PORTLAND, Ore. – Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin are eerily similar in terms of their physical gifts. They are both massive men with the power you'd expect from someone as big as a midsized grizzly bear, but with agility you'd find shocking for anyone carrying 265 pounds.
Their bout for Lesnar's Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title at UFC 106 on Nov. 21 in Las Vegas seems destined to become the greatest 75-second bout in mixed martial arts history.
It usually doesn't take a combination from either man to score a knockout. But for all the similarities between them – the size, the power, the wrestling abilities – they are distinctly different men.
If Carwin is to be compared to a bear, it would be Gentle Ben, capable of inflicting monumental damage but more inclined to peacefully coexist. Lesnar would be the snarling, ferocious trophy bear that diehard hunters pursue for years.
Guys like Carwin are the reason MMA is eventually going to succeed and reach mainstream status. Roughly three months before their title fight, however, MMA is no more near mainstream acceptance – despite its burgeoning popularity – than it was when Carwin debuted in 2005.
Carwin's not only a guy you can root for but also a guy you can relate to. He works full time as an engineer and is raising a family while becoming a star in one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. One gets the feeling that if reporters could stand and cheer, Carwin would receive a standing ovation from press row if he's able to defeat Lesnar and claim the UFC championship.
The prospect of a heavyweight who can knock out anyone with a single, devastating blow has always been enticing to fight fans – back to the late 19th century, when boxing bouts were held sans gloves.
More than 100 years later, that still holds true: Fans love knockouts, and few deliver them more frequently or more violently than Carwin.
The UFC's fan base has clearly taken notice. At a fan question-and-answer session in Philadelphia prior to the weigh-in for UFC 101 last month, UFC president Dana White was asked who would fight Lesnar.
Before White could answer, fans began to shout, "Carwin! Carwin! Carwin!" And though Carwin was a terrific college football player who might have been able to play in the NFL had he been healthy, they weren't calling for him because they wanted to see how he'd grapple with Lesnar. This is a guy who wears a ring the size of a hub cap and who has hands about the size of your Thanksgiving turkey. The fans who called for that fight knew exactly what type of bout they would get.
Carwin still hasn't had anyone last three minutes against him. He's 11-0 overall in MMA matches, and five of his victories have come in less than a minute. He's 3-0 against UFC competition but has spent a total of just 3:24 in the cage. It generally takes longer to heat up a Pop-Tart than it does to watch a Shane Carwin fight.
Carwin's value to the sport, though, goes far beyond his concussive potential. He's a bright, articulate man who understands that he's helping lay a foundation. He desperately wants the sport that has given him so much already to cross the threshold to mainstream acceptance. There still are legions of critics, many of whom don't understand the sport and see it as little more than organized mayhem.
They routinely decry what they see as unbridled violence and predict doom for its participants. They predict a death will suddenly awaken the country to its abhorrent ways – ignoring the fact that young men die every year playing football, and yet football remains far and away the most popular sport in the United States.
Carwin, who was a two-time Division II football All-American and the 1999 NCAA Division II heavyweight wrestling champion at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo., objected strenuously to Lesnar's pro wrestling-style tactics following his win over Frank Mir at UFC 100.
Lesnar got in the face of an injured Mir following the bout's stoppage, made an obscene gesture to the fans, denigrated a major UFC sponsor and generally portrayed an image that is 180 degrees the opposite of the vast majority of MMA fighters. Carwin found it highly distasteful and immediately protested it in his personal blog.
"The flipping off of the fans that just lined your pocket with millions of dollars is just LAME," Carwin wrote. "[Lesnar] may be a champion, but he has a long ways to go before he earns the respect of a champion."
At lunch in the middle of a slew of promotional appearances at UFC 102, Carwin defended his words by noting that those who have helped take MMA so far already have worked long and hard to break away from that stereotype.
Athletes in other sports, though, rarely are so outspoken about their sport's stars. When was the last time you heard other NFL players publicly condemn Terrell Owens' antics?
Carwin addressed Lesnar's antics head on and in quick order.
"That was put out there just because I wanted the fans to know that is not how everybody is in this sport," Carwin said. "Most of the guys I train with are very respectful and very disciplined – and more so than any other sport I've been a part of. I just wanted people to know that that's not the general consensus out there for most fighters. And I want this sport to grow and evolve into something like the NFL or the NBA that is very respectful."
He's gained popularity for his self-effacing personality and powerful style. Fighting Lesnar, though, will take him into an entirely different realm. Lesnar, a larger-than-life figure who was heavily responsible for a record 1.7 million pay-per-view sales at UFC 100, became the UFC's biggest star in less than a year.
The scrutiny that goes along with fighting Lesnar is intense, and the demands on Carwin's already-scarce free time are sure to amp up. He's already recognized far more than ever before, and that's likely to increase tenfold as the UFC's marketing machine flexes its muscle.
Carwin, though, embraces the fans. More than in any other major sport, there is a connection between MMA fighters and their fans. They stay at the same hotel and don't use back entrances or private elevators to get to their rooms. That is a bond that Carwin doesn't want to see broken.
And, perhaps more importantly, he says he won't let it break or change him.
"A lot more people recognize me now, but I'm still the same grounded, humble Shane – I don't think I've changed much in that aspect," he says. "The recognition and getting to go do events, well, sometimes it's still hard for me to understand at this point why people want to see Shane. I still just fight for the love of the game."
The fans, though, seem to love what he does. He does it with passion while showing respect. While Lesnar will be a big seller because he's become the man the fans love to hate, Carwin falls into a grouping with men – such as welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre – who are as humble and classy as they are talented.
"I respect people," Carwin said. "I have a respect for everybody and their responsibility in the world. I'm not out there trying to stress that I'm some big, tough fighter or that I'm any better than anyone else. I wasn't raised that way. I'm just a normal, average guy, and maybe that's what people like."