Brock Lesnar shocked the MMA world when he entered the UFC and dominated as he had done wrestling in high school, college, and the world of sports entertainment. Here is the story of how Lesnar climbed to the top of the MMA mountain despite not being wanted there in the first place!
"He is a freak super athlete. You have a guy who struggles to make 265 lbs and moves like a guy who weighs 150 lbs. If you can teach that guy to move correctly, throw punches, kicks, and submit guys, that guy’s going to create problems. Not to mention a 2000 NCAA National Champion wrestler, that’s a freak combination. That’s a very rare human being!"
– Dana White on Brock Lesnar before his UFC fight with Randy Couture
"I want to truly compete at the highest level."
– Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar Enters The Competitive World of MMA
Getting his start in wrestling as young as five years old, Brock Lesnar won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) title at Bismarck State College. Soon later, at the University of Minnesota, Lesnar compiled an impressive 55-3 record with 23 pins, becoming the NCAA Division I Wrestling Champion in 2000.
By 2002, “The Beast Incarnate” transferred his mat skills to the entertainment business by joining WWE and making his presence felt immediately.
Five years later, Brock would set his eyes on a new field: Mixed Martial Arts.
In June 2007, Brock Lesnar believed that he had turned the corner and left behind the stigma that came from being a pro wrestler after easily defeating Min-Soo Kim in his MMA debut at the massive K-1 Dynamite USA event at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
He couldn’t have been further from the truth.
"I’m an amateur wrestler first, and a pro wrestler second," Lesnar explained to an interviewer after the show.
“My amateur wrestling is who I am, and I’m going to evolve as a fighter. Unfortunately, I have a black cloud over my head because I was a pro wrestler. I had a point to prove tonight: That I am a fighter. I have a very big heart for this fight game, and I’m going to be around for a while.”
Brock Lesnar wasn’t content on being in the minor leagues for long. His goal was to be in the UFC and to become its champion. But getting the attention of the premier MMA organization wasn’t going to be easy.
UFC president Dana White had experienced a bad taste in his mouth after months of talks with Kurt Angle that went nowhere. They had no interest in dealing with another pro wrestler.
However, that would all change in August of 2007, when Brock Lesnar made his presence felt by attending UFC 74: Respect to watch Randy Couture defend his heavyweight title against Gabriel Gonzaga. Lesnar bought front row seats, but the UFC cameras kept far away from him. The UFC was ignoring Lesnar, and he didn’t like it one bit.
To make his presence known, he jumped down to the main floor, pushed his way through the crowd, and walked right past security. Once near the Octagon, he found himself directly behind Dana White. He then tapped him on the shoulder and introduced himself. They soon found an empty room in the back of the arena where Dana sat with Lesnar and his lawyers.
Dana cut to the chase and asked Lesnar point blank, "What makes you think you can do this, Brock? What makes you think you can be in the UFC with the best fighters in the world? There are no easy fights here in the UFC."
"I don’t want easy fights," answered Lesnar. "I want to be in the UFC, and I want to compete at that level."
Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, UFC 81: Breaking Point
Frank Mir was the perfect opponent for Brock Lesnar’s UFC debut. Mir was a former world champion with a respectable enough pedigree, so fans couldn’t accuse the UFC of feeding Lesnar a glorified punching bag. Frank Mir was no tomato can, and Lesnar would have his work cut out for him.
But Mir also struggled with the after-effects of a motorcycle crash that had cost him his title and almost his career. It took him four years to get back to the level he was before the wreck, and the UFC came close to cutting him on numerous occasions. Now was his chance for the spotlight once again.
On February 2nd, 2008, the Mandalay Bay Events Center on the Las Vegas strip was ready for the debut of "The Beast," WWE Superstar Brock Lesnar in the co-main event of UFC 81: Breaking Point. The UFC had what they believed to be a bankable name, and they planed to take full advantage of it.
TNA World Champion Kurt Angle, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and The Undertaker were in attendance to watch the action. Lesnar’s wife Rena, better known to wrestling fans as the stunning Sable, was also in attendance to cheer on and support her husband. Brock Lesnar was in phenomenal shape and looked very comfortable in the pre-bout introductions.
Did you know: Brock Lesnar’s hands were so big that the regular XL UFC gloves didn’t fit. They had to custom make 4XL gloves for him to use. Lesnar called his fists “canned hams,” while other opponents reported that they looked more like lunchboxes!
Once the bout commenced, Brock Lesnar exploded like a caged animal. Almost immediately, Lesnar took Frank Mir down and pummeled the dazed fighter. It looked like a bully having his way on the playground with a seemingly defenseless kid.
