When Brock Lesnar retired from MMA and the UFC on December 30th, it was fairly surprising at the time. For as much as he’d gone through to get back in the cage, Lesnar’s acknowledgement that he couldn’t hang with the best in the division and refusal to be a mid-tier heavyweight was shocking in a way. This isn’t the way athletes are supposed to act, retiring before their window of opportunity had closed. The sad cases of athletes hanging on far too long are more numerous than those hanging it up when the time was right.
For every John Elway retiring after two Super Bowl wins in a row there are any number of Jerry Rice types that hung on for far too long, still chasing that dream well after their skills had faded. Most athletes don’t know when to hang it up, especially in combat sports where shady promoters are willing to bank some money on their name. If you followed Ken Shamrock around for a while you’d probably have something close to an MMA version of “The Wrestler,” a piece on how someone still living on the fringes of the sport after having made and lost millions in it.
Lesnar was always a unique case in MMA and we’re never going to see anyone like him again in it. And MMA’s better off without him in it … and Lesnar is better off without MMA in his life, either.
When the rumors of him going back to being a fake fighter in the pro wrestling business popped up during Wrestlemania weekend it was par for the course with Lesnar. Rumors of him returning to Vince McMahon’s carnival act have been rampant as long as he’s been out of the company. A first rate amateur wrestler at the University of Minnesota, Lesnar never entertained thoughts of wrestling in the Olympics nor would he have had a good chance at making the team. His was a power double leg game that relied on athleticism and raw physical tools, something that rarely succeeds on the international scene.
If MMA had been as popular now back in the early 2000s Lesnar would’ve joined a camp and earned his way up. If Lesnar was 22 right now he hypothetically could have joined Team Jackson in New Mexico, spending time on the regional circuit honing his craft before a better rounded fighter made his UFC debut. That Brock Lesnar would’ve been something to behold. But it wasn’t to be.
Like most young twenty-somethings are wont to do he took the big money offer of the WWF to learn the ways of the pro wrestler. Earning fame and fortune, Lesnar became a big enough star that when he left and wanted to try his hand at MMA he got a UFC contract after one fight. The heavyweight division was such that at a minimum it’d have been seen in the same light that James Toney’s one shot appearance against Randy Couture was; a one-time circus style freak show that boosted the bottom line in the short run.
It was the perfect cultural zeitgeist for MMA to be exposed to the wrasslin’ fan that was curious to see Lesnar actually fight as opposed to pretend to, a new audience of males in the target demographic who could (and in many cases would) end up becoming MMA fans. MMA fans expected Frank Mir to get an easy payday and easier win, obviously, but what eventually did happen in that fight helped change the landscape. But it never was something that either MMA fans or Lesnar really embraced.
Lesnar went on a fairly extraordinary run considering his detachment from actual competition spanning nearly a decade to a top tier fighter in short order. We will never see anything like this again; Lesnar in his late 20s/early 30s stepping into a cage and picking it up at such a high level so quickly is extraordinary. His body failed him when his mind wanted it the most, as it went, and Lesnar walked away before the sport walked away from him. But a curious thing was prevalent throughout the entire span of “Brock Lesnar: Cage Fighter” that is coming out as Lesnar makes his return to the circus of midgets, oiled up gym rats and scantily clad models that is pro wrestling.
MMA fans never embraced him in the same way they embraced other fighters from pro wrestling backgrounds like Josh Barnett and Kazushi Sakuraba.
Brock was a physical specimen and relied extensively on that to win fights, obviously, but Brock was never a guy you could call a fighter. He was the guy that reminded many MMA fans of a high school bully, bigger and stronger but not necessarily better. Lesnar never bought into the martial arts aspect of honor and respect like many fighters do and acted accordingly. Fighters like Heath Herring and Frank Mir got passes from fans despite fairly significant taunts and insults because Lesnar reminds many people of the guys that perhaps bullied them or people they knew or saw in their youth.
