On December 30, 2011 at UFC 141, Brock Lesnar entered the octagon for the eighth time against Alistair Overeem (36-11). Two minutes, twenty six seconds, and a liver kick later, the fight and Lesnar’s career were over.
In the post-match interview with Rogan, Lesnar humbly declared his retirement after two tough years of illness, surgery, and successive losses. He was an NCAA champion, a professional wrestler, a failed football player, and now a retired cage fighter.
Its now our job to figure out what Brock and his short, but enigmatic career actually meant.
Brock is a free style wrestler. Or perhaps I should say, “was” because the last time he wrestled competitively prior to joining the UFC was way back in 2000 when he was an All-American and National Champion for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. And nothing says bad ass like a gopher. Especially the golden ones.
With a 106-5 record in college and junior college, Brock certainly had the pedigree to enter the fight game. And as we all know, wrestlers have dominated since Severn, Coleman, and Tito. Particularly under the unified rules.
Yet he had spent seven years in make believe, jumping off of turnbuckles and selling kayfabe as Vince McMahon’s uber lackey. There is nothing about the WWE that makes you a better fighter, regardless of what the Internet might lead you to believe. Even the pain that these guys endure, requires no fortitude to fight through it. Suffer on camera, sell it big, and collect your paycheck. All it does is grind down your body.
Just ask Ken Shamrock.
So yes, Brock was a great wrestler jumping into mixed martial arts as a rookie at the ripe old age of 30 in 2007. With his huge body (6′ 3″ and cutting down to 265) and incomparable strength, he possessed physical advantages over anyone in the heavyweight division. Bar none.
His formula for success is as simple as it is traditional. Ground. Pound. A guy with a back as wide as Volvo and freakishly large hands (XXXXL gloves) is going to generate tremendous power from even a short distance.
Problem is that this is mixed martial arts and not free style wrestling. The learning curve for a wrestler is pretty short in some areas, such as submission defense, fundamental jiu-jitsu, Greco-Roman, dirty boxing. But in other areas, there are an enormous obstacles that must be overcome to create a rounded set of skills. And none more so than stand-up. Boxing, kickboxing, muay thai. By the luck of the draw, all of Brock’s early fights, though tough in competition, were seemingly tailored to his strengths and not his weaknesses.
The First 5 Fights
Min Soo Kim (weighed 255 lbs): A total can, chump of the week (2-5). Judo will get you in the door, but never let you dance at the MMA party. Brock scored a take down and Kim tapped … from strikes.
Frank Mir I (weighed 255 lbs): Brock’s second ever MMA fight and first in the UFC was against … Frank Mir? Frank was (10-3) at the time and a former UFC heavyweight champion, taking it off of the then indestructible marauder Tim Sylvia with a first round submission. The same guy that held multiple titles in international grappling.
Wait a second … Brock is 1-0 and gets Mir in the co-main event? Whatever.
Still, Mir was giving up 30 pounds on fight night and was taken down with ease. Had Brock been a little bit more diligent in securing his position and setting up his hammer fists, he would have won this fight quite easily. Instead, he thrashed about as Mir attempted desperation armbars until he left a leg in Mir’s guard.
Kneebar. Fight over. After the submission, a bloodied Mir ran around the ring like he just won the Lotto.
Still, the amazing thing is that Brock was thrown into the deep end and he proved he belonged. There is actually a moment in the fight (about 4:00) where Lesnar stops in Mir’s guard and thinks … what do I do now? With a bit more experience and more time to train, Lesnar was proving that he had amazing potential.
Heath Herring (weighed 250 lbs): His next opponent was supposed to be over-the-hill veteran and fellow wrestler, Mark Coleman, but he injured his knee in training and was forced to withdraw. His replacement was Heath Herring, a career journey man with an impressive string of losses to name opponents. Regardless, Herring had a big record at the time of the fight (28-13) and was a stand-up fighter.
The fight barely got a chance to develop as Brock hurt Herring early, in fact with his very first punch. He broke Herring’s orbital bone and Herring never recovered. Lesnar nailed his take downs and spent most of the fight controlling Herring on the ground leading to a one-sided unanimous decision.
Randy Couture (weighed 220 lbs): Brock is now 2-1 with a single win inside the UFC. So … title shot! Makes perfect sense to me. So here comes smallish, but legendary UFC champion, Randy Couture (16-8). Randy is a wrestler with competent boxing. His formula for success is to grind out his opponents on the wall, engaging in a cardio battle with his elite endurance … despite being 87 years old.
Against a wrestler that likely weighed 280+ on fight night, that strategy is never going to work. Randy looked like he was fighting as a welterweight compared to this behemoth. And did I mention that Couture is the spokesperson for the AARP.
