In the spring of 2000, Brock Lesnar was a University of Minnesota senior, just two weeks and a handful of workouts away from the NCAA Division I wrestling tournament.
Today, the 30-year-old Lesnar finds himself in a similar situation as he trains for his match against former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion Frank Mir in the most publicized debut in UFC history.
The former “Next Big Thing” of pro wrestling has become ultimate fighting's next gigantic question mark, a 1-0 fighter with 69 seconds of ring experience thrown into the deep end of a shark-infested pool.
Whether he's in over his head remains to be seen, but the reason he's being billed as the semi-main event of UFC 81 on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas is because of his fame as a former World Wrestling Entertainment champion.
The success of this card hinges on people buying the novelty of a former WWE champion fighting a former UFC champion. The idea, if it clicks, is to rally the UFC fan base to want to see the fake wrestler get smashed, and for the pro wrestling audience, to whom the show is being heavily marketed, to tune in out of curiosity to see how one of its all-time tough guys can do.
Lesnar knows his role is to antagonize UFC fans, as he did in dismissing Mir's submission ability in a commercial. Lesnar noted upon signing with UFC a few months ago that when it comes to promoting a fight, he "learned from the best."
"I've got eight workouts left (as of late last week) and I'm very excited for February 2," Lesnar said. "I've got it all to lose and I've got everything to gain. Frank Mir doesn't have the same kind of pressure."
Lesnar knows the knee-jerk reaction is to say a WWE champion would get destroyed in an MMA match. He's heard all the wise cracks: No scripts. No dance partners allowing you to do your moves. With his big muscles, he'll gas out in a minute of real fighting. But what makes this match different from a Kimbo Slice-type of freak show is that those on the inside are even more intrigued than those on the outside.
Oddsmakers are heavily favoring Lesnar, likely because they think people will bet on him because of name recognition as opposed to handicapping the match based on who they think has the best chance of winning.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Lesnar as an over-muscled fake; he's arguably the best all-around athlete of any heavyweight in UFC history. Certainly nobody can match his combination of strength, explosive power, and speed to go along with his 265-pound fighting weight.
After one week of training with Lesnar in late 2006, MMA coach Pat Miletich, a former UFC champion, came away impressed. "In a year, there won't be a man alive who can beat him," Miletich said. Lesnar has spent the last 18 months training at Greg Nelson's Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in Minneapolis, concentrating on striking and jiu- jitsu. He often works out with the national champion University of Minnesota wrestling team -- in particular, Cole Konrad, the 2008 Olympic hopeful who was NCAA heavyweight champion the past two years. Suffice to say, Lesnar gets a regular reality check of where his wrestling stands.
"I'm going to stay in his face and control him," Lesnar said. "I can guarantee I'll be in better condition than Mir."
But will tremendous athletic gifts and 18 months of training help Lesnar overcome a lack of MMA experience and an opponent with enough submission skills to finish even ground experts? People will be watching to see.
Lesnar's pro wrestling fame has allowed him to start as one of MMA's highest-paid fighters. The downside to that fame is it forces him into the spotlight. While most people with his potential would be brought along slowly and shielded from such a dangerous opponents so early in his career, because of what he's getting paid, he has to be in a match like this one with a theme that will grab attention.
Lesnar's strengths as a wrestler were conditioning, physical power, takedown ability, and his ability to turn his opponents over. But outside of his workout partners, the only evidence anyone has seen of him as a fighter was his June 2 win over Min Soo Kim at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Min Soo was a 1996 Olympic silver medalist in judo, so he was no slouch. But he has also had struggles adapting to MMA, with a 4-6 record. Lesnar did a quick takedown and showed unusually powerful short punches in quickly knocking out the Korean on the ground.
But the spot Lesnar put Min Soo -- on his back -- is the exact place Mir wants to be, working for an armbar or a triangle. Mir's most famous moment in UFC was an armbar from the bottom that broke Tim Sylvia's arm and won him the heavyweight title on June 19, 2004.
The question is, if Lesnar can connect from the top with his heavy artillery, how long does Mir have to get that submission before he's knocked silly? While Lesnar will have a significant size advantage over most UFC heavyweights, Mir, at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, will be slightly taller and nearly as heavy as Lesnar, and he does have a wrestling background, including a Nevada high school state championship. If he can keep his distance and avoid a takedown, he'll have a reach advantage, and while not a great striker, Mir has a huge experience edge in that aspect of the game.
"Frank Mir is a black belt in jiu jitsu," Lesnar said. "I've been training a lot in jiu jitsu, and a lot of jiu jitsu defense and a lot of striking and defense. My wrestling workouts have taken a back seat because I did that for 18 years." Lesnar says he has visualized this fight a thousand times and the only consistent thing is his hand being raised at the end.
"Anybody can get knocked out in this sport if you get hit with the right punch with the size of the gloves," he said. "I don't have a weak jaw, but if you get hit in the right spot, anybody can lose. You just try to lower the odds of being in that situation. If I can avoid that, I can win a lot of fights."
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