Incredible athletes can succeed at the highest levels of sport, even if their techniques are not textbook perfect. Usain Bolt has been greased lightning in track shoes despite sloppy starts. Babe Ruth was perhaps the finest baseball player ever, despite being a chubby bar-hopping man of the people. However, the nature of elite competition tends to reward the more technically skilled in the long run and this is particularly so within MMA.
Brock Lesnar is a terrific athlete and quickly rose to become the self-proclaimed "Baddest Man on Earth", yet his rise cannot be entirely attributed to his physical gifts. By the second Mir fight in July of 2009, it was apparent that Brock had developed considerable technique and was indeed sticking to well-thought out gameplans en route to victory.
By now, the professional history of Brock Lesnar is widely known and can be summed up quickly. A high profile Division I college wrestling career led to higher profile pro wrestling stardom by 2002. A year spent trying to make the roster of the Minnesota Vikings as a defensive lineman ended just short of the regular season in 2005. A year later, Lesnar announced his intention to enter the world of mixed martial arts and picked up his first win in K1/Hero's in mid-2007. Six months later, Lesnar was in the UFC and held the title belt by the end of 2008.
This pattern of sports success is all too easy to explain away by pointing to Lesnar's athleticism and imposing physique as the primary reason behind the repeated rises to success in different combat sports. Once can be a fluke. Twice can be the combination of fortunate luck and a bit of work. What Lesnar has done in his career has to be viewed as the results of years spent carefully training and exploiting natural gifts and his sport-specific awareness. There is a subtle intellect behind that glowering exterior and it is truly surprising how well Lesnar maneuvers to display that intellect within an MMA fight.
Much like the GSP I'm Not Impressed song says, "my ace tekneek" puts people down. The second Mir fight, the Carwin battle and the championship bout with Cain showed that Brock developed that ace MMA-specific technique inside the three years between 2006 and 2009. That is just a bit slower than the rise of Jon Jones and done in far fewer fights. That path to the top may have been even faster if not for the divirticulosis bouts that sidelined Lesnar for over a year in total.
After the jump, take a look at some gifs showing just how raw Lesnar was back in early 2008 and how he evolved within a year to the smashing machine that destroyed Frank Mir at UFC 100. Lest I appear a cherry picker, some thoughts on Lesnar/Carwin and Velasquez/Lesnar will also be there for you to devour and tear apart.
By now, most of you have seen the ridiculous right hand straight that sent Heath Herring bowling backwards. That punch was an amazing spectacle and will probably survive in GIF form long after we are all dust. However, that fistic act of pure violence was mere seconds into the first round and many fans seemingly checked out of the fight after two plus rounds of Lesnar bopping a turtled-up Herring paled in comparison to the excitement of the early going. Despite their inattention, there was a good bit of technique displayed by Lesnar, the octagon newcomer, in his dominant decision win over Herring, the veteran.
Lesnar came into UFC 87 with a specific gameplan built around controlling Herring in the turtle position, which is characterized by the grappler being on elbows and knees and hunched over to prevent the placement of hooks and protection of the face from damaging blows.
In the second round, Herring tried to roll over his left shoulder and achieve some sort of open guard or scramble. Lesnar has been using a typical wrestler's back ride that involves no placement of BJJ-style hooks, but still maintains a good deal of control through hand placement and heavy hips. When Herring rolls, Lesnar is free to shift his base backwards and stuffs the roll, uses his bodyweight to shove the legs back to the side and to the ground. Lesnar angles his hips correctly to balance his weight on Herring and reclaims the back ride.
Lesnar would spend much of the remaining time looking to punch Herring in the face and deliver knees to the side. At times, he would achieve mount and give Herring room to turtle back up, allowing yet more back ride time to accumulate, rather than risk wandering into territory he felt less comfortable working within. This may not have been the most exciting fight, yet consider Lesnar's situation at that time.
In August of 2008, Lesnar was a man who had been training specifically for MMA for about about two years at that point. Herring turned pro in 1997 and had made a career out of being a tough journeyman capable of evading ground-based control and possessing acceptable standup skills. Lesnar thoroughly dominated every phase of that UFC 87 fight and showed his ability to deliberately implement a gameplan upon a decent opponent.
Despite this massive positive, Lesnar still looked very raw in other situations. After the massive punch, Lesnar ran across the cage to try and finish the fight. Herring managed to get to his feet and pushed Lesnar against the fence.
We see in this GIF that the Lesnar of UFC 87 did not know how to deal with that particular takedown situation. He clamps on what looks to be an excellent guillotine set-up, but passively stays against the fence for the next minute and change before dragging Herring back down to the ground. Herring was actually comfortable enough in this situation to throw a few punches to Lesnar's ribs and wait out the headlock.
I cannot help but speculate that the Lesnar of UFC 116 (the Carwin fight) would have dropped and gone for the guillotine finish. Those massive arms and lats have to be capable of nearly popping a human being's head off.