Brock was unable to take Randy down, but with his size, strength, and reach he finally landed one of those huge mits on Couture’s skull. As Brock followed him down to the ground for the finish, this time his hammer fists were on point – controlled and lethal.
Frank Mir II (weighed 245 lbs): The kneebar rematch with a surprisingly smaller Mir (12-3). Now he was giving up 40 pounds, but I guess he was counting on maximizing his speed and agility. It didn’t work out like that at all. This was Lesnar at his best.
He took Mir down and laid on him for a round and a half. Lesnar generated incredible power from very short punches that reconfigured Mir’s face. With his smaller body, Mir had no answer from beneath Brock. He couldn’t scramble. He couldn’t hip escape. He couldn’t even avoid the punches. In fact, during the first round, Brock actually held Mir in place with the rape choke.
At the end of the fight, Mir didn’t look like Mir any more. He looked more like a red muppet with a bad haircut.
The second Mir fight changed Brock a little bit. Or rather, he slipped back into his WWE ring persona. Mir is a Grade A trash talker and egomaniac. The build-up for this fight had more intensity, more media, and more talking. Brock is naturally a churlish, private guy who bristles when asked even routine questions. I’m sure listening to Mir gab on and on about his God-like BJJ and immaculate leg lock stirred the Nordic ire of our UFC champion. Couple that with the boos that Brock received at all of his matches from the MMA diehards, the natural insecurity of 15,000 people hating you and another 100 million trashing you on the Internet, and perhaps it was inevitable.
When the fight ended, Brock erupted.
He was certainly well versed in it from his fake wrasslin’ days, just be arrogant, loud, boorish, and disrespectful. Brock marched over to a dazed, bloodied, and concussed Mir and taunted him in the ring. He disrespected the fans, the sponsors, and anyone or anything that popped in his head.
The MMA world nearly exploded. Even the biggest bastards of the sport didn’t have such audacity. This is a culture that often sees competitors hugging and bowing to each other after the match. Some even go drinking together the very same night as their fight and, later sharing time in each other’s training studios.
This was WWE and all of their neophyte fans taking over the holy grail of competition. Love him or hate him, Brock (4-1) was at the center of the MMA universe.
It was then, in preparation for the Shane Carwin fight, that Brock’s career path seriously derailed. He had an entire xenomorph embryo removed from his colon. It saved his life, but did serious damage to Lesnar’s career. Was the disease and surgery ultimately that devastating? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?
But what is undeniable is that it robbed him of his most precious commodity, time. He lost a full year between Mir II and his next fight. Time that he couldn’t train. Time that he couldn’t learn the mixed in MMA. It stunted his learning curve as he fought bigger and better challengers.
Shane Carwin (weighed 265 lbs): Here was the first true challenge for Brock and his unique skill set. Carwin (12-0) was another big, big boy, a Div II national wrestling champion, and another fighter with lunch pails for fists (XXXXL). In fact, Carwin may have had the heaviest hands in the division. For the first time, Brock was at a push in strength, size, and wrestling.
It meant he would have to fight on his feet against a guy with even more power. And all of this after a full year lay-off and major surgery.
Brock lost that fight. He did. It was by sheer luck that he survived that first round barrage. It was sheer luck that Carwin completely lost his composure, punched out his arms, adrenaline dumped, and never fought past 4 minutes in any of his fights. It was sheer luck that the referee (Josh Rosenthal) didn’t step in and stop it.
And even if he got his hand raised, Lesnar still lost. Because for the first time, Brock tasted real power. At 3:59 in round 1, he ate a Carwin uppercut. And at that moment, the hype machine, the media-creation, and the freakish athlete became mortal. You know what happens when a regular guy gets hit hard … he panics. And that’s exactly what happened to Brock.
He immediately back peddled, waving his arms in front of his face like a blind man swatting a mosquito. He turtled against the fence in the fetal position, hoping that a police cruiser might wander by to stop the mugging. The round ended and both men staggered back to their corners.
Carwin needed defibrillator pads to even get off his stool and was quickly submitted with no resistance.
Regardless, blood was in the water. Brock didn’t like to get hit and if you neutralized his wrestling, there was nothing left in the cabinet for him to use.
Cain Velasquez (weighed 244 lbs): Just a few months later, it was time for the next big thing in the heavyweight division. Cain (8-0) was a top tier collegiate wrestler with great hands, pinpoint accuracy, quickness, and without a doubt the best cardio in the weight class.
Brock got him down a few times, but Cain popped up immediately. Then it became a striking battle. Again, Brock got clipped and freaked out. He back peddled, flailed, and turtled. To be clear, there is no doubt that Lesnar has a great chin. He’s been dazed by shots that would KTFO other heavyweights, particularly the Velasquez knee that opened up the gaping maw of Sarlacc on Brock’s face.
