LAS VEGAS - JULY 03: Brock Lesnar reacts after his second round submission of Shane Carwin to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship Unification bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 3 2010 in Las Vegas Nevada. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brock Lesnar doesn't go anywhere without drawing eyeballs. When you stand 6'3" and weigh 270 pounds it's bound to attract notice. Even more so when you're blessed with the genetics to carry that much weight with less than 10 percent body fat. Brock Lesnar, in short, is a physical freak.
In amateur wrestling, where Lesnar shined, physique isn't enough. Those tools and water logged muscles have to translate into purposeful action, what physical scientists call functional movement. Here, Lesnar was equally blessed. Growing up in Webster, South Dakota, Lesnar is farm boy strong. Without the money for a weight set, he improvised, making his own weights out of rocks and 55 gallon drums.
But it wasn't strength alone that has carried Lesnar to athletic glory. He's also fleet of foot and surprisingly fast. He runs the 40 yard dash in under 4.7 seconds and has a vertical leap of 35 inches. He's an amazing specimen, one with a natural showman's flair.
Lesnar used his gifts to help bridge two worlds - sports and entertainment. He studied under two masters, J Robinson at the University of Minnesota (where he won an NCAA championship in 2000) and the P.T. Barnum of his era, the incomparable WWE owner Vince McMahon.
In the world of professional wrestling, his look and physical style made him a star. Former WWE executive Jim Ross claims Lesnar was not just the youngest world champion in company history, he also got to the rarefied seven figure salary club in record time. No one who saw him in action could ever forget Lesnar's iconic moments. Whether he was landing on his head in a botched shooting star press at Wrestlemania XIX against fellow amateur standout Kurt Angle or hefting the 500 pound Big Show onto his shoulders for his signature F-5, Lesnar made his mark in the wrestling industry. He was a millionaire by his mid-20's, bored, exhausted, and ready for a challenge.
His first attempt at renewing his athletic glory was in the NFL. But almost ten years removed from a high school football career that ended with no major scholarship offers, Lesnar didn't have the football skill to make it at the highest level, despite metrics that compared favorably to the very top first round picks. He washed out of training camp with the Minnesota Vikings and then turned down an offer to play in NFL Europe. NFL Europe players made tens of thousands of dollars for an entire season. Lesnar was used to making that for a single week in his WWE prime. He needed something to pay the bills.
After the break, Lesnar makes his mark in the UFC
Today, it's likely Lesnar would have never stepped into the WWE ring or the NFL practice field. Amateur champions like Ben Askren and Phil Davis are making immediate attempts at MMA stardom, and as I wrote at UGO.com, Lesnar was the kind of wrestler who excels in mixed martial arts:
When Brock Lesnar joined the WWE out of college, MMA was not a real option. The UFC was struggling to survive and there just wasn't enough money in the sport to compete with Vince McMahon's millions. But Brock Lesnar was made for MMA: he's a power wrestler, an enormous monster of a man, and he has a mean streak. His first fight, as he built his skills for an inevitable UFC debut, was for Japan's K-1 for a show at the mammoth LA Coliseum. "I'm an amateur wrestler first of all, pro wrestler second. There was a little pressure, but my amateur wrestling is who I am and I'm going to evolve into a fighter," Lesnar said. "Unfortunately I have this black cloud over my head because I was a pro wrestler. It just goes to show that even thought pro wrestling is a scripted sport it is entertainment, this is entertainment but its real when I get in the ring."
His debut behind him, Lesnar was ready for the big leagues - the UFC. He was thrown in the deep end immediately, matched with former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir at UFC 81. Although he lost in just a minute and a half, Lesnar made his presence felt, bum rushing Mir and nearly beating him to a pulp before being caught in a kneebar submission. It was an amateur mistake, one time in the cage would help fix. Mir may have won the bout, but the world saw a future champion that night. It seemed a matter of time.
After literally riding veteran Heath Herring like a stallion at UFC 87 in his adopted home state of Minnesota, Lesnar won UFC gold by beating a game but undersized Randy Couture at UFC 91 in Las Vegas. Just four fights into his career and Lesnar was champion in a new sport, adding MMA gold to his collection of amateur and professional wrestling championships.
A rematch with Mir followed, this time dominated by Lesnar. Now wary of Mir's submission game, Lesnar showed improved technical skills as he negated the former champ's ground based attack. The rhetoric between the two had grown heated and after his convincing win, Lesnar let the spittle fly, yelling at a shell shocked Mir, insulting the UFC's top sponsor Bud Light, and shooting the bird at the world. Perhaps not his finest moment, but one that crystallized what MMA was to sport's fans who may have seen highlights on ESPN - aggressive, young, and maybe a little out of control.
After the Mir win, the sky seemed to be the limit for Lesnar. UFC 100 had made the promotion more money than any show in its history, and Lesnar was clearly the sport's biggest star. Unfortunately, sports took a back seat to medical drama, as illness kept the champion out of the cage for almost an entire year. In a story that included a desperate race across the border to avoid Canadian healthcare, a hole in his stomach, and a minor miracle, Lesnar survived what could have been a potentially life changing illness.
Upon his return at UFC 116, the angry Lesnar was replaced with a more introspective man. What he gained in happiness, he seemed to lose in the cage. Lesnar was absolutely wrecked by Shane Carwin, kind of a minor league version of Lesnar himself, a hard hitting wrestler who had had success at the lower levels of the sport. Lesnar survived a scare, only coming back to win when Carwin was too exhausted to hit him anymore.
It was a warning sign many missed in the aftermath. Lesnar had won an incredibly dramatic and compelling fight with Carwin. That he had looked less than his best in doing so seemed lost on some. It was clear, however, that Lesnar wasn't the same fighter when he took on undefeated challenger Cain Velasquez. Velasquez beat him so resoundingly some even called Lesnar's desire to be a fighter into question:
Brock Lesnar has all the tools to dominate UFC competition. He's physically overpowering, with strong wrestling and giant hands, tailor-made for clubbering. What he doesn't have is the heart of a warrior. That's not a critique of his value as a person. It's a natural reaction to cringe and defend when a huge fighter like Cain Velasquez is pummeling you. But it's not the right reaction for a man who wants to be the Ultimate Fighting champion.
For Lesnar, the weakness might not even be mental. It could be, like many promising fighters past and present, he just can't take the blows. Tonight he took a glancing blow from Velasquez, careened into his hip, then stumbled around the cage like a drunk at last call (or like Zab Judah after being knocked silly by Kosta Tszyu). It wasn't dignified, but it was certainly memorable.
Now Lesnar is back. For the first time he's starring in the UFC's seminal reality show The Ultimate Fighter. It's a move designed to rehabilitate Lesnar's image, while the subsequent fight with striker Junior dos Santos is designed to rehabilitate his status as a top heavyweight contender. The winner gets a shot at Velasquez, currently on the shelf with a torn rotator cuff. There's a lot at stake in the Lesnar- dos Santos fight, both for the former champion and the sport as a whole. Follow the action starting Wednesday on Spike TV.