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WWE

Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez arrives on Smackdown to pummel the man he beat for that championship, WWE Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.

It was appropriate that Tony Schiavone was back on television calling pro wrestling for the first time in almost 20 years last Wednesday.

Because, to paraphrase his favorite hyperbole on WCW Monday Nitro, last week was one of the most important ones in the history of our sport.

The Oct. 2 debut of the program that reintroduced Schiavone to the airwaves, AEW Dynamite, ignited what wrestling fans have already dubbed the Wednesday Night Wars. Just as Nitro went head-to-head with WWE's Raw for several years, grappling for higher Nielsen ratings and fan loyalties, Dynamite aired on TNT opposite WWE's prestige brand, NXT, on USA.

The newcomer took the night's share of eyeballs. But both promotions will be vying for supremacy for months or maybe years to come. And if this war is anything like the one between Nitro and Raw, we're in for plenty of surprise appearances, marquee matches and probably some regrettable storylines. AEW and WWE will be at their best. So, as the cliché goes, wrestling fans will be the real winners.

Then, two nights after that first battle in wrestling's new war, WWE returned to network television. The debut of Smackdown on Fox was the most wrestling has penetrated the mainstream in years, if only through sheer force of marketing will. Superstars like Roman Reigns and Charlotte were all over the network in the preceding weeks. And Vince McMahon predictably loaded the Friday premiere with names that would entice any lapsed fans to tune in, such as The Rock and Brock Lesnar, though The Undertaker and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin were curiously absent after being promoted for the show.

If there was one through line to this historic week in pro wrestling, though, it came from another sport altogether.

Dynamite saw Bellator competitor Jake Hager, aka former WWE World Champion Jack Swagger, turn the tide of the donnybrook at the end of the show. And Smackdown saw not only the somewhat expected WWE debut of former UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, but also the genuinely shocking ringside appearance of lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury. The former will likely wrestle the man he long ago dethroned in Lesnar, while Fury is expected to trade hands with Braun Strowman based on their heated interaction and subsequent brawl on Monday's Raw.

So in their bids last week to win the favor of hardcore wrestling fans and catch the eyes of fair-weather ones, both AEW and WWE turned to combat sports. They turned to legitimacy. 

Now, not all three fighters are in the same situation. Hager has spent much longer in gimmicked steel cages than real ones, so as much as Jim Ross may tout his MMA credentials, he still gives AEW a readymade upper-mid-carder. Velasquez was phenomenally impressive in his first wrestling matches in Mexico, but he's relatively unknown outside the regular UFC audience and, frankly, doesn't look all that imposing next to Lesnar. And Fury's just a big dude with a bunch of charisma, and probably won't set foot in a wrestling ring more than once.

Still, three make a pattern. Hager, Velasquez and Fury surfacing on wrestling shows in the same week means something — that the industry still believes legitimacy matters.

But how much? Given the three men in question, we may see the limits of legitimacy in pro wrestling very soon.

These aren't cases of WWE locking down crossover stars and consistently featuring them, like Lesnar and Ronda Rousey. Nor are they cases of fighters paying their dues to become skilled in a wrestling ring, like Matt Riddle and Shayna Baszler. There are no such upsides. Does Hager having a few Bellator cans on his resume make him any less devoid of charisma? Does the otherwise unremarkable Velasquez having beaten Lesnar in a real fight make anyone want to see them wrestle a fake one? What does Fury really offer inside a ring aside from a photo op standing opposite Strowman? 

Those three don't just have little to offer wrestling fans, either. Because as much as the word gets thrown around to describe what they bring to pro wrestling, they don't actually legitimize it to the unconverted. Strowman promoting a match with Tyson Fury isn't going to make Keith Olbermann any less likely to gripe about Fox spilling fake fighters in his precious real sports. Everyone knows it's still a work.

So will AEW and WWE's embrace of combat sports give either promotion the edge in the Wednesday Night Wars? Or advance pro wrestling's push into the mainstream? I legitimately doubt it.


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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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