"Holy shit, where did they find this freak!?"
My normally placid and dignified father spoke these words the first time he saw Brock Lesnar wrestle. I remember them clearly. We sat on a couch on a January afternoon watching the NWCA National Duals on public television. The finals of the tournament featured a dual meet between the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota. U of I, under the leadership of Dan Gable, had almost achieved Harlem Globetrotter status in college wrestling; it seemed like they never lost, and rarely did they come close. After Gable's retirement (sort of) from his position as head coach, matters slowly started to change, and new challengers to Iowa's crown emerged from the woodwork. Foremost among these challengers, the Minnesota Golden Gophers stood first in line to usurp Iowa.
The National Duals represented the pinnacle of team versus team dual-format competition in the NCAA, and the finals of the 1999 edition featured as close a contest as imaginable. In fact, the teams contesting the dual so evenly matched one another in the first nine weight classes, that the entire tournament's result would rest on the outcome of the contest between the wrestlers in the tenth and final weight class. The heavyweights would take the mat, and the winner would take all.
Conventional wisdom favored Iowa in this situation. Their heavyweight, Wes Hand, a returning All-American, enjoyed the number 2 ranking in the entire nation. Iowa, in essence, had already won, at least my dad and I thought so, until Minnesota's brand-new heavyweight strode into the circle.
I have never seen a college wrestler that looked like Brock Lesnar, and I probably never will again. He appeared as if he had, Cool World-style, emerged from the cover of a Jim Lee comic book illustration and transformer into a flesh and blood person. He was ridiculously freaking swole, and had a look in his eye like he had an itching to hand out a country ass whoopin'.
Even more impressive, this mountain of a man could actually wrestle. He certainly laid a beating on poor Wes Hand. He opened the scoring of the match by flinging Hand's elbows skyward and blasting in on a running freight- train double of terrifying force. A minute or two later he locked up a near-side cradle, flipped Hand over like a toddler and pinned the Hawkeye heavy.
In his first day in a Minnesota singlet, Lesnar crushed the nation's second ranked heavyweight, won the nation's top dual-meet tournament for his team and caused my father and the rest of the college wrestling community to curse in shock.
Brock Lesnar, mean and monstrous, had come to town, and a bunch of large lads on the rest of the nation's Division I wrestling teams had bad things in store for them.
The truth about Brock the wrestler
When it comes to Brock Lesnar the amateur wrestler and fighter, many would like to advance the narrative that he was little more than a bully, and that all of his athletic success came as a result of nothing other than his superior size and strength. After all, Brock did throw smaller guys around with alacrity and he maintained a public persona consistent with that of, well, a bully. However, I think the use of the term "bully" comes attached with a few other notions which don't really describe Lesnar.
First off, when the term "bully" comes to mind, one thinks of an oafish character lacking in any real skill or craft. We should not think of Brock this way. By the time he finished his NCAA career, Brock had developed some real skills. Trust me, if he consisted of nothing more than big muscles, he never would have accomplished anything on the Division I level. I can't find the footage anymore, but if you watched highlights of Lesnar wrestling, you would see a fairly wide variety of impressive moves.
Lesnar did not have the ultra-refined technique of most other NCAA champions, but, in the grand scheme of things, he possessed a pretty high skill level. You hear stories of Kurt Angle picking Lesnar apart in some behind the scenes matches (or match) during their days on the WWE circuit. This sounds about right. Kurt Angle's wrestling skills should prevail over Lesnar's. Kurt is one of the most decorated wrestlers in U.S. history, and throughout his NCAA career he specialized in making bigger, stronger men look silly. Nine out of ten NCAA heavyweight wrestling champions would lose to Angle (at least back then), so this only proves Lesnar's technical deficiencies relative to a guy whose face would appear on a Mt. Rushmore of American wrestling big men.
The Brock Lesnar who won an NCAA title did so with both brawn and technical merit. We know this because we have a look at the lack of skills Lesnar exhibited early on in college. Which brings me to my second point.
Describing someone as a bully usually implies a certain amount of laziness. Brock Lesnar may be a lot of things, but lazy ain't one of them.
First, we know Lesnar put in his time in the weight room. His biography claims that he weighed 210 pounds when he first walked on campus as a freshman at Bismark State, and two and a half years later he laced up shoes for the University of Minnesota at a chiseled 275 pounds. Look, I know what you are thinking; I understand completely. The amount of muscle put on by Lesnar ought to raise an eyebrow or two, particularly in this day and age. Even so, if I were to spend a decade subsisting off a diet of only raw shark and bison while receiving a constant stream of intravenous mountain gorilla hormones, I would not look like Brock Lesnar unless I pumped some serious iron. PEDs or not, to achieve his physique, Lesnar had to work his ass off in the weight room.
As impressed as I am with Lesnar's build, I'm almost as impressed by his progression in wrestling skill from the beginning of college to the end. Brock came to Bismark State, a junior college, totally of the recruiting radar of the nation's top college wrestling programs. His highest place in North Dakota's small high school division was third, and as you will see below, his wrestling as a college freshman appeared fairly crude.
