— LAS VEGAS - On the day that Brock Lesnar’s signing was officially announced by the UFC, the company’s heavyweight division was in disarray.
On that very day in October 2007, UFC 77 was held, and only one heavyweight match was contested. In that bout, ex-champ Tim Sylvia won a lackluster decision over Brandon Vera, a man he outweighed by 50 pounds. Just over a week before, Randy Couture had “resigned,” severing ties despite holding the company’s heavyweight championship. And the next scheduled card didn’t have a single heavyweight matchup to push the division forward. In fact, after Couture defended his title with a win over Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 in August, there were seven more events before the close of 2007. Out of 64 matches contested over those cards, only four featured heavyweights.
Right away, it became apparent Lesnar would figure in prominently in the heavyweight division. Purists balked.
After years of explaining how technical and skillful mixed martial artists had to be, Lesnar was seen as a threat to the established order. After all, what did it say about the sport if a relative rookie – one that became famous through pro wrestling of all things – could come in and dominate right away?
Wouldn’t it be more fuel to the critics, they argued? Wouldn’t it discount all of the arguments we’ve used to try to establish legitimacy if he could make it to the top so quickly?
After years of being bashed by critics, you can understand why backers of the sport are so jumpy, but the fact of the matter is that every sport has its phenoms, and after Saturday night, it’s OK to put Lesnar in that category.
After all, nobody says basketball is a joke when a stud like LeBron James enters the league out of high school and immediately begins embarrassing veterans on a nightly basis. Nobody has objected to Atlanta Falcons’ rookie quarterback Matt Ryan’s Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Of course, people might say it’s not a true parallel, as James and Ryan have been playing their respective sports their whole lives, while Lesnar’s only real training came in his amateur wrestling background, but let’s face it: any game at the highest level is a whole different game.
Excelling at high school basketball doesn’t always correspond to success in the pros, let alone superstardom (DaJuan Wagner anyone?). And being a star collegiate quarterback usually means either a spot on the bench or horrifying growing pains for a rookie (there’s an endless list). There are simply exceptions to every rule, and Lesnar, like James and Ryan, is one of them.
On Saturday night, we found out a few things about him that we did not previously know. Couture tested him for a full five-minute round. His takedowns were stopped. His punches were ducked. He was hit. He bled.
Lesnar passed every test.
I was cageside when Couture fought Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74. The young challenger had done well for a portion of the match. He had rocked Couture a couple times and bulled him around a bit. He was a force, and it looked like Couture was in for a fight. But you could essentially feel Gonzaga surrender after having his nose broken. He couldn’t breathe freely, and his will to win was shattered.
Lesnar on Saturday tasted his own blood for the first time. Couture cut him over the eye with a hook, but it didn’t stop him.
“Right away, it made me nervous, but then it pissed me off,” he said. “I wanted to get first blood on Randy, you always want to get first blood on your opponent. But something went off in my mind. I said to myself, ‘We gotta pick this up.’”
Lesnar compiled a 106-5 record in college and won an NCAA championship. And even though he went through a few years of pro wrestling, he never lost the competitive drive. He always thought himself capable of being a professional athlete, and despite making millions of dollars as a star in the scripted world of WWE, he gave it all up.
Lesnar could have started in smaller organizations and gotten a few matches under his belt before swimming with the big fish, but from the get-go, he told UFC President Dana White, “I’m either going to be good at this, or I’m not. Let’s find out.”
Turns out he was right.
In a sport that needs superstars to survive, Lesnar is almost a prayer answered from the heavens. He brings a built-in brand name to millions. He is brash and confident. He physically looks like the embodiment of the baddest many on the planet. In short, he’s a marketing dream.
Perhaps best of all for White and company, Lesnar will continue to work hard to improve. When you ask Lesnar’s trainer Greg Nelson about what impressed him from the first seconds he worked with the current champ, he cites Lesnar's work ethic above all else.
“Definitely he’s a great athlete, but his ability to want to learn? That’s a huge thing,” he said.
A dominant champion would be an answer to the UFC’s prayers. Everyone loves a dominant champion. Everyone’s intrigued by a dynasty. It’s why Mike Tyson captured the national consciousness, why the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team” and why the New York Yankees are still the financial kings of baseball.
LeBron may not have a title but everyone understands his impact on the game. He makes the casual audience take notice and brings in new fans. Lesnar can have that same effect for the world of MMA, ushering in a new era. On Saturday and Sunday, the UFC saw more media and fan attention than it ever has in its 15-year existence, and that is in many ways attributable to the new champ.
This is the kind of impact Lesnar has: Famed British boxer Ricky Hatton was in the crowd on Saturday night, and upon being asked about him, Hatton said: "Brock's a big bloke, isn't he? If you found him in bed with your girlfriend, you'd tuck him in!"
That's superstar presence.
There are challenges ahead for Lesnar in the future, of course. Next month, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir will square off for the right to face him. Both fighters excel in the jiu-jitsu discipline that will offer Lesnar his biggest technical problem (in fact, Mir beat him in his UFC debut back in February).
In the distance, there are unbeatens Cain Velasquez and Shane Carwin, both of whom – like Lesnar – have distinguished amateur wrestling backgrounds. Junior Dos Santos, who trains with Nogueira, is looked at as a threat, and Gonzaga still holds promise.
Lesnar has plenty of tests in front of him, plenty of opportunities to prove that he is not a former pro wrestler who won the title, but a phenom who found his calling a little later than most.