LAS VEGAS – Brock Lesnar fought seven times in the UFC from 2008 to 2011, five of them here in Vegas, the promotion’s corporate home and biggest stage.
It included his three greatest victories: capturing the heavyweight title against Randy Couture, defending it against Frank Mir at the high-profile UFC 100 and winning another via arm-triangle choke submission over Shane Carwin, a finish that showed depth and development from a guy who arrived from the WWE as much a novelty as anything else.
“This city has been great to me,” Lesnar said.
He returned this week for UFC 200, ending a four-and-a-half year absence in which he returned to pro wrestling in part due to diverticulitis that made preparing for MMA fights nearly impossible. During his “retirement,” he’d come here occasionally to find a sense of regret, or unfinished business, or something weighing on him.
His first run through the UFC was an unqualified success, despite the 4-3 record. It was also a serious grind, a pressurized pursuit of proving himself as a true fighter and a true athlete that seemed to once haunt him. “The circus,” as Lesnar used to call the WWE, can pay the bills. It’s still a circus though.
Touching down at McCarron International on Tuesday though was different, and not necessarily even familiar. Lesnar is back and ready to fight Mark Hunt in the main event of UFC 200 on Saturday.
This time he isn’t here to prove anything, per se. This time he isn’t trying to fashion a career in mixed martial arts. For now it’s a one-off, a chance to go back and move forward at the same time, appreciating competition for competition’s sake.
This time, it’s just damn exciting to be here.
“When I flew in, I’ve been taking it all in,” Lesnar said. “In years past, [I] took it for granted. I wasn’t mentally in the right place. [I’m] 100 percent [now]. I’m really happy to walk in and check in.
“Obviously I’m here to win a fight. But it’s fighting; anything can happen. I’m prepared for whatever. I don’t think it’s going to define me. I’m just happy to be here, I really am, no [expletive]. This is exciting. I’m on the card of UFC 200.”
This is a completely different Lesnar than the one who left the UFC. This was the funny, interesting and articulate guy you could find far from the intensity of fight week, living and training in the woods of Minnesota (he’s now relocated to Saskatchewan). In his most public moments though, he was uncooperative, often disrespectful of opponents and even crude. He talked trash, tried to intimidate and grunted a lot. It's understandable; this is dangerous business.
“He’s a grouch,” UFC president Dana White used to say by way of a defense. “But he’s a good guy.”
The Lesnar that showed up at the press conference Wednesday was all good guy, a full entertainer, quick-witted, accommodating, respectful and appearing to enjoy himself immensely.
He is 38 now. Maybe he’s no longer searching for something.
He remains an outrageous athletic talent, a 6-foot-3, 281-pound, fast-footed bulldozer who recently earned a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. He grew up a South Dakota farm kid, won an NCAA Division I wrestling championship at Minnesota, became a breakout star during multiple stints with the WWE, nearly made the roster of the Minnesota Vikings despite virtually no football experience, and of course, he became a UFC champion.
It wasn’t always smooth though. Lesnar has admitted struggling with the demands of pro wrestling’s nightly grind of shows, self-medicating with alcohol and partying and eventually dealing with regrets from both. He had epic battles with WWE management and wasn’t always a favorite of White’s, even as he drew in record revenues and new fans.
It most famously flared up at UFC 100, the company’s signature and historic production that, in part due to Lesnar, is still, seven years later, its highest selling pay-per-view ever. (UFC 200 is expected to shatter its 1.5 million buys, in no small part due to Lesnar again).
That night he avenged a loss to Mir only to grab the post-fight microphone and amid booing fans deliver an epic and at times profane rant. The big line involved his postfight celebratory plans.
“I’m going to go home tonight,” Lesnar said. “I’m going to drink a Coors Light. That’s a Coors Light because Bud Light won’t pay me nothing. I’m going sit down with my friends and family, and, hell, I might even get on top of my wife tonight.”
The beer preference was a direct shot at the UFC, which had just proudly scored a sponsorship deal with Bud Light. It signified a major sign of legitimacy for a still-growing company, but there wasn’t a direct payout to the fighters. White was furious. Lesnar later showed up at the postfight press conference offering an apology while drinking a bottle of Bud Light.
“He loves Bud Light,” White said that night.
“Love it,” Lesnar said, offering a toast.
“I have lots of memories [of UFC 100],” Lesnar said Wednesday. “Solidifying my heavyweight championship and avenging the loss against Frank Mir, being very excited about getting my hand raised at the end … and then saying some things that I can’t remember.”
He laughed. White, standing at a podium a couple feet away, did too. Everyone did.
So, for the record, what kind of beer did he drink that night?
“I actually kind of had two different kinds that night,” Lesnar said. “One for the public to see and one for me to enjoy.”
“Stop asking him questions,” White said, jumping in while laughing.
How a more relaxed, content Lesnar translates inside the Octagon is anyone’s guess. He hasn’t fought in years and took this bout on relatively short notice. He claims his health concerns are “behind him,” but who is to tell? He lost his last two UFC fights and showed an understandable disinterest in getting hit. Now he faces a guy in Hunt who is known for striking.
That said, Lesnar has been underestimated and written off as a gimmick before, only to prove to be far more devastating than expected. He takes this stuff very seriously, famously putting together six-figure camps. He says that he never really quit mixed martial arts, he just was forced out due to health. He’s maintained some training in the interim.
“When I left the sport … I love the sport, so I didn’t want to leave,” Lesnar said. “It’s just been a part of me. I never really left. I’ve worked with [top trainers], to hit mitts or whatever. I’ve worked with people ever since I left the Octagon.”
Five years ago he would have been defensive to the question. He wasn’t now. He just shrugged and offered up his opinion. He didn’t seem like someone trying to convince anyone of his greatness on Wednesday. Maybe most importantly, that includes himself.
It’s like he just decided he had nothing better to do Saturday than get in a fight … and be paid handsomely for it, of course. If he wins, is this really a one-time thing?
“This may be a tease, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. I have no idea … never say never.”
Would the WWE even let him out of his contract to try this?
“I guess that’s not a question for me, it’s a question for Vince McMahon,” Lesnar said.
It’s clear he wasn’t thinking much about it.
“Let’s get through Saturday,” Lesnar said.
Fresh from the scripted world of pro wrestling, back in MMA but freed from whatever weighed on him in the past, Lesnar mostly spent Wednesday smiling and laughing and soaking it all in.
“I feel [expletive] awesome,” he said.
Back in Vegas again, he looked at home. Maybe for the first time ever.