Is Brock Lesnar's Heart the Big Question Mark Going Into UFC 121?

Dan Wetzel described the darkest moment of Brock Lesnar's title reign against Shane Carwin at UFC 116:

Initially, though, Lesnar didn't handle Carwin's blasts very well. He backed up in a crouching, defensive posture that allowed Carwin to attack without fear of counter punch. Carwin eventually knocked Lesnar to the ground and unleashed a pounding that came very close to knocking the champ out.

It was an understandable reaction. Carwin punches like a mule kicks. No one else had ever survived the first round with him. All of Lesnar's training - he worked on circling out of trouble and counter-attacking to gain some recovery time - went out the window.

The bad news for all the contenders to Lesnar's belt is that he isn't likely to make the same mistake again.

That's where I have to part ways with Mr. Wetzel's otherwise excellent analysis. Brock Lesnar didn't make a mistake against Shane Carwin, he had an instinctive reaction to turtle up when he got hit. That's one of those fight or flight moments and Brock's instinct was flight.

Lesnar's recovery on the ground was incredible and showed great heart, grit and resilience, but the impression I came away from Lesnar vs Carwin was of a heavyweight champion who not only doesn't like getting hit hard in the face, he ducks and cowers.

Cain Velasquez said as much on ESPN:

"In the stand-up against Shane Carwin, (Brock Lesnar) didn't look too comfortable. I know (Brock) wants to take the fight to the ground, so we've devised a game plan around that."     

Furthermore, Carwin never even landed a really clean shot on Lesnar's chin. It wasn't one of those "anyone would have been knocked out by that on the button punch" moments, it was a moment where Lesnar got a taste of Carwin's power and declined to have a second helping. That's a perfectly normal instinctive reaction, but it shows a certain mental vulnerability in a heavyweight champion. 

Cain Velasquez' training partner and decorated wrestler Daniel Cormier zooms in on Lesnar's mental make up and tells MMA Junkie what he thinks the key for Velasquez will be:

On Saturday, Cormier says fans will get a good look at Lesnar's limits. The key, he says, is not in the punches that nearly stopped the champion in the first round of his most recent fight against Carwin, but rather the takedown attempts Lesnar missed.

"What took his confidence is when Carwin defended his takedowns at the beginning of the fight," Cormier said. "You have to find a way to drain his confidence, and I think the way to do that is by defending his takedowns. If you stop a few of them, hopefully he starts thinking in the back of his mind, 'OK, what do I do considering that this is going to be a standup fight?'

"You give a guy a reason to doubt. When you do that, it's always an up."

Cormier knows that Velasquez has nothing comparable to Carwin's power. In fact you could argue that Cain's power is no greater than Frank Mir's. But Cormier still saw something in the Carwin fight he liked: a Brock Lesnar who wilts under pressure. 

In the full entry we'll look at some stats and fight breakdowns from Fight Metric and a couple of animated gifs that make the case that Lesnar is anything but an unstoppable take down machine. If Cormier and I are right, will Lesnar get frustrated and wilt if he can't put Velasquez on his back?

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Here's Fight Metric's breakdown of the grappling portion of Brock Lesnar's UFC 87 bout with Heath Herring -- not a man who's ever been considered a wrestling technician:

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Here's an animated gif of Herring evading Brock's take down:

Fjkqht_jpg_mediumThis is early in the second round. Lesnar had battered Herring standing in the first round and taken him down once where he controlled Herring for the rest of the round. Here we see Lesnar fire off a 1-2 punch combination, less to connect as to set up his shot for the double leg take down. It appears that when Herring fired a body kick and pulled his left leg back afterward that it threw off Lesnar's shot as he seems to reach for the far leg and fail to get it. Switching to a single leg would seem the logical alternative but instead Lesnar pushes Herring back against the cage for a second bite at the double leg apple. Herring is able to pummel his hands underneath both of Lesnar's arms and even threatens a guillotine which forces Lesnar to pull away. Not a huge disaster for Lesnar, just the first time in his MMA career that he shot for a take down and didn't get it.

Obviously Lesnar had no problem beating Herring in the rest of the fight and thoroughly dominated the wrestling in their bout. But it is telling to look at the first time in his MMA career that Brock Lesnar shot in for a take down and didn't get it -- against a man with no notable wrestling pedigree no less.

Now let's look at how Lesnar fared against a wrestler with comparable, if inferior,  wrestling credentials to his own, Shane Carwin. Here's the Fight Metric analysis of the grappling portion of their fight:

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It's important to note that while he was fresh in the first round, Carwin stuffed all of Lesnar's take downs. It was only when lactic acidosis struck him down in the second that Shane became another Lesnar victim. 

Here's a gif of one of those stuffed take downs:

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This is ninety seconds into the fight, before Carwin really connected cleanly with punches. Brock steps forward and appears to be chambering his right arm to throw a punch but Carwin steps into it and beats him to the punch with a right hand of his own. Lesnar immediately ducks down and goes for the double leg take down but only manages to get a hold of Carwin's left leg. 

Rather than working for underhooks, Carwin gets an overhook with his right arm and is able to transition to a whizzer that plants both men face down on the mat. Very impressive MMA wrestling by Shane Carwin and a big part of his very dominant first round over Brock Lesnar. 

And here's where it got ugly for Brock:

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A short thirty seconds later (or a very long thirty seconds for Brock Lesnar) we see Carwin beginning to clip Lesnar. Note that none of the shots is a clean kill shot, rather Lesnar ducks and covers as soon as Carwin begins to fire left uppercuts. This is an incredibly poor reaction in a combat sport. It reminds me of Bob Sapp when Mirko Filipovic broke his orbital. 

I am not convinced you can train an athlete to resist having this kind of reaction to a painful blow. Lesnar is game though once he recovers and tries to get a clinch and fire off a knee to the body and then immediately shoots for a second double leg attempt. This time Carwin gets double underhooks, puts his hips way back and easily shrugs it off. From there he continued to batter Lesnar and dropped an utterly cowed Lesnar to the floor. 


 

The big question is whether or not Cain Velasquez offers anything offensively that will cause Lesnar to panic if he can't put Cain on his back. That's a very big if. Lesnar may very well be faster, he definitely has a reach advantage and probably hits harder than Cain. 

But Daniel Cormier is onto something, if Cain can force Brock out of "bully mode" and frustrate his offense, it will be his title to take. 


 

 


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