LOS ANGELES – Sometimes you can indeed go home again.
Following a three-year run as one of the biggest draws in UFC history, Brock Lesnar finally returned to his roots with WWE. And similar to his days in the Octagon, Lesnar was the main event Sunday night at WWE’s SummerSlam pay-per-view.
Flanked with his promoter and real-life friend Paul Heyman, Lesnar stepped inside the squared circle in front of 17,482 fans at Staples Center donning not a traditional wrestling outfit but MMA attire – custom red and black Jimmy John shorts, MMA gloves and a mouthpiece.
In what can be best described as a slobberknocker (a term coined by WWE Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Ross), Lesnar and his opponent, Triple H, brawled inside and outside the ring in an intense nearly 20-minute brawl, with the former MMA star repeatedly attempting to apply the MMA-influenced kimura lock. After several attempts throughout the match, Lesnar was able to slap the armlock submission move that was named after judoka legend Masahiko Kimura in the middle of the ring, forcing Triple H to tap.
It was Lesnar’s first WWE victory after returning from an eight-year hiatus in April, the night after the company’s biggest event, WrestleMania XXVIII.
“Brock reached out to us when his UFC contract was done and I think he was just sticking his toe in the water to see if there was any interest,” Paul Levesque (aka Triple H), WWE executive vice president, talent and live events, told Y! Sports prior to SummerSlam. “We spoke and the rest is history.”
There was a time where WWE fans thought they would never see Lesnar back with the company.
“There had been some animosity a little bit in some ways between Brock and the WWE at various points, “ Levesque said. “Some of that was real, some of that was media.”
That animosity stems from Lesnar’s 2004 departure from the WWE following WrestleMania XX in order to pursue a career in the NFL. With six years still remaining on his contract, Lesnar signed a non-compete contract with the WWE that allowed him to pursue his NFL dreams but prohibited him from going to another wrestling or MMA organization. When his NFL dreams came to an end after getting cut from the Minnesota Vikings, Lesnar went overseas to compete for New Japan Pro Wrestling, breaching his non-compete agreement in the process. Lawyers from both sides would wrestle in courtrooms for more than a year before mutually reaching a settlement that allowed Lesnar to compete in NJPW and MMA.
“We were kind of disappointed when he left and just didn’t know what was going to happen with him trying out for the NFL and then shocking the world with the UFC,” fellow WWE wrestler Rey Mysterio told Y! Sports. “Overall, he did what he wanted to do and you can’t take that away from any man or human being who wants to accomplish something or prove themselves in a certain sport.”
Mysterio, who wrestled on the same SummerSlam card 10 years ago when Lesnar defeated Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to become the youngest champion in WWE history at age 25, says the animosity is gone from the boys in the locker room.
“When something happens and when it’s unexpected, it shocks the world and it shocks the backstage locker room. Overall, you tend to forget about things and move on with your life. I don’t think anybody has anything to say about Brock. He did what he had to do and accomplished what few will ever do.”
In the end, the money (some reports say the figure is as high as $5 million for one year) and the flexible work schedule was too good for Lesnar to pass up.
“Brock wanted to come back and be involved but he didn’t want to be here full-time and traveling every day,” Levesque said. “He didn’t want to be in the ring every single day. I’ve said this many times but Brock is a simple guy. He’s a farmer, that’s what he is. I know that doesn’t look like what he is, but right now he’s probably harvesting crops somewhere on his farm. That’s the reality of who he is. He likes to go home, sit, drive a tractor and harvest crops. It just so happens he’s a badass on the weekend.
He wanted to still be in that world. One thing about the WWE is we have a lot of flexibility to be able to do different things with different characters at different times. I think it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship for both parties.”
Lesnar’s eventual return to the company had been rumored dating back to October 2010 when he was confronted by WWE wrestler The Undertaker after losing the UFC heavyweight championship to Cain Velasquez at UFC 121. While UFC president Dana White signed off on the WWE using Lesnar’s likeness in their “WWE: 12” video game, there was no way he was allowing his prized heavyweight to step inside the ring while under contract.
“When Brock came to us, the first thing we asked him when his lawyer made the call was: are you free and clear of the UFC?” Levesque said. “He sent us the letters from their lawyers and he was free and clear. At that point in time, Brock Lesnar is Brock Lesnar. He’s not a product of anybody and is free to negotiate with anyone he wants.”
For Lesnar, a return to the WWE was a logical choice. Following his battle with diverticulitis, Lesnar never looked like the dominant fighter that captured the UFC heavyweight Championship from Randy Couture in just his fourth professional mixed martial arts fight at UFC 91. When Lesnar had a 12-inch section of his colon removed in May 2011, it left an invisible bulls-eye on his midsection that Alistair Overeem primarily targeted in Lesnar’s final fight at UFC 141 last December.
Lesnar’s biggest asset in the UFC was his drawing power – three of his fights are in the top-five pay-per-view buy rates for the company. The WWE saw instant success in Lesnar’s first pay-per-view match at April’s Extreme Rules card with 263,000 buys, nearly a 26 percent increase from 2011. A similar increase for the WWE’s second-biggest pay-per-view of the year would put this year’s SummerSlam at well more than 300,000 buys.
“They don’t have to be in the ring with Brock Lesnar to get the rub off that notoriety and that level of fame,” Levesque said on Lesnar’s drawing power. “At the end of the day, what we do is attraction based. You bring an event like SummerSlam to Los Angeles, but it’s all about what is there to see in that attraction. You give them what people are interested in.”
For the time being, the people are interested in Lesnar as the larger-than-life WWE superstar and not as the flawed MMA attraction.
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