No, this is not about his chin. It is purely about Lesnar’s heart, his fight spirit.
This fight was Brock’s first true and utter defeat. He wasn’t caught in a cheap kneebar. No, he was savaged from one side of the ring to the other. There was no silver lining, no moral victory. If he was exposed in the Carwin fight, then Cain performed a prison-yard rape.
Alistair Overeem (weighed 263 lbs): Brock was 7 fights into his MMA career. He had been champion and lost it. He fought the very best the UFC had to offer. He was a TUF coach set to fight Junior Dos Santos, but again had to postpone his MMA career with another bout of diverticulitis. This time he lost 14 months.
And his next opponent … arguably the greatest heavyweight on the planet since Fedor. Alistair (35-11) doesn’t have great stand-up. He is a striking god. He is a K-1 grand prix champion. He was the DREAM heavyweight champ. He was the Strikeforce heavyweight champ. He was a lifelong MMA student, studying submission grappling and wrestling, with over 60+ matches in combat sports.
In short, Brock didn’t have a chance. He was skittish, pawing, and dancing around the entire first round on happy feet. Alistair showed no respect for his opponent, plodding forward without even using a jab. Knee, knee, liver kick.
Brock didn’t have any fight in him. He had been taken out to the deep waters in the Carwin fight and devastated by Cain. To be honest, the UFC didn’t do Brock any favors. After two bouts of life threatening illness and years taken off to recover, he is given a murderer’s row of well-rounded strikers with take down defense. Not even a warm-up match to get his ring instincts back.
Even so, Brock was never a mixed martial artist. He was a big, strong guy that did well when his wrestling worked. And when it didn’t, he was just a big, strong amateur.
You might be wondering, why all of this interest or investigation into Brock’s short and ultimately forgettable career? The easiest way to explain this is to examine pay-per-view buys. Before Brock Lesnar, you could break the PPV events into two categories – normal events and TUF match-ups. Starting with UFC 71 to UFC 140, non-TUF and non-Brock Lesnar events averaged approximately 455,000 buys per event.
The Ultimate Fighter was the reality TV show that changed the UFC, starting with the famous Griffin-Bonnar fight. They became a vehicle for the UFC to build real popular interest and hype for the season coaches to square off in the PPV immediately following the finale. With easily drawn story lines and ample clips of angst between two trained killers, the public always bought them up in droves. They averaged 826,000 buys per event (starting with Hughes v. Serra, UFC 79).
Massive increase, right?
Here comes Brock Lesnar. If you take the six fights in the UFC (excluding UFC 141 which hasn’t released the PPV numbers yet), Lesnar’s draw was an astounding 889,000 buys. In fact, four of the top 5 all featured Brock as a headliner. Undoubtedly, those numbers will stack even more in Brock’s favor with the Dec. 30th numbers included. Not GSP, not Anderson Silva, not Fedor can even approach those type of numbers.
The guy was a cash machine for the UFC, who desperately needed crossover appeal outside of the hardcore enthusiasts.
Can you say that Brock helped land UFC the $100+ million television contract? Yes, absolutely.
Can you say that the UFC paid Brock handsomely? Yes, absolutely.
Can you say that Brock’s popularity and big name ruined his MMA career? Yes, absolutely. Had he just been Brock, rather than the Next Big Thing, he would have been given time to mature in the ring. Hell, prodigy Jon Jones got 13 fights before getting his title shot.
Brock got 3.
Most people love to hate Brock Lesnar. Because he’s from the WWE and he’s a fake wrestler. Or because he’s surly and private. Or because he’s so naturally gifted physically that people decry him as a bully. But if you can get past his unnatural size, then you might see Brock for what he really is … just a guy that decided one day to quit his job and try something else.
He was sick of the WWE. He was sick of travel and being away from his family. And he wanted to learn to fight. So after trying football, he stepped in a ring and put some gloves on. How many of us, the legions of keyboard warriors, would have the guts to do that? How many would stand across the octagon from a guy with 30 professional fights and years of training and say, “let’s fight.”
Yeah, he got his ass kicked a few times, but he kicked a few asses, as well. Ultimately, I think that his legacy inside of MMA will be defined a single question. What If?
What if Brock Lesnar had gone straight from U. of Minnesota into MMA, as a no name collegiate champion, 23 years of age? What if he had learned to strike, taken his lumps in the smaller promotions, before being thrust into the big time and world stage of the UFC? How good could he have been?
What if Brock Lesnar had never gone into MMA at all and brought the legion of WWE fans and casual, curious onlookers? Would the rest of the ‘normal’ world get a chance to see Anderson Silva in his prime on Fox? Or would Alistair Overeem even be in the UFC from the purchase of Strikeforce? Would GSP get such huge pay days each time he fights?
That’s the thing about Brock. What if … ?
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