White banking on Lesnar's success
For everyone who followed pro wrestling from childhood, there was always a lingering question: How would certain guys, not necessarily the biggest stars but the ones who are known by fans as real-life tough guys, do if the battle was real?
The question was more on people's minds during old-school pro wrestling's heyday than in recent years, largely because the Ultimate Fighter has answered a lot of questions about putting guys with different backgrounds into an arena and seeing what styles come out on top.
In the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, many amateur champion wrestlers fared well simply through takedowns and the ability to control and keep opponents on their back.
But in today's mixed martial arts, you have to be a well-rounded fighter, with knowledge of wrestling or judo for balance, jiu-jitsu for submission awareness and avoidance, and both boxing and kickboxing techniques.
Brock Lesnar isn't coming to UFC to answer any age-old questions. He's coming because it's a sport he's watched since its inception, and now after more than a year of full-time training, after trying pro wrestling and pro football, he feels that it's the sport he was put on earth to participate in.
Lesnar, 30, who is expected to debut for UFC on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas against an opponent not yet named, is the most famous and likely the most expensive newcomer the UFC has ever signed.
"I've had one MMA fight, and he was a tuna can or whatever," said Lesnar about his debut, a fight on June 2, when he dismantled 1996 Olympic judo silver medalist Min Soo Kim of South Korea in a K-1 Hero's event at the Los Angeles Coliseum. "What I want to prove is Brock Lesnar should be taken seriously. This isn't a joke for me. I'm spending countless hours trying to learn every discipline, so when I step into the octagon, I'll be well prepared. I'm not setting myself up for defeat. That's not my mentality."
Lesnar beat Kim in just one minute, nine seconds, immediately taking him down, and knocking him out with punches from the top. Little was learned about the state of Lesnar's all-around game. What was learned is Lesnar is incredibly quick for his size, which anyone who saw him wrestle amateur already knew, and he has an explosive takedown.
We also learned he has natural punching power when on top of his opponent on the ground. The velocity of his short punches on top were said by ringside onlookers to be similar to Fedor Emelianenko.
As for the rest of his game, those questions are yet to be answered. We know he's fast. We know he's strong. We know he's a disciplined athlete and a hard trainer. Can he take a punch or block a kick? Is his overall striking game good? Can he avoid submissions? Can he apply submissions?
Some hearing that a former World Wrestling Entertainment champion is coming into UFC would automatically jump to the conclusion that it's a freak-show attraction and nothing more than a gimmick to sell tickets.
They would be partially correct. It is a ploy to sell tickets, but as a national heavyweight champion in junior college in 1998, and NCAA Division I champ at Minnesota in 2000, Lesnar's athletic ability can't be questioned.
He brings to the table more than wrestling credentials. He's a freak as an athlete. His combination of size, strength and speed is on the level of an NFL first-round draft choice. But none of that guarantees he'll be a great fighter.
Several previous NCAA champions have entered MMA with mixed results. Randy Couture (Oklahoma State) and Matt Hughes (Eastern Illinois) became legends. Lesnar's freestyle wrestling is better than Couture's, and he's a guy who cuts weight to make the 265-pound weight limit, a huge heavyweight as opposed to a small heavyweight trying to use wrestling to manhandle bigger foes.
But many wrestlers haven't fared as well. And while you can talk about his college wrestling all day long, the fact is, he's in UFC this early and getting a two-year contract because he can wrestle and because he was a star in pro wrestling. K-1 paid him $500,000 on the books for his debut, and every MMA group looking to make itself a name had to have interest in him.
Lesnar was only one facet of a news conference held Thursday by the company and headed by company president Dana White, covering a multitude of issues, including signing a new three-year contract with Spike TV, the failure to reach a deal with HBO, and the present and future of Couture.
"Brock Lesnar is the real deal," White said. "He's a young guy, athletic, great credentials and he's done the right things to make the transitions. Guys I know who are training with him say he's going to be a great fighter."
Lesnar walked out on the WWE in 2004, shortly after signing a new $1 million-per-year guaranteed contract through 2010 because he grew to hate the arduous travel schedule. And, in the back of his mind, he wanted to play pro football before the window of opportunity closed. After never playing the sport since high school, he asked the WWE to let him out of his contract, saying he wanted to play in the NFL. WWE agreed, but in his release papers, the company decreed he couldn't participate in either pro wrestling with a rival organization, or MMA, anywhere in the world for the duration of the contract.