If you wanted the captain of a football team in a movie you would want a guy like Lesnar in the part. His fighting style was reminiscent of it too; he relied on his physical power to get the takedown and just start punching until the fight was over. It’s behind much of the dislike of Lesnar over the years from much of the hardcore audience; Lesnar didn’t grow studying karate or kung-fu, learned to wrestle and wanted to fight. He was a big country boy who happened to be a great wrestler, made money based on his athletic prowess in a non-competitive setting and then decided to get into MMA.
There was never this sense that Lesnar sacrificed over years to learn and train like many fighters who make it to the UFC have done. He never made $1,000 on a regional show and worked in an office every day, training at night and hoping someone would notice him as he kept winning. He never had to try out for “The Ultimate Fighter” or relocate to join a camp so he could live poorly and train often. Lesnar was able to import his own training partners & coaches and learn near his family. It never felt like Lesnar had to sacrifice anything but his time and energy; he had enough money that it felt like he was a rich former athlete dabbling as opposed to a serious, committed fighter. And his career was always looked at in that regard: as a dabbler instead of a fighter.
His success was always qualified somehow: Heath Herring became a can overnight, Couture was an old man who was an undersized heavyweight, Carwin was gassed and nothing more, et al. There were always either excuses or the lingering aura of Fedor Emelianenko cited as why he wasn’t the best fighter in his weight class. To train and get better was never good enough; to nearly die from diverticulitis and come back to fight three separate opponents, one after major abdominal surgery, is nothing short of remarkable. But Lesnar was never a fan favorite amongst the MMA faithful; he was someone who brought with him the “pro wrestling crowd” and nothing more.
He was raw throughout his entire career, even on type, and nothing about Lesnar’s fighting style is what you would call refined. You’d never consider Brock a master of any of the more traditional martial arts; his arm-triangle choke of Shane Carwin wasn’t as technically sound as it could’ve been but with the sort of brute force Lesnar commanded Carwin was going to tap at some point. It was a bullying style, set up with physical prowess and a bit of fear, and eventually after the sort of soul-snatching illness he endured it wasn’t enough to overcome the changing landscape of MMA heavyweights. The nearly two years he spent on the shelf, instead of training, put the nail in the coffin of his fighting career. Eventually he’d succumb to the better fighters in the division, the disease just accelerated it.
The man would be the division’s bully found himself on the outside looking in and being just a normal fighter wasn’t enough for him. Brock would walk away and MMA fans en masse were quick to mock him on his way out. He may have been the sport’s first big superstar but Lesnar was never really accepted by the masses as a fighter. There was always a qualifier when you were at a bar for a Lesnar fight; fans en masse showed up but hardcore fans tended to snub their nose at them.
“Lesnar wasn’t one of us, he was one of them” was always the attitude and mindset, even if no one said it aloud.
He may have brought in audiences and been one of the biggest PPV draws in UFC history but Lesnar never was embraced like other fighters. Even in his last fight against Alistair Overeem he received at best what you could call a “mixed” reaction; even after coming back from a surgery to cure a disease that nearly claimed his life Lesnar was never going to win the hearts and minds of MMA fans. WWE fans never minded this and when Lesnar showed up for Monday Night Raw he got a reaction from a Miami crowd rejoicing. The fans didn’t care that he had walked out on them once before because he couldn’t stomach the schedule. You could see the joy in Lesnar’s eyes as he walked down to the ring against John Cena. The spectacle of it all was more than enough; his level of acceptance by WWE fans would never fade because Lesnar was always their guy. They embraced him en masse in a way that MMA fans never would.
In a world of pretend tough guys and fake badasses he was the real thing, proven inside the Octagon. MMA is better off without him in it if it’s a place where Lesnar’s heart isn’t in it. And Monday night proved that Lesnar’s heart is into being a guy who coordinates his fights beforehand.
Tags: Brock Lesnar, Mixed Martial Arts, UFC