Bobby Lashley is a young fighter with enormous talent who may someday become one of the elite heavyweights in mixed martial arts.
Expectations, though, are soaring already. Lashley will fight on the Showtime-televised Strikeforce card against an opponent to be named – currently rumored to be veteran Wes Sims – on Jan. 30 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla.
Because he has many similarities with Brock Lesnar, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's larger-than-life champion – both men have outstanding amateur wrestling backgrounds, were successful pro wrestlers, are better-than-expected boxers and are massive, hulking specimens with enormous power and surprising quickness – there is a large contingent who expects Lashley to be knocking off the best fighters in the world.
Lesnar, though, is a physical freak, the type of fighter who comes along very rarely. Lashley may eventually develop into a fighter as good – or better – but that's no given. Lashley is not going to walk in, fight the former champion in his second pro bout, win the championship in his fourth and become the sport's biggest attraction in little more two years – all of which Lesnar has done.
Lashley is improving, rapidly by most measures, and will likely surprise fans who see him on Jan. 30 as they recall the same fighter who was tentative and uncertain in a win over veteran Jason Guida last March.
He's 4-0 now, and has added victories over Bob Sapp and Mike Cook, in addition to taking his game to, in his mind, an entirely different level. He's worked with the American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., and has opened his own gym, ATT Altitude, in Denver. Working with ATT has given him access to some of the best fighters in the world as sparring partners, and Lashley said it's a good barometer of his progress.
"I'm a lot better fighter today than I was [when I fought Guida]," Lashley said. "A lot better. The Bobby Lashley of today would destroy that Bobby Lashley, no question about it. My striking has come a long way, I've sharpened up my wrestling and I'm putting everything together a lot better now."
But he's still in the developmental stages as a fighter. It's easy to look at Lesnar's success and consider Lashley a failure if he doesn't soon knock off one of the game's elite, but it's entirely unfair to Lashley.
Even the greatest baseball players need some time in the minors to develop before succeeding in the big leagues.
He's Lashley has gone to the majors in terms of his promoter – Strikeforce is a solid No. 2 behind the Ultimate Fighting Championship and is building an impressive roster – but he's still not ready for the likes of Fedor Emelianenko.
He signed with Strikeforce as a free agent for that very reason.
"If you want to fight the best in the world and Strikeforce has the best heavyweight in the world, wouldn't it make sense to sign with them?" Lashley asked.
But just the problems Strikeforce is having landing an opponent for Lashley is an indication that he's a long way from realizing the potential in that massive body.
He was originally paired with Yohan Banks, but the Florida State Boxing Commission nixed the bout, dubbing it non-competitive. Next, Strikeforce attempted to pair him with journeyman Jimmy Ambriz, but that was scrapped for unknown reasons. Now, it appears Sims is the man, though it's no certainty that bout will get done.
Lashley insists it's not a problem preparing for a fight not knowing who will be across from him in the cage, and said the work he has gotten with the stars at ATT has been invaluable.
"There are guys like (Antonio) "Big Foot" Silva, Thiago Silva, Hector Lombard, who really have helped me and have shown me a lot," Lashley said. "We're all trying to make each other better. When you have holes in your game, those caliber guys will find it and exploit it right away.
"And as time goes by, it's clear they're not finding the holes nearly as often or as easily. It's a sign to me that I'm making progress."
His striking is an area that may lift some eyebrows. Wrestlers who have been successful in MMA have invariably developed at least a passable striking game. Lashley's striking is still an unknown commodity, though he doesn't lack for power.
"I'm hitting hard, man," Lashley said, chuckling. "I know that. I'm hitting really hard right now. I've worked a lot on my striking and I think I've really tightened that up."
In his third fight, Lesnar literally knocked Heath Herring head over heels with a punch. In his fourth, he knocked out Randy Couture to win the UFC heavyweight title.
It's not fair to judge Lashley by that standard, though, because guys who can do that come along once every 10 or 15 years.
Lashley is coming along quite nicely, thank you, and he'll undoubtedly show that potential when he fights on Jan. 30.
Judge him by the proper standard, though. Judge him as a man who left one sport to try to learn MMA. Don't judge him by the physical freak who stunned the MMA world by how quickly he developed.
Under the right light, you'll like what you see.