Lesnar went to the Minnesota Vikings camp and played in several preseason games in 2004 before being a late cut. But the Vikings were impressed enough to recommend him for NFL Europe, but one of the key reasons he left wrestling was that he was never home to see his family, in particular his young daughter, and his wife, former well-known wrestling personality and Playboy cover model Rena "Sable" Mero. Plus, he now admits, he was relieved the day he was cut. He was so far behind when it came to football that he realized it wasn't for him.
"You have to feel confident and I didn't," Lesnar said about his brief NFL experience. "I realized I was unprepared at the Vikings training camp. I was thinking to myself, 'What am I doing here?' Because of my lack of experience, I felt it wasn't for me."
The next problem was his WWE release. He began wrestling in Japan, even though the release prohibited it, leading to a lengthy court fight. He argued that the WWE was keeping him from making a living during the prime of his athletic life.
In the settlement, Lesnar was allowed to do basically anything he wanted to do. Although he doesn't talk bad about WWE today, Lesnar said he liked the wrestling itself, just grew to despise the travel and didn't like what it was doing to his body.
In MMA, Lesnar says he has found his true calling. Time and circumstances simply didn't allow it to happen until now.
"I've never felt fighting isn't for me," he said. "It's come fast and feels natural. People who have been around like Pat Miletich, Sean Sherk and Greg Nelson (his current main trainer) have all said this comes naturally to me, and it's nice to hear that from people of that caliber."
Lesnar feels the difference between him and college wrestling stars who didn't make it in MMA is that he knows that college wrestling alone will never make him UFC champion. Instead of concentrating his training on what he does best – his wrestling – his focus is on the other aspects of the sport.
"I know and understand my wrestling capabilities aren't going to make me a champion in this sport," he said. "I train wrestling, but I spend more time training my hands and training jiu-jitsu.
"My No. 1 goal is to win my first fight, and work my way to being heavyweight champion."
Lesnar was 55-3 in two years at Minnesota after being 51-2 at Bismarck Junior College. He finished second in the Division I tournament to Stephen Neal in 1999, who ironically accomplished what Lesnar didn't in becoming an NFL player (with the New England Patriots) without playing high school ball. In 2000, Lesnar was NCAA champion.
Largely because of his physique and natural power, several pro wrestling organizations were interested in him. Lesnar had already decided he wasn't going to pursue the Olympics. MMA was near death at this point, and as much as he wanted to do it a few years earlier, he didn't consider it an option.
After winning the championship, he decided he had three viable options. He could stay in college one more year, get his degree, and play football for the Golden Gophers. He could join the WWE, which offered him $250,000 guaranteed per year to start, an almost unheard of figure for somebody who had never worked their way up the ranks. Or he could try out for the NFL, as Tony Dungy, then coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a Golden Gophers alum, recruited him after watching him dominate on the college mats.
"I was a kid from South Dakota who didn't have two nickels to rub together and the WWE deal was a sure thing," he said. "They guaranteed me the money and football only offered me a tryout. I chose WWE. But I always regretted I didn't at least do the tryout first."
White said he was going to heavily market Lesnar's debut to the pro wrestling audience.
"I think a lot of people are going to be curious to see if he can really fight," said the UFC president. "He's an athlete capable of fighting. Not to say the rest of them (pro wrestlers) aren't athletes. I think a lot of WWE fans are going to tune in to see if this guy can really fight."
White acknowledged that he never had any interest in using pro wrestlers, although he did negotiate with Kurt Angle, an Olympic gold medalist before going pro, in the past.
UFC also announced the signing of a three-year contract renewal with Spike TV, that gives the network cable exclusivity on the product through 2011. The contract calls for two seasons of Ultimate Fighter in 2008 and 2009, and one each in 2010 and 2011. It also calls for a weekly live TV fight that would debut in 2010. It also calls for a minimum of four UFC Fight Night specials, a similar schedule as the current deal, as well as 13 new episodes per year of UFC Unleashed.
The agreement would allow UFC to negotiate a deal with a broadcast network or a premium channel like HBO, but not a rival cable channel like ESPN.
White also bent over backward to praise Couture, noting he still considers him heavyweight champion and no matter what has happened, is looking to settle things with him.
"The title isn't vacant until Randy Couture tells me face-to-face he's retired," White said. "Randy Couture is a guy I have a ton of respect for. I'm going to try and work this out."