UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and his opponent Cain Velasquez started their combat sports career on the same place: the wrestling mat. Both wrestled at the NCAA Division I level with storied programs. Lesnar wrestled at Minnesota during one of their best stretches, and Velasquez for Arizona State, a program that has been a factory for fighters.
What were their careers like?
Lesnar was a one-time champ, winning in overtime in 2000 over Iowa's Wes Hand. However, the close win over Hand -- a wrestler nowhere near Lesnar's size -- is not what Lesnar is remembered for among collegiate wrestling fans. In his junior year, Lesnar met Stephen Neal from Cal. State-Bakersfield in the finals. Both behemoths, they walked through the tournament, with few other wrestlers near their size. Lesnar lost the match 3-2. With that loss, he handed the team title to Minnesota's nemesis, Iowa. He graduated without winning a team title with the Golden Gophers. Neal went on to win the world title and then a successful career with the New England Patriots.
When Velasquez wrestled, he was considerably undersized. An All-American in 2005 and '06, Velasquez had a hard time getting by Minnesota's Cole Konrad -- now the Bellator heavyweight champion -- and Olympian and Iowa/Oklahoma State wrestler Steve Mocco. In both '05 and '06, Velasquez lost to the much-larger Konrad in the semifinals.
Velasquez's lack of a national title should not be mistaken for a lack of wrestling pedigree. When Velasquez was a heavyweight at ASU, the field was much tougher. His lack of size didn't keep him from winning 77 times in his career. He had a spark as a wrestler that made fans watch him, and it didn't take a genius to see that he was headed for something bigger.
Lesnar was memorable, too, because it was impossible to ignore someone of his size. He muscled his way to wins, pinning his way to the finals in 2000. However, technically strong wrestlers gave him trouble. Hand had beat Lesnar during a match earlier in the season, and Lesnar barely won in the finals.
Now, the two fighters with similar sports backgrounds will meet up for the UFC heavyweight title. Their wrestling prowess set them up for their careers as fighters, but we'll see on Saturday who can use their skills to win the belt.
Thanks to my friends at the Wrestling Talk for help with brackets.