Lesnar leads UFC’s next generation

LAS VEGAS – No matter how smart a man is and no matter how well he knows his business, sometimes, there comes a time when the physical disadvantages he faces in a fight are simply too much for him to overcome.

And such was the case for Randy Couture, whose plan to keep his Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title bout with Brock Lesnar Saturday at UFC 91 at the MGM Grand Garden on his feet was the correct one.

But Couture is once again an ex-champion because he simply didn’t have the physical means to handle the massive, 6-foot-3, 265-pound ex-WWE champion.

Lesnar is the kind of fighter the UFC heavyweight division has never had, a ticket-selling, pay-per-view pitching giant whose gift for gab and hyping a fight is only matched by his strength and athleticism.

There aren’t many 265-pounders in the NFL who move as quickly as Lesnar, who after landing a right hand that sent Couture thudding onto his back before a stunned crowd of 14,272 hustled over to move in for the kill as if he were Adrian Peterson dashing toward the end zone.

Lesnar pounced upon Couture and delivered a brutal beating until referee Mario Yamasaki mercifully halted it at 3:07 of the second and gave Lesnar the UFC belt in just his fourth pro mixed martial arts fight.

It’s the beginning of a new era for the UFC, but it’s not going to be an era dominated by Lesnar alone.

As good as Lesnar looked on Saturday, he has room for a lot of improvement.

But before his career as a mixed martial artist is through, he’s going to wage what may become some legendary battles with up-and-coming heavyweights like Cain Velasquez and Shane Carwin.

Throw in former champion Frank Mir, who submitted Lesnar at his UFC debut in February and who won’t be 30 until May, and the UFC has a quartet of quality big men who will likely not only pass the belt back and forth between themselves numerous times, but who will put on memorable matches while they’re at it.

Interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who will meet Mir for that belt at UFC 92 at the MGM Grand on Dec. 27, is convinced that Brazilian Junior Dos Santos, who knocked out Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90, is good enough to be in that mix. And one-time Mirko Cro Cop-killer Gabriel Gonzaga is still young and still oozes talent, despite a few stumbles along the way.

That group gives the UFC something it hasn’t had in its heavyweight division before.

Oh, it’s had plenty of great fighters through the year, often with many of them competing against each other at the same time. But with this group of heavyweights, they’re all more or less at the same point in their careers and all on the rise, which will undoubtedly lead to a series of interesting showdowns.

Even Couture, who at 45 doesn’t have long left, if he opts to continue, sees the signs of a newly strengthened division.

“It’s getting stronger and stronger,” Couture said. “Brock is a great indicator of where the heavyweight division is going. We’re seeing guys who aren’t just big guys, they’re also very, very good athletes. Brock, obviously, is walking around with the title now, but more importantly, he’s on the right path to completing his game and adding all the skills to become a complete mixed martial artist. I know what that’s like. It’s fun, but you have to step out in that cage and prove it. And carrying that belt around makes you a target.

“There are a lot of great guys in the division now. ‘Napao’ Gonzaga looked good tonight and he looks like he’s heading in the right direction. There are a ton of guys.”

But the man who helped attract a paid gate of $4.8 million that ranks fourth in UFC history is the one all the others – the veterans and the newcomers – is not going to have the luxury of learning on the job.

Now that he’s the champion, he’s going to see the best each man has to offer on a given night.

“To do what he’s done in his fourth fight, I’m still having trouble believing that,” UFC president Dana White said. “This is a different game than when Randy won the title without a lot of experience. These guys now, wow, they’re really great athletes and well-rounded.”

Lesnar was uncharacteristically nervous before the fight – “It kind of dawned on me that, ‘Hey, it’s happened and I’m about to fight Randy Couture,’ ” he said, chuckling – but he handled himself like a veteran when the fight began.

He won the first round on all three judges’ cards, a round he spent battling for position with Couture.

He was cut by a Couture punch in the second and conceded he got nervous, before getting angry. That was the worst thing that happened to Couture.

Lesnar launched an overhand right that Couture attempted to slip. The punch landed behind Couture’s left ear, though he couldn’t remember much about it afterward.

Couture was prone on the mat and Lesnar was on top, going for the kill. In his previous fight, he landed a similarly devastating blow to Heath Herring, one that was so hard it caused Herring to somersault backward.

Then, he wasn’t able to finish. But with Couture hurt, Lesnar finished clinically.

“I must have hit him I think about 40 times and I was wondering, ‘Is this referee ever going to come in here and stop this?’ ” Lesnar said, joking.

He’s going to have a few weeks to joke, but then it will be back to the gym. He has the Nogueira-Mir winner – and he wants Mir, to avenge that February loss – sometime in early 2009, then faces a stacked division of up-and-coming challengers.

“I try to learn every day and I train hard every day,” Lesnar said. “I work with a good group of guys and we go and drill things, over and over. You have to be a well-rounded fighter in this day and age. I want to continue to mold myself into a dominating fighter.”

If he’s able to dominate an era with rising fighters like Carwin, Velasquez, Dos Santos, Gonzaga and, yes, the still 29-year-old Mir, then Lesnar truly is, as White said a few days before the bout, “totally [expletive] awesome.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Nov 16, 2008