This is the last time you’ll see me in the octagon.
Those were the words of former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar after being stopped in the first round by Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC 141 on Friday night. Lesnar wasn’t much of a test for the muscular striker and went down after taking a kick to the liver.
There are more important figures in the history of MMA in the United States than Brock Lesnar. Pioneers like Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock, and Randy Couture meant more to the early growth of the sport. But when people study the business of the UFC, the most dominant brand of MMA, they’ll notice that Brock Lesnar was the key to company’s grow in their most successful years.
Lesnar’s career path wasn’t a straight and narrow one to the UFC. Lesnar was a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler at The University of Minnesota. But unlike what happens today where high quality wrestlers go directly into mixed martial arts, Lesnar chose to go the entertainment route and signed on with World Wrestling Entertainment. It was a business decision for Lesnar as he was able to make much more money wrestling than he would’ve fighting in Pride or the UFC at the time.
Working in WWE allowed him to hone the Brock Lesnar character while working alongside the brilliant Paul Heyman. He projected as a near indestructible mix of mountainous muscle and world class athletic talent. The 300-pound Lesnar had the ability to perform a shooting star press, a move that was only performed by much smaller men. He would go to the top rope and do a full revolution of an inverted flip. It was a move that no one his size could pull off.
His first WWE television appearance was the day after WrestleMania X-8. By June of the same year, he won the King Of The Ring which allowed him to challenge for the Undisputed Championship, which was held by The Rock. At SummerSlam, he defeated The Rock to become the youngest (at the time) WWE Champion. Lesnar was on the top of the card for his full WWE stay which ended two years later at WrestleMania XX. He faced all the top stars including The Undertaker, The Big Show, Kurt Angle, and John Cena. After trading the belt back and forth a couple times, he lost the Smackdown version of the title (after they decided to split up the Undisputed Championship) to Eddie Guerrero and readied himself to face Bill Goldberg at the 20th version of WrestleMania.
Before the match with Goldberg, word got out that Lesnar was going to leave WWE after the match. He’d become fed up with the travel schedule, didn’t want to toil in the mid-card and took a look at the locker room and noticed a lot of broken down men and thought that he’d soon be one of them if he continued to wrestle. In order to get out of his contract, he signed a no compete clause which permitted him from making a living in wrestling or MMA for many years. After he left, he tried his hand at the NFL and without any college football experience, made it through several cuts as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, but didn’t make the final squad.
Lesnar was able to fight WWE’s no compete clause successfully, which allowed him to do MMA. After having one fight in K-1 and beating Min Soo Kim, he signed on with the UFC for a large money deal in 2007. Because he was being paid well, he wasn’t going to have any gimmie fights. He was only going to fight top competition and do so as guy with very little experience. He lost by submission to Frank Mir in his first UFC fight at UFC 81, which gave hardcore MMA fans something to brag about. Lesnar was seen as an outsider, a WWE fake-fighter who was trying to come into their new favorite sport and making it a laughing stock.
The key to Lesnar’s early success is that he took what he learned in WWE and adapted it to the new audience. He was a no non-sense guy who didn’t care about anything but winning. He knew he was an athletic phenom and even though he didn’t have the same experience that the top fighters did, it didn’t matter. He was going to beat them anyway. That attitude made him the ultimate bad guy to most die-hard MMA fans. But it also made him curious to fans who were intrigued with MMA, but not previously intrigued enough to buy a pay-per-view. Add in his WWE fan base and he quickly became UFC’s most recognized fighter in a very short time.
He won his next fight against Heath Herring and was put into a four-man heavyweight tournament which would end with the winner becoming the Undisputed heavyweight hampion. Lesnar was given UFC legend Randy Couture as his opponent in the first tournament fight at UFC 91, and Lesnar knocked out Captain America in the second round. Frank Mir beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 92 in the second tournament fight and the finals were set. At UFC 100, Brock Lesnar would face Frank Mir in a rematch.
UFC 100 was the show that put the stamp on UFC’s popularity. It wasn’t just a fad anymore. The company started to see tremendous growth starting in 2005 after their Ultimate Fighter series was put on Spike TV. Their pay-per-view business was growing quickly, but until UFC 100, they were still slightly under the radar when it came to most mainstream sports media. UFC 100 obliterated their previous pay-per-view record and did 1.6 million buys. It’s a show that still hasn’t been matched when it comes to hype, mainstream attention, and total number of pay-per-view buys. And the guy who was in the main event was only in his second full year of fighting. Lesnar beat up Frank Mir to avenge his only MMA loss and did a fired up interview that offended a lot of the new audience and further enhanced his bad guy persona.
He came back three months later to defend against Mexican heavyweight Cain Velasquez, and Velasquez took him apart standing and knocked him out to win the heavyweight championship. The loss to Velasquez showed a vulnerability for Lesnar, which isn’t what you want when your character is that you’re an unbeatable monster. But he was still dealing with side effects from the diverticulitis. He was scheduled to face Junior Dos Santos after a stint on The Ultimate Fighter, but his illness flared up again and he had surgery to remove part of his colon. With Lesnar on the shelf, Junior Dos Santos went through Shane Carwin and then defeated Cain Velsquez to win the heavyweight championship. A win over Overeem would’ve given Lesnar another chance to become heavyweight champion.
Lesnar said that he promised his wife and kids that he would retire if he lost to Overeem. But he’s also an opportunist. A couple of big WWE paydays await him whenever he’d like them. A third fight against Frank Mir would probably make him good money if he decided to fight again. But after losing his last two fights, his indestructible allure is gone. When asked by LA Times writer Lance Pugmire to explain his appeal, here’s what Brock said:
I guess it’s because I’ve always done things my way. The unpredictability — that’s the most intriguing thing, maybe.
I would go one further. His appeal is because he was an outsider who overcame huge obstacles to do great things in MMA. And the reason he was able to was because of hard work and determination. And he sure didn’t mind rubbing it in your face. Brock Lesnar will be hugely missed and while his career won’t be remembered as fondly as it should be because of his short career, his impact was huge, much like his persona.