Sherdog tackled the idea of smaller MMA promotions pulling the classic pro wrestling "gimmick match" to draw in a crowd earlier today. From the piece:
The gimmick is nothing new in pro wrestling, a distant and unfortunate cousin of MMA, where crowds are turned on by the promise of cage matches, dwarf world titles, and staple guns. Any break from the norm is going to be acknowledged -- even if it’s to shake your head.
MMA was once a gimmick itself: the premise of throwing brave (and possibly stupid) fighters in a cage is a sports anomaly if there ever was one. Now that it’s somehow evolved into a legitimate event -- and the UFC has a monopoly on that structure -- the only answer is to devolve.
Two cases of note: Shine Fights, the promotion which branded itself as MMA’s least competent office with the Ricardo Mayorga fiasco in May, now has plans to resurrect itself with a single-night elimination tournament, a format so archaic that most athletic commissions refuse to recognize it; according to the Syracuse Examiner, former cruiserweight champion Bobby Gunn has offered to fight Kimbo Slice in a London-rules bare knuckle prizefight, the kind popularized by fighters with nicknames like "Gentleman" and "Battlin’."
Both of these ideas are horrible, of course. While it may be true that a bare-fisted boxing match is less traumatic to the head than a padded one, it’s a superficially disgusting activity that frequently results in long, bloody, hematoma-filled fights. Seeing it passed around on YouTube is one thing: having it legitimized in front of pay per view cameras is off-putting.
The single-night tournament worked in the 1990s because of the disparate fighting elements each fighter brought to the table. You didn’t necessarily need to be familiar with the athletes: it was enough to understand that a Sumo taking on a Kenpo striker would be a spectacular mess.
They even go on to address the fact that the UFC is not above the gimmick matches, as can be seen in their willingness to promote James Toney's MMA debut or their attempt to shoehorn a low talent, high Q rating name like Kimbo Slice into their sharktank. To many experts the outcomes to these situations were obvious, as soon as Kimbo was put in with a real fighter he'd be beaten just like he was every time up to then...and as soon as Toney was matched up with a wrestler (as he will be against Randy Couture) he'll get taken down and pounded out. But to the casual fan there is a "what will happen?" element that makes their tuning in almost a necessity. Hell, anyone that claims that bringing Brock Lesnar in wasn't a gimmicky move is out of their mind. His success doesn't lessen the fact that the main reason they wanted an unproven 1-0 former pro wrestler was that people would tune in to see him.
The UFC has the luxury to pick and choose when to take these chances with bringing in a Slice or a Toney but, as Sherdog points out, for many lower level promotions the gimmick match is standard operating procedure.
MMA on the local level many times is a gimmick in and of itself. In my life I've been to plenty of both wrestling and MMA shows in bingo halls and local auditoriums and they both share the same level of underlying disgusting carny characters and that feeling that you know someone is going to get hurt in a way that costs way more than they're getting paid (if they get paid at all). Still, you'll see a bigger crowd at a local MMA show than a local wrestling show because while bad wrestling just looks awful, at least in a real fight you're going to see some local hillbilly get knocked out.
A step up from that level of "the attraction is the show happening" is the show that has the "former ___ star" tags on the poster. My days of being a pro wrestling fan are well behind me at this point but I still remember going to a show that advertised "Former WWF Stars Kamala and Doink!" While I knew that it was obviously the classic "dress a guy up as a clown and call him Doink" I was admittedly shocked by the inclusion of a 5'3" Kimbo Slice with a beer belly version of Kamala they trotted out (as an aside: I've always wondered what twists and turns a man's life takes prior to becoming fake Kamala). While you obviously aren't going to get "Fake Georges St. Pierre" working some local MMA show you will get a ton of "former UFC star" tags for guys who lost on their Ultimate Fighter tryout, or went 0-2 on prelims that no one in the crowd will have seen.
James Toney vs. Randy Couture / Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow - Crossover sports stars competing with established sports/sports entertainment stars
Hell in a Cell matches / Kimbo Slice fights - Attraction based on spectacle
Jake Roberts doing indy shows / Tim Sylvia fighting boxers and strongmen - Once great at a high level. Now big, fat has-beens whose names are attached to events more because people know who they are than any sort of quality brought by them.
While in MMA there will always been a bit more intrigue because of the lack of a scripted outcome, there really is no denying the pro wrestling, carny aspect employed by MMA companies, even at the highest level.