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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Brock Lesnar is back on pay-per-view tonight at WWE's Wrestlemania 30, taking on The Undertaker in a match that has essentially been in the works since he lost his UFC Heavyweight Championship to Cain Velasquez. Mark Calaway was in attendance that night, and the two exchanged a moment as Lesnar walked out of the cage in Anaheim.
It would take Lesnar another bout with diverticulitis, 14 months out of the cage, and a second straight loss to Alistair Overeem before Lesnar's MMA run came to an end, with a WWE return coming shortly thereafter.
With him back in the spotlight on tonight's big WWE event, it's as good a time as ever to look back on his run in the UFC.
Lesnar's entrance into the UFC brought a lot of trepidation and some immediate fan backlash, as the former pro wrestler was taken as an "outsider" from the start. Despite his stellar amateur wrestling credentials, Lesnar's brief time in the WWE brought him a spotlight unmatched by all but the top stars in the UFC. Given that he'd had just one MMA fight, a vocal segment of the UFC's fanbase didn't like the immediate push he received.
However, while Lesnar received opportunities few will ever receive at that stage of their careers, it can't be said that he failed to take advantage of them.
It began in 2007, when he approached UFC President Dana White and said he wanted a fight in the UFC. Not only did he want a fight in the UFC, he wanted to fight top competition from the outset. White was skeptical, but Lesnar was insistent, so the UFC gave him former Champion Frank Mir for his debut.
At UFC 81 in February of 2008, Lesnar stepped into the Octagon for the first time, with a very curious audience wondering whether the hype was legit, or if he would prove to be a joke in his second MMA fight.
It wasn't quite either of those things in that first fight.
Lesnar was rough around the edges, and came out of the gate with a massive onslaught of offense. The raw power was there; the athleticism was there; the talent was there; however, it was far from polished, and Lesnar got caught in a knee bar just a minute and a half in to the fight.
Those 90 seconds proved that he wasn't a joke in the cage though. He took a former Champion in Mir, beat him up early, and then got caught. Mir was a savvy veteran, one who had a major experience edge in the submission game, and Lesnar got caught.
Lesnar had taken his shot and lost, and while that could have been the end of it, he was determined to show that this was something he could do. So he wanted another booking, and the UFC was happy to give him one.
The curiosity factor paid off on pay-per-view for the first fight, and so he was paired up with then new UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre at UFC 87 in his home base in Minneapolis, Minn.
Originally, the UFC planned to book him against Hall of Famer Mark Coleman, but with Coleman unable to fight that night, Lesnar got Heath Herring instead. Herring was a longtime veteran of over 40 fights, and had nearly 30 wins through a career that brought him through several organizations, including Pride. He'd been in the cage with some of the biggest and best of the sport's heavyweight division by that point, and came into the Lesnar bout off a win over Cheick Kongo.
His camp also came in disparaging Lesnar from the outset, voicing the opinions of many fans who felt Lesnar didn't belong in the UFC with such a high-profile push.
But in front of perhaps the only positive crowd the UFC would find for him during his run, Lesnar came out of the gate with an overhand right that changed everything.
Herring went somersaulting backwards, and Lesnar spent the next 14 and a half minutes dominating a veteran MMA competitor en route to his first UFC win.
UFC Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture saw the money to be made in a matchup with Lesnar, and came to an agreement with the UFC after a lengthy legal dispute with them over his contract, requesting a fight with Lesnar that November. It wasn't a fight Lesnar put himself into, and it wasn't the UFC skipping over other contenders. Couture wanted that fight, the UFC gave it to him, and Lesnar once again took advantage of an opportunity.
Lesnar's UFC Title win that November was followed by Frank Mir defeating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira that December. Mir - holding a win over Lesnar and riding the high of scoring the first TKO win over Nogueira - was the perfect foil for the UFC to place against Lesnar anyway, but add in the buzz of their 100th numbered pay-per-view event, and they had the makings of a blockbuster.
The buildup was, quite simply, perfect for their fight. Lesnar wanted to avenge his only MMA loss, against a smug but clearly talented Interim Champ in Mir, who took any opportunity to shove that first win in Lesnar's face. With fans still charged over Lesnar getting the title fight with Couture in the first place, there was a lot of animosity directed towards him, and everything bubbled over at UFC 100.
This time around, Lesnar played a patient game in the first round. He got Mir to the ground, and in an impressive display of ground offense, trapped the jiu jitsu practitioner in position with a tight half guard, then locked him up in a one armed Nelson, which left Mir's face exposed for a brutal series of strikes that had his face bloodied and battered into the second round.
