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What does Brock Lesnar's UFC return mean for the WWE Network?

Lesnar is arguably the WWE's biggest star, but he'll be returning to the octagon for a UFC fight in July. This could be bad for the WWE.

Brock Lesnar. There's three things you need to know about him: He's an extreme genetic outlier, he's one of the UFC's biggest ever box office draws and he currently wrestles exclusively for the WWE.

On Sunday at UFC 199 in California, it was revealed that the WWE had agreed to a special "one off" deal allowing Lesnar to return to the octagon to fight at UFC 200 on July 9 in Las Vegas. Today on ESPN, we found out that he'll be facing Mark Hunt, a 42-year-old fighter with a 12-10 record.

This will undoubtedly do big business for the mixed martial arts company, but could be bad news for the WWE.

One of the pro wrestling company's biggest revenue sources is its WWE Network. Think of it like the wrestling world's Netflix. It costs $9.99 a month, and features on-demand documentaries and an archive of thousands of past shows. Most importantly, WWE runs special live events each month which used to be exclusive to pay-per-views. These are now also shown on the WWE Network at no additional cost.

Lesnar (left) walking to the ring at WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, California last year. As is often the case, he was the main event of the evening.

WWE

These special events are what the company uses to entice new users to subscribe to the Network. And who does the WWE use to sell their biggest events? That's right, Brock Lesnar.

On paper it makes sense. UFC needed an extra draw for UFC 200, which lost star fighter Conor McGregor to a managerial dispute, and in turn a triumphant return for Lesnar to the UFC would make him a bigger star heading into August's Summerslam -- the WWE Network's second biggest show of the year.

For the uninitiated, the UFC is where mixed martial artists get in a cage and fight for real. WWE is a different animal, where athletes simulate a fight to tell (ideally) dramatic stories in the ring.

The success of both industries is largely star-driven, and Lesnar is one of pro wrestling's biggest stars. In the world of WWE, he's portrayed as a killer. His character is presented as an unbeatable force of nature, having not been pinned (scripted to lose a match by pinfall) in over three years.

He's portrayed like that because he's got the credentials to back it up. He's a legitimate prize fighter, beating MMA legend Randy Couture in 2008 to win the UFC heavyweight championship and going on to headline 2009's UFC 100, which still holds the record for most-bought UFC pay-per-view ever.

Thanks to that resume, the WWE deems Lesnar extremely valuable, paying him an exorbitant amount. Forbes reported that he earned $6 million last year for wrestling just five matches.

If he wins, his real-life tough guy WWE persona gets even stronger, making him more valuable to the company than ever. But if he loses, that persona gets smashed to bits. And a loss is a very real possibility.

"From a WWE standpoint, they're looking at this going '[Hunt is] a 12-10 fighter and he's 42-years-old'", said Dave Meltzer, revered pro wrestling and MMA journalist, on his Wrestling Observer Radio show. "But on the entire [UFC] roster, Mark Hunt would be near the top of the list, if not the top of the list, of guys I wouldn't want to put Brock Lesnar against."

"He can knock [Lesnar] out," Meltzer said, "and it can be a devastating knockout."

The WWE revealed last month that the Network had just under 1.5 million subscribers. Last November, it was reported that the WWE Network was the fifth most popular OTT (over-the-top) streaming service, beating out HBO Now and NFL Game Pass. Those are promising stats, but the Network is still a tremendous risk for the WWE, which essentially sacrificed its lucrative pay-per-view and home video businesses by moving content from those platforms to the Network.

Pro wrestling fans will pay to see Lesnar -- enough for WWE to justify paying him millions of dollars a year for just a handful of Network-exclusive matches. But if the audience no longer sees him as a completely dominant force, they may no longer be as willing to pay (at least not at the current numbers) to see him wrestle.

This deal with UFC might make Lesnar a bigger star than ever -- but the WWE may be sending its cash cow to slaughter.