White's gamble on Lesnar already paying off

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

In the stands outside the octagon, a paying customer confronted Dana White with a bold demand.

"Let me fight," Brock Lesnar barked amid the din of the crowd back in early 2007. "Give me one chance."

White, the Ultimate Fighting Championship president, was skeptical. He had seen plenty of guys – even pro athletes – think they could handle mixed martial arts. They wound up crushed. Lesnar was a star in the WWE, where the violence is fake. In the octagon it is profoundly real.

Lesnar was an intriguing prospect. He was a physical monster (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) and a former NCAA champion wrestler. He was big, strong and agile enough to try out for the NFL and actually play in a couple of preseason games despite never even playing college football.

What was crazy, though, was asking to be thrown in against the wolves, no room for error or experience. The best route, the smart route was to come along slowly. Lesnar had just one MMA fight; how could he be ready? Lesnar could have a long, lucrative career in pro wrestling; why risk his rep? Let alone his health?

"Brock, this is not the place you want to learn how to fight, man," White told him. "Every fight in the UFC is a tough fight. These are the guys who have made it. This is it."

Lesnar shook his head. He was undeterred. He hadn't gotten where he'd gotten without kicking down doors. The WWE may not be real, but it's a real tough business.

He believed in taking on challenges full force – patience was for someone else.

"I don't care," Lesnar told White. "I only want to fight the best. That's why I want to be here. I'm either good at this thing or not, and we're going to find out."

On Nov. 15, just more than a year after White relented and Lesnar first stepped into the octagon, Brock Lesnar is going to find out not whether he's good at this thing.

He's going to find out whether he's great at it.

Lesnar will fight for the UFC heavyweight championship, taking on legend Randy Couture, who in a dramatic move ended his prolonged contract standoff with the UFC Tuesday.

The mega-fight will take place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

"Couture-Lesnar will be the biggest fight in UFC history," crowed White, who expects as many as 1.5 million pay-per-view buys, which would set a mixed martial arts record.

It's the fulfillment of dare.

For Lesnar, this could've ended ugly. There was no guarantee he'd be able to do anything in the octagon except get hurt and humiliated.

Yes, he was a hell of an athlete. That only gets you so far in a sport as lonely as this one. Former NFL player Johnnie Morton tried MMA and got knocked out cold in 38 seconds. And that was in a lower-level league. And it turned out he was taking performance-enhancing drugs.

If the lasting memory was Lesnar being bloodied and beaten, exposed as just an actor not a fighter, then where would that leave him? Would wrestling fans accept him back? Would Hollywood call then?

In Vince McMahon's circus you hope to become Hulk Hogan or the Rock. This was a high-risk career move.

"This is for real," Lesnar said.

He never doubted himself. He grew up heaving bales of hay around his family's South Dakota dairy farm and wound up rich, famous and married to Sable. You don't make that journey without self-confidence.

He knew he was showing up as a novelty act – UFC fans standing ground as skeptics. He decided to use it as fuel.

True to his word, he asked for no tomato cans to gain seasoning. White, who dropped big money on him knowing Lesnar's crossover appeal, was willing to oblige. The first fight was in February against veteran submission expert and former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir.

Lesnar, in a jolt of energy, rocked Mir from the start, showing power that won over fans immediately. Whatever you thought of him before, he was legit. He was simply huge, powerful yet graceful, a breathtaking striker.

And then he got caught in a kneebar and lost. That's MMA. The smart can take from the strong.

It barely mattered. It was the most impressive 90-second defeat imaginable.

In August he returned to absolutely manhandle veteran Heath Herring, ground-and-pounding his way to a lopsided decision.

"I was blown away," White said.

White laughed that Herring had gone into the fight still viewing Lesnar as some scripted actor.

"Heath Herring was pissed off that he had to fight Brock Lesnar," White said. "He felt Brock didn't belong in the same arena as him. He said, 'I've been around this sport for years. I've got to fight this fake wrestling guy?'

"I said, 'Bro, he's not a fake wrestling guy. He's a real wrestler. He came from real (NCAA) wrestling. Everybody knows the most important base you can have is wrestling.'"

With Herring pummeled and the doubts fading, Lesnar wondered what White had planned for him next. His goal from the start has been to win the UFC heavyweight championship.

He had a flickering thought about Couture, who had retired as the champ in a dispute with the UFC. He figured it was impossible.

So he grabbed his Harley and his wife and headed to Montana for a vacation. Then his phone rang.

"Dana called and said, 'What about Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar for the heavyweight title?' "

That quickly? White doesn't apologize. He serves dual motivations of the bottom line and the fans' hearts. This was one that served both, so screw it. Lesnar was willing. After the Herring performance, Lesnar looked ready.

"One thing about the UFC – we're not (handcuffed) with boxing's political (expletive)," White said. "We put on fights people want to see."

For Lesnar, the ultimate battle for respect awaits. Beat Couture and he's not just the champ – he has taken down a guy who at 45 remains a legendary figure in the sport. "Beating Randy Couture means something," White said.

There will be little left to doubt.

Until then, Lesnar still is second fiddle, still a bit of that novelty act. Tuesday's media conference to announce the fight was more about whether Couture ever would fight Fedor Emelianenko, considered by many the world's top heavyweight, than when Couture will fight Lesnar.

Couture repeatedly was asked. White was asked even more.

It didn't take long for Lesnar, sitting idle on the phone, to anger at being overlooked. Emelianenko won't fight the best. Lesnar won't fight anything but the best.

He was ready to kick down another door.

"Who gives a (expletive) about Fedor?" he barked.

Go doubt the actor at your own peril.

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