In the second, Mir scored a little offense early, only to quickly be taken down. This time, Lesnar moved him up against the cage, trapped his left arm behind his back, and unleashed a huge flurry of right hands that put Mir out of commission.
Lesnar had avenged that loss, he'd done it in brutal and decisive fashion, and had positioned himself as the baddest man on the planet in 2009.
It didn't change anything for many fans. In fact, his post-fight antics only brought an increase to the vitriol, who could now only attack the "image" he brought to the table after he'd proven himself in the cage.
Unfortunately, that fight was the real apex of the "Lesnar Era." The UFC wanted to book him against the undefeated Shane Carwin that fall, but he was hospitalized with a serious condition.
Lesnar's first battle with diverticulitis was nearly life-threatening. The intestinal disease is actually something that had been in his system for a very long time, by doctor's estimates, but it finally led to serious pain and a lengthy hospital stay that caused him to lose a significant amount of weight. He was weakened, and determined to be out of action for a considerable amount of time.
In fact, it would be a full year before his next fight, and when he returned, he had Carwin waiting for him again. While he was out, Carwin established himself as the man to beat when he knocked out Mir himself to capture the Interim Heavyweight Championship. He entered UFC 116 as a serious threat, and no one knew what to expect from Lesnar after a year out of the cage.
When the fight kicked off, fans got their answer. Carwin shrugged off an early takedown attempt, then got up from another rather quickly, and it was then that he broke Lesnar's facade for good.
Carwin knocked Lesnar down with a series of strikes and came very close to stopping the fight in the middle of the first round. Referee Josh Rosenthal asked Lesnar several times to show him he was still in the fight, and Lesnar responded on each occasion, ultimately surviving the onslaught, getting back to his feet, and living to fight another round.
Lesnar then took advantage of a gassed Carwin in the second, taking him down, and quickly passing to an arm-triangle choke. It was a serious showcase of the very real improvements in his ground game, and he forced Carwin to submit in one of the more emotional back and forth fights of the year.
That was Lesnar's final high in the Octagon. He rushed a return to his next fight, and after Cain Velasquez got up from his first takedown, he made relative short work of Lesnar afterwards. The problems Lesnar had taking strikes in the Carwin fight were compounded against Velasquez, and he lost his title in a fight in which he just wasn't all that competitive. Now, had he not overshot his first takedown, he may have been able to settle in to top position, but it didn't work out that way for him, and the title was gone.
Lesnar wasn't done just yet, as he entered 2011 intending on fighting another top contender in Junior dos Santos. They filmed a season of The Ultimate Fighter with one another, and were targeted for a fight that June. Then diverticulitis reared its head once again, and Lesnar was on the shelf.
Him returning at all after the second debilitating experience with diverticulitis didn't seem likely, but by the end of the year he was back once more. Unfortunately for him, he had to face a man with brutal power and a penchant for delivering strikes to the body in Alistair Overeem.
Overeem targeted Lesnar's midsection early and often with knees and kicks, and though Lesnar was scoring with several solid strikes in their exchanges, the body shots were too much. A particularly vicious kick to the gut caused a delaying buckling from Lesnar, and after the loss, he opted to retire.
His time in MMA was contentious, polarizing, exciting, and lucrative, bringing a wide range of emotions from the fanbase and establishing Lesnar as hands down the biggest draw the UFC had seen in their history to that point. We'll never know what could have been with him; what if the UFC had been a viable option for Lesnar right out of college, and he'd gone straight to MMA training instead of the WWE? What if he'd never been struck down by diverticulitis? Did that have as massive a mental effect on him as it seemed? Those layoffs and that particular disease changed Lesnar from the man we'd seen at UFC 100 and before, because he was clearly not quite what he had been from that point on.
While many continue to write off his time in the sport, and point to those final two fights as validation for why he didn't belong where he was, the fact of the matter is he was absolutely a legitimate fighter and a legitimate Champion during his time at the top. It was short-lived, sure, but while he got opportunities no one else had ever received, he took advantage of them. Though his time in the UFC is over, there's no question of the impact it had, both on Lesnar and the UFC.
Now, he's been able to return to his entertainment role in the WWE, but on a schedule he was able to deal with better than his first run. That came because of his time in the UFC, and the UFC as a whole experienced a major boost to their overall pay-per-view business, as his presence brought them into their hottest run as a company from 2008 through 2010.
[Brock Lesnar art by Grant Gould (c) MMATorch.com]
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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