LAS VEGAS – Marty Morgan was a wrestling coach at the University of Minnesota in November 1997 when he attended an open tournament in Fargo, N.D. He went to watch one of his guys, Shelton Benjamin, when he noticed fans crowding around one mat, whooping it up at the action.
"You could hear 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the other side of the gym," Morgan said.
He and a fellow coach wandered over and discovered Brock Lesnar, a huge South Dakota farm boy then attending a junior college. He was annihilating the heavyweight that had previously defeated Benjamin.
"We looked at each other and said, 'Oh my goodness, what is this? Look at this guy? Look at this intensity?' "
The next day, they flew Lesnar to campus. Two days after that, they signed him to a scholarship before any rival schools could scout him. It was a smart move. Lesnar was the NCAA Division I runner-up as a junior and national champion as a senior.
"There's never been a doubt in my mind that Brock is a world-class athlete," Morgan said.
At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, with incredible speed and otherworldly strength, there shouldn't have been a doubt in anyone's mind.
Except Lesnar's post-college career was with the World Wrestling Entertainment. With its scripted action and over-the-top story lines, what is actually done in the ring is overshadowed. The organization's long and troubled history with steroids further clouds things.
While they may be entertaining, almost no one takes these guys seriously.
Lesnar was the same athletic freak he ever was though. He often performed eye-popping physical feats including his signature move, the F-5, which called for him to spin some massive opponent in the air before dropping him like a rag doll.
"I still watch the WWE highlights of him and say, 'Man, how'd he do that?' " said Morgan, who now works for Lesnar full-time.
Still, appreciation for his freak-of-nature ability didn't begin until 2004, when Lesnar, out of the blue, tried out for the Minnesota Vikings and survived until a late cut.
Now he can legitimize his skills forever.
Saturday, Lesnar steps into the very real world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship where he'll take on veteran champion Randy Couture for the heavyweight title at the MGM Grand.
While he's already proven himself a legitimate mixed martial arts star in just three fights (2-1), winning the title at age 31 and after a mere three years of training would cement him as not a carnival act, not a pro wrestling character, but one of the most impressive pure athletes going.
The stigma of the WWE will be gone forever. Not that he cares.
"I think anybody [who] was smart or understood me already realized that," Lesnar said Wednesday. "I was an amateur athlete. Anybody who knows anything about athletics understood what I could do. And the other people just don't have a clue.
"You can't blame them for being ignorant."
Ignorant or not, pro wrestling is considered acting. There may not be stunt men, extra takes and special effects, but choosing to go that route forever alters people's opinion of you.
"In some ways, amateur wrestlers look at that as selling out," said Couture, himself a three-time All-America wrestler at Oklahoma State. "I think because it is predetermined and choreographed, none of those things sit well with real wrestling, amateur wrestling."
"Most amateur wrestlers hate that someone would go pro," Morgan said. "So for Brock to go pro, most amateur wrestlers were bitter about it. [They said] 'How can you do that?' "
The upside was Lesnar made good money and became an international star thanks to his colorful performances. He boasts such drawing power and potential as a fighter that UFC president Dana White signed him to one of the richest deals in organization history. He was then given a shot at the title after only two fights in the UFC, one of which was a loss. He's part of the reason Saturday's pay-per-view is expected to challenge the sport's all-time record of just over one million buys.
Lesnar often downplays his background in the WWE. It's what he's known for though. And always will be, at least until he becomes a champion in a true sport. MMA has its critics, but there is no doubting it is the real deal. Its performance-enhancing drug testing program is as stringent as any professional sports organization.
"I left the sports entertainment industry for my own reasons,” he said. There are a number of them, but his willingness to break from a seven-year, $7 million WWE contract, according to court documents, to pursue real sports (NFL, UFC) that this far have paid significantly less speaks to a desire to achieve more than just money.
The WWE is what it is. It was the choice he made then. This is the choice he made now.
Just about everyone assumes Lesnar will one day be the heavyweight champion. The question is whether he can do it now against the veteran Couture, who holds all kinds of technical advantages.
The fight breaks down simply: Couture's experience against Lesnar's overwhelming athletic attributes.
Everyone knows Lesnar can sell a fight. But can he fight? There's nothing fake, nothing scripted, nothing set on Saturday.
Because he isn't the champion, Lesnar says he has nothing to lose. He does have plenty to prove – first and foremost his own legitimacy as a real fighter and a real athlete.