazy enough to do that.
When I was a child and did something that warranted a reward, my mother would take me to Toys R Us and tell me I could pick out a toy in the store as a gift. It was a kind gesture, but ultimately a thankless task for a wide-eyed kid. I would do countless laps around the aisles, hopelessly trying to whittle 100 choices down to one.
The closest I come to recreating that feeling now is when I walk into the Las Vegas Fight Shop -- basically a toy store for fans of the UFC and WWE nestled inside the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. There's a cardboard cutout of McGregor and Ronda Rousey on one side of the door, and John Cena and Sasha Banks on the other. Inside, there are replica belts, toys, shirts and posters from both the UFC and WWE.
Walk around the store long enough, and it becomes clear that the similarity in the merchandise offered by both companies to a growingly blended fan base isn't an accident. The reason the WWE plays up Lesnar's UFC career and wants him wrestling in his MMA gear is the same reason the UFC gave the former WWE champion a title fight after just two fights and a 1-1 record in the UFC. It's also why CM Punk (Phil Brooks), who has never been in an MMA fight, is one of the headliners of next month's UFC 203 and will fight under his pro wrestling name.
While both companies are star-driven, the UFC is a top-heavy promotion that makes its money off big names and big main events. That's why the crowd outside of T-Mobile Arena before the start of the preliminary matches for UFC 202 was non-existent: No one was rushing from the casinos or pools to see Marvin Vettori face Alberto Uda or Artem Lobov face Chris Avila. Many of the 15,539 fans didn't make it to their seats until it was time for McGregor to face Diaz.
Meanwhile, a WWE pay-per-view is like a movie in which fans feel the need to consume every minute from start to finish. That's why, three hours before the start of SummerSlam, there were already lines of fans getting into the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, New York. By the time the pyro went off to to start the show, most of the 15,974 fans were already in their seats. WWE also does a better job of pushing its products through its stars and getting fans to pay for things that would make no sense to anyone who hasn't watched The New Day, WWE's tag-team champions. WWE's fans are so loyal that grown men will buy and wear $15 unicorn headbands and a $35 cereal box of "Booty O's" with no actual cereal inside -- just a shirt. The craziest UFC item sold in Las Vegas was a plush doll of a screaming Conor McGregor -- exactly what you want your baby cuddling with during nap time.
There's nothing quite like a McGregor fight in Las Vegas, because there's nothing quite like McGregor fans. They turn UFC fight crowds into European soccer matches, with constant jumping, singing and chanting. It was like Christmas in August when McGregor walked toward the ring at T-Mobile Arena to face Diaz in a rematch of UFC 196, which Diaz won, with McGregor's fans altering the words of "Winter Wonderland" to suit their champion.
"Theeeere's only onnneeee Conor McGregor! Only one Conor McGregor! We're walking along! Singing his song! Living in a Conor wonderland!"
After McGregor entered the Octagon to Biggie's "Notorious B.I.G." and Diaz entered to Tupac's "Ambitionz Az A Ridah" (yes, they were rivals right down to their entrance music), both fighters gave fans what will likely go down as the fight of the year and one of the best main events in UFC history.
It was a five-round war that took everything out of McGregor, who knocked Diaz down twice early, and Diaz, who stormed back and nearly finished McGregor off twice late. The fight exceeded the hype -- a rarity in any sport -- and set up what will be one of the most anticipated trilogy fights ever.
Celebrities ranging from Kanye West and chef Gordon Ramsay to Mike Tyson and Dwight Howard sat near the Octagon for the fight, while Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, Lil Wayne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. chimed in during and after the fight on social media. It was one of those transcendent fights that captivated casual fans and will likely make the third fight, whenever that happens, the largest pay-per-view draw in the company's history.
McGregor won a majority decision, but the rivals had no problem putting their differences aside after the fight. Diaz helped McGregor up after the final bell, and the two embraced in the middle of the Octagon -- no doubt knowing the payday they had just earned themselves down the line with a third fight.
"Surprise, surprise, m-----f-----s," McGregor said after his win. "The king is back."
During the post-fight news conference, McGregor, dressed in a three-piece suit, reflected on the massive stakes in this fight and what a loss would have done to his career.
"This was a hell of an important fight for me," McGregor said. "Everyone, from the media to the fighters, wrote me off in this one. They tried to say if I lost this one I'm done. It was a hell of a fight. I feel I have more skills, but he is one tough mother f---er. ... We got it done tonight. It was not easy. It was a war. I'm happy it went that way. I got to show my heart in there. I took it to him and got the win."
McGregor's win didn't come without a cost. He arrived at the news conference on crutches before heading to the hospital to get his shin evaluated. He was fine, but his trip to be evaluated gave Diaz one last opening for one last shot before the two meet again down the line.
"He's going to the hospital," Diaz said. "I'm going to the after-party."
My after-party involved a red-eye flight to New York to watch SummerSlam, headlined by Lesnar facing Randy Orton -- a match announced the week of UFC 200, which was headlined by Lesnar.
SummerSlam has become WWE's biggest event after WrestleMania, and it came to symbolize my last day of fun before school started when I was a child. It was also usually the culmination of a months-long feud that would finally come to a head in the main event. That wasn't really the case this year with Lesnar being a part-time player and Orton coming back from injury last month. Any fight with Lesnar, however, whether in the UFC or WWE, is must-see TV.
As a former NCAA heavyweight champion and UFC heavyweight champion, Lesnar adds a level of credibility and believability to a company that long ago stopped grasping for either. You're never quite sure what you're going to get with Lesnar, but chances are you won't have to suspend reality to believe the end result.
The problem with Lesnar's match at SummerSlam was that it seemed too real.
After an exciting back-and-forth match with Orton in which Lesnar give Orton an F5 and Orton give Lesnar an RKO on the announcer's table, Lesnar busted Orton's head wide open and blood poured onto the mat. WWE is a more family-friendly product these days and has cut all bleeding from its shows, at least for the most part, so there was an air of realism when the referee hovered over what seemed like an unconscious and bleeding Orton.
The match was stopped less than 12 minutes after it started, with Lesnar winning by "TKO," a result commonplace in the UFC but basically unheard of in WWE. The crowd, already upset that the previous match between Roman Reigns and Rusev was called off before it began, was in disbelief that the show would end with such an odd result.
As the lights came on at the Barclays Center, the crowd booed before being told to leave by arena security. It was an odd ending that left fans wondering what they had just seen and yearning for an explanation they would never get.
While WWE is getting more mainstream media coverage these days, there's no post-fight news conferences during which WWE CEO Vince McMahon explains what happened in the main event before the wrestlers answer questions from reporters. Media members are ticket-holders, just like the fans, and once the show is over, we walk out with the unicorn-wearing guy holding an empty cereal box of "Booty O's."
So did Lesnar cross the line in beating Orton? Was Orton supposed to be lying in a pool of his own blood? Was the main event really supposed to be over that quickly? When did a TKO become an appropriate ending to a pro wrestling match?
There were so many questions, and no one around to answer them as disgruntled fans spilled onto the streets of Brooklyn. It was an ending that would have been celebrated in the UFC but left WWE fans wondering what they had just seen.
In other words, it was just the latest example of the blurring of the lines between the UFC and WWE -- and a reminder that sometimes reality is better than fiction.