The rawness in Lesnar's clinchwork during the early rounds clinch was nearly forgiven when he tossed Herring to the ground in the third. Again we see a clinch in which Lesnar and Herring are temporarily still. Instead of chilling out and taking time to compose the next move, Lesnar uses the over/under tie to shuck Heath to the right and get the seatbelt grip along with the back ride. At this point, it was clear that Heath had no chance to mount any significant offense for the rest of the fight. The only criticism I have of Lesnar here is that he often left his leg in between those of Herring - which leaves spaces for a rolling kneebar (like the one Ta Danado pulled on Kris McCray back at UFC 122).
By the time Lesnar dropped and finished Randy Couture to win the heavyweight title, Brock's popularity was at an all-time high. He had the belt, he had the swagger and he was technically unsound enough to get careful observers muttering about how a decent striker could expose his faults. The Herring punch remained his most technically proficient highlight reel moment.
At UFC 100, Brock surprised us all with the careful and considered demolition of a very stubborn Frank Mir. Inside the clinch, we see Mir take the unorthodox approach of turning to the side and rolling for the left leg of Lesnar. Mir wanted a kneebar there, yet was probably willing to settle for an unbalanced opponent atop his upraised knees and ripe for a variety of leg and foot-based attacks. As soon as Frank drops, Brock is already pulling his left leg back, looking for an underhook with his left hand and basing out with his right hand. The underhook fails at first, as Mir's head is too far underneath, but the basing hand and the churning legs allow Lesnar to regain his balance and get the desired underhook.
At this point, Mir pulls half-guard and plays directly into Brock's gameplan. In the second round, after recovering from a damaging knee, Lesnar would carefully and brutally constrict Mir in such fashion that he was helpless to avoid the finishing blows. Lesnar showed he was able to implement his gameplan despite occasionally adverse conditions. Much more on how exactly Lesnar shut down Mir and got the stoppage in the second round can be found in the Judo Chop written by Kid Nate. Make sure you check out the different angle K.J. Gould offered in a Fan Post that shows how catch wrestling or non-BJJ people can approach MMA grappling differently and how Lesnar likely took this approach due to his coaching influences.
It was apparent early on that Lesnar had learned from his earlier leglock loss and trained specific defenses enough to make them nearly instinctual. His grappling had improved considerably, yet it was only his top game that we saw display. His surprisingly decent bottom game would be utilized in memorable fashion to survive the onslaught of fight-ending punches Shane Carwin was attempting to land on a dazed Lesnar in the first round of their title bout. The fight would end by an arm triangle set up by Lesnar's quick and dirty double leg, but I remain amazed to this day by Lesnar's survival tactics in the first round.
The Bloody Elbow arm triangle breakdown features a more complete run down of the various Judo Chops done on Lesnar's fights and is worth reading, as well.
Someone like Brock Lesnar, who has a ferocious wrestling base and the size, speed and strength to really make grappling a nightmare, usually does not spend much time playing guard. They win from the top and they beat the heck out of people while winning. To add onto the wonder, Lesnar was conversant enough with the deep half guard to be able to use it against another gigantic ex-wrestling national champion - while taking enough punishment to almost force a referee stoppage there and then. That kind of technique, hastily used and quickly ignored in the spectacle of the comeback win, shows some serious dedication to improving technique and a genuine enthusiasm for all phases of the game. Lesnar had to have been starting from bad positions against sparring partners and coaches like Cole Konrad, Erik Paulson and Rodrigo "Comprido" Medeiros. It takes time and a great deal of physical and mental effort to get comfortable with that. Furthermore, Lesnar showed that it takes quite a bit of punishment to render him incapable of intelligent defense. Josh Rosenthal made one of the best calls of his career and let Lesnar show his heart and skills.
Before I go too far and claim that Lesnar can obviously play invert guard against guys like Fabricio Werdum, let me wrap this up:
Brock Lesnar did come into the sport as a terrific wrestler. However, there have been many wrestlers with better technique and MMA is a different game. Within three years, he was good enough to batter a multiple time heavyweight belt holder into unconsciousness and established as a top draw in the sport. Five short years after stating his intentions to go professional, Lesnar is a mainstay in the heavyweight elite and the results of dedicating himself to improving his boxing, his Muay Thai, his top control, his submission abilities and even his bottom survival skills have been shown in the cage.
The loss against Cain is not a blemish on Lesnar's record, instead it is a testament to how good Cain is and how accurate those powerful punches and the knee were. If you watched the first Mir fight and the Cain fight side by side, you'd be surprised by just how much Lesnar has improved - and by how long it took Cain to actually put Lesnar away. In the heavyweight division, a night can be ended by a perfect punch or kick. The fighters are big enough and skilled enough to throw some serious leather, so for Cain to take over a minute and a half and and throw fifty some strikes after the initial left uppercut that staggered Lesnar to get the finish is impressive.
That dedication to MMA technique is why Lesnar's upcoming fight against Alistair Overeem, yet another multi-discipline combat sports athlete, is so interesting. Both these Godzilla-sized men have very dominant skills that have led to considerable success - a Division I wrestling national title in 2000 for Lesnar and the K-1 Grand Prix win in 2010 for Overeem. The identification of the two as "wrestler vs. striker" suggests lumbering one-note fighters and while they may not be as fast as Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson, to the careful eye, they are true mixed martial artists.
All GIFs are courtesy of Grappo. Many thanks to him for the swiftness and smoothness.