Last month Brock Lesnar sat in a small-town, fast food restaurant, surrounded by blue-collar townies, munching on a five-dollar foot long. He was the reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title holder, yet unlike his old days as a professional wrestler/entertainer, he was far from the spotlight.
His life was now about family, training and humble hard work. It was the antithesis of his days making millions in the cutthroat, 300-days-on-the-road, close-down-the-nightclubs-fast-lane of the WWE.
That was an existence he grew to detest, so much so that five years ago he walked away from a multi-million dollar contract with no job.
Then an interesting thing happened. By moving to real fighting, he found the real Brock Lesnar.
“This is who I am,” he said. “I’m a fighter.”
Now Lesnar is in for the biggest fight of his life; dealing with a serious illness – at this point just described as “bacterial infection in his intestinal tract.” He had “minor surgery” in Bismarck, N.D. Tuesday, according to UFC president Dana White.
“Not 100 (percent) sure he is out of the woods but (he’s) feeling better,” White wrote via Twitter.
The illness has caused the postponement of one title defense and, according to White, could even cost him his budding second-career.
“There’s a possibility Lesnar will never fight again,” White told TMZ.com on Monday.
Lesnar is famously private and precise details of what’s wrong have not been released. His management team and the UFC have declined further comment. All we know is that he grew so weak during an October training camp that he had to pull out of a fight that was scheduled for this Saturday.
The first diagnosis was mono. White said Saturday, though, that Lesnar was “very, very sick.” While he wouldn’t reveal the illness, he said it wasn’t cancer or HIV. There is no word on whether Tuesday’s surgery solves the problem or is just the first of many treatments.
Either way, for Lesnar the person, the timing is tough.
The 32-year old had entered a period of professional success, personal contentment and family bliss (a new baby boy with his wife, former wrestling star Sable, while living near his second grade daughter from a previous relationship).
It was a journey that was a long time and numerous bold lifestyle changes in the making.
After winning a NCAA wrestling championship at the University of Minnesota in 2000, Lesnar entered the scripted WWE as a natural born star. At 6-3, 300-pounds, he boasted incredible athletic ability and a natural touch as an actor. He was a headliner by 2002 and for three years made millions while living the predictable wild life on the road of someone young, rich and famous.
“You could either stay in or go out,” he said. “Guess which I chose?”
Increasingly he detested it. He was miserable. He later got a tattoo of a sword on his chest, blade pointed at his neck.
“At the time it symbolized someone (having) a knife up against my throat,” he said.
The WWE has a long, ugly history of pushing its wrestlers to cut corners and compete at all costs. Dozens of pro wrestlers have died young, even in their 20s and 30s. Others have pointed to a culture of steroids (Lesnar has denied ever taking them), pain killers and substance abuse.
Whatever the reason, Lesnar did what few do. He walked away. He attempted to get out of his contract by trying out for the Minnesota Vikings even though he hadn’t played football since high school. He almost made the team.
He pro wrestled in Japan, got into a legal battle with the WWE and, in 2006, just retired and left everything behind. The $7 million contract. The all-night parties. The rush of fame.
His decision is beyond rare – there’s a reason they’ll never run out of subjects for “True Hollywood Stories.”
Lesnar said he’d rather farm than continue. The fake wrestler was going to be true to himself. He had no clear career path. He said he was depressed. He bought some land. He ran a tractor.
Then he gave mixed martial arts a chance and after one contest approached Dana White.
“Let me fight,” Lesnar begged back in 2007. “Give me one chance.”
The UFC is the highest level of cage fighting, filled with experts at things like Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai boxing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll get hurt. Even a former NCAA wrestling champ.
“It’s no place for on the job training,” White cautioned.
Lesnar didn’t care.
“I’m either good at this or I’m not,” he said, asking for world class competition from the start, unwilling to waste any more of the present as he searched for a future.
In less than a year he was the UFC heavyweight champion and its biggest box office draw. It turns out he wasn’t just good at MMA, he was great at it.
Suddenly he could earn millions by fighting just a few times a year. Gone were weeks with seven shows in seven cities. It was a real sport. He retreated to Alexandria, Minn., a working-class town a two-hour drive northwest of Minneapolis. It’s where his daughter lives.
He and Sable bought a 40-acre farm in the woods. They had their first son in June. He became the rare athlete who openly discussed trying to be the best father and husband he could.
When not working out at a non-descript training facility, he hunts and fishes. He drives rusted, used trucks. He doesn’t have the Internet. If it weren’t for an occasional hunting show and NFL football, he’d throw out his television. He eats at Subway.
He couldn’t be happier. He’s found balance.
“Fighting is not my life,” he said last month, eating a meatball sub. “My family is my life. I know who I am and what I’m about. My wife knows who I am. My children know who I am. My friends. That’s all that matter to me.”
He’s poured himself into becoming a better fighter, paying training partners and experts to come in and make him better.
He was on the verge of a long career, perhaps even an extended run as the champion. Everything was humming, professionally and personally. The gamble of walking away from the circus and into an honest life had paid off.
Then a week after we had lunch in Alexandria, he got sick. Then he got sicker. Now he might need further hospitalization, surgery, treatment, who knows.
Now everything is up in the air for a guy who found happiness by getting grounded.