By a piece of divine luck, someone's Youtube account features a video of Brock wrestling as a freshman in college. Doing some deft detective work, I have determined with a fair amount of certainty that this match took place at the 1996 Kaufman-Brand Open, an early season college wrestling tournament featuring an "open" format where wrestlers often compete unattached to any school, thus allowing them to preserve their redshirt status. Lesnar faces the University of Nebraska's Ryan Tobin. Tobin usually wrestled in the 197 pound weightclass, but that season he had decided to redshirt and wrestle at heavyweight (275 pounds) at opens like the Kaufman-Brand. Tobin just came off a third place finish in the NCAA the previous year, and would place fourth the year after this. He was really really good, but this should not prevent you from noticing objective flaws in Lesnar's wrestling.
Above, notice the rigid and almost robotic appearance of Lesnar's stance. This usually manifests itself in fairly unskilled wrestlers, and it disfavors any sort of fluid or graceful movement. Also notice the fact that Lesnar allows Tobin to obtain hand position of his choice, inside on the collar and triceps in this case, without any attempt by Lesnar to stop him. Lesnar, in spite of his advantage in size and strength, does not assert himself with any form of hand fighting. I'm shocked by how bad he looks.
Later in the match Tobin attempts a fireman's carry, loses the arm, and switches to a standard high crotch, which he finishes high. Tobin's shot is pretty, fluid and he ends up in perfect position with his chest forward and back arched. Even so, he should never have been able to finish. At this heavy a weight, and at this level of wrestling, Tobin should not have been afforded the luxury of spending that much time on his knees to transition to the high c, and secure Lesnar's leg with both arms. Brock, the bigger wrestler (I estimate in the 230's at this point) should have used his sized advantage with a proper sprawl, arching his back and powering his hips back into Tobin. Lesnar just seems like he does not know how to properly react.
Had Brock remained at this skill level, even with the added muscle, he never would have accomplished anything on the Division I level. Instead, Brock clearly worked hard and improved his wrestling at a fantastic rate. At the end of his first year at Bismark, he managed to place at the NJCAA (junior college) national tournament (a weight class won by Vladimir Matsyushenko), beating Mike Russow in the fifth place match.
The lion's share of Lesnar's development as a wrestler came between his freshman and sophomore years. He must have killed himself in the wrestling room, and his coaches at Bismark clearly did an excellent job. The bigger stronger sophomore version of Lesnar went undefeated on the season, and won the NJCAA crown. Even more impressive, early in that season he won first place at the Bison Open, placing in front of Minnesota's Shelton Benjamin, who would place third at the NCAA Division I level that same season. Lesnar so impressed Minnesota's head coach, J. Robinson, that Robinson essentially signed him on the spot for the following two seasons.
The rest, as they say, is history. The following year, wrestling for Minnesota, Brock, then a junior, would only lose two matches, one an early loss to the returning national runner-up, and the second a close affair in the NCAA finals against returning national champ Stephen Neal. Later that same year, Neal would also win a world championship in freestyle wrestling.
Lesnar's main antagonist his senior year came in the form of a revitalized Wes Hand of Iowa, who came into the 1999-2000 season wrestling like a man possessed. Lesnar and Hand would split matches during the season, setting up their meeting in the national finals, where we get a window into just how much Lesnar grew as a wrestler during his four years of college.
Not much seems to transpire in the above GIF, but I ask you to notice just how relaxed Lesnar looks in his stance. He no longer seems like a big strong guy whom a coach taught a few wrestling moves, he appears as a natural wrestler who just happens to have the build of a Fallout super mutant. Also notice how he hand fights with a purpose, he peels Hand's off his head and jockeys for inside hand position. He now wrestles intelligently and with direction-he attempts to set up his own shots, and prevent his opponent's shots with superior hand and head position.
Lesnar's transformation almost left him unrecognizable from the coltish, herky-jerky kid we saw as a freshman. These changes allowed him to win a national championship in a very tight match against the also vastly improved Wes Hand in the NCAA finals. This brings me to my final point.
Bullies give up and crumble as soon as someone stands up to them. Brock Lesnar, on the other hand, won a bunch of close and competitive matches throughout his college career. The anti-Brock crowd may not want to hear it, but Lesnar showed a decent amount of courage and mental toughness as a wrestler. In his first NCAA finals match, against the aforementioned Stephen Neal, Lesnar not only faced one of the most highly regarded heavyweights in NCAA history, but he tried to bring the fight to his favored opponent.
This ill-advised shot may ultimately have cost Lesnar the match, as Neal stuffed it and spun behind for an easy two, but Lesnar did not shrink away from the toughest and most physically impressive opponent he ever faced. He also did not give up another takedown in the bout.
Lesnar would adopt the opposite approach in his second NCAA finals match against Hand. In that match, Lesnar wrestled extremely conservatively, almost cynically, as he knew the tie-breaker procedures favored his size and power on the mat. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Lesnar should have lost the match a couple times had the referees had the courage to call stalling or fleeing the mat. The calls were not made, and Lesnar won the match in tie breakers, ending his amatuer wrestling career by prevailing in a test of wills, and winning an NCAA championship.
Factgrinder Final Analysis
Without a doubt, Brock Lesnar would not have accomplished nearly as much in wrestling without his particular physical advantages. This in no way means that Lesnar should be viewed as some simplistic goonish bully. Lesnar developed meaningful wrestling skills, dedicated himself to the sport and showed his mettle in hotly contested matches.
Had Lesnar continued on to make an Olympic run or two in freestyle, I think it likely that he would have occupied elite status as one of the US's top four heavyweights for years. Ultimately, however, I doubt he ever would have represented Team USA at a world championships or Olympics, the top American heavyweights would have exposed the holes in his game. This should not diminish from his achievements in amateur wrestling, achievements which deserve our respect.