With Lesnar dominating the action on the ground, referee Steve Mazzagatti suddenly intervened and separated the two, claiming that Lesnar needed to be deducted a point due to striking the back of Frank Mir’s head.
The bout continued after Mir took time to come to his senses. But then Brock Lesnar made a fatal rookie mistake by finding himself caught in a kneebar submission.
Brock Lesnar’s UFC debut was exciting but very short-lived. Nevertheless, UFC officials were ecstatic as it seemed Lesnar wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan after all, and they had one solid pay-per-view riding on his broad shoulders.
Never shy about sharing his opinion, UFC President Dana White was willing to admit he was wrong about Lesnar, as recounted in the book, Shooters: The Toughest Men in Wrestling by Jonathan Snowden.
"All the guys came up to me- [Matt] Hughes, [Quinton] Rampage [Jackson], [UFC’s flagship star Chuck] Lidell- and said, ‘This guy’s going to be scary in a couple of years.’ He needs time. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think he could come in here with only one fight and compete on this level. He proved me wrong."
Brock Lesnar was visibly disappointed with the result but understood that success wouldn’t elude him for long if he corrected some small mistakes. He needed to work on being a more relaxed and controlled fighter, polish up his game, and get himself back in the gym to prepare for his next fight.
"I understand that I’ve got 15 minutes to try and win. I really rushed that fight, and I made a foolish mistake," admitted Lesnar. "I had Frank in a dominant position, and I stood up and fed him a foolish amateur mistake, and it was something we worked on a million times."
Brock Lesnar vs. Heath Herring, UFC 87: Seek and Destroy
Next in line was supposed to be former UFC champion and wrestling Olympian Mark Coleman who had essentially provided a template for wrestlers everywhere by dominating his opponents with his ground and pound style.
Coleman had never been a slick submission artist and never tried anything outrageous but instead stuck to head butts, elbows, and punches while he had his prey on the mat.
Coleman struggled once the UFC implemented rule changes to civilize the sport because he preferred the former no-holds-barred early days of the UFC where even blows to the crotch were legal.
Coleman found himself behind the times and refused to add to his arsenal to stay relevant. He bowed out of the fight against Lesnar, and instead, Pride star Heath Herring, who had more than sixty kickboxing and MMA fights under his belt, was next in line to face the intimidating South Dakotan.
Under significant pressure to win, Brock Lesnar’s first show drew 600,000 pay-per-view buys, with half of them coming from first-time buyers. But winning was what UFC was about, and it was unlikely that they’d stick with a main eventer that didn’t deliver. Fan interest would also quickly take a nosedive.
Leading up to the bout versus Heath Herring, a confident Brock Lesnar proclaimed, "There’s one thing this fight will not be, and that’s boring. I guarantee you that. Brock Lesnar is legit. We’re going to win this fight."
Lesnar needed to win big fights; he had eschewed the more typical route where a fighter progressively proves himself against tough competition. Lesnar started at the top and wasn’t about to switch and become a mid-carder. He was either going to become a champion or move on to other things.
For this second chance in the Octagon, Lesnar brought in seven-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion Pete Medeiros to help him train. The world was about to see a different Lesnar in his second UFC fight.
In the pre-fight interviews, Lesnar believed that one of the advantages he had over other fighters was that he had lots of footage on everyone. In contrast, his opponents had very little footage on him, so nobody knew his weaknesses.
"If we win this one, it’ll be the final nail in the coffin [for Brock Lesnar]," said Heath Herring.
August 9th, 2008, saw UFC 87 hosted at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota- the adopted home of Brock Lesnar. Still vivid in the echoes of his mind, he carried the nagging feeling of how he’d carelessly lost against Frank Mir in his UFC debut.
But he couldn’t dwell on this, for he had a much more experienced and dangerous fighter in Heath Herring waiting to face him and perhaps end his UFC career.
Brock Lesnar dominated from the start and rocked Herring with a punch that sent him tumbling to the mat, where Lesnar remained in control for the whole first round. He was more composed during this match and methodically began breaking down his opponent. A battered Health Herring looked relieved to have survived the first round.
The second round was much of the same, with Herring hardly prevailing against Lesnar’s ground and pound and the flurry of powerful punches and knees delivered by "The Beast."
If points were awarded for surviving rounds and having guts, Herring would’ve taken both. Herring’s face looked puffy and deformed with the doctors evaluating whether the fight should continue.
But once round three began, Herring was game and stood right in the middle of the Octagon to finish off the bout strong. Lesnar was going to have to beat Herring because he wasn’t just going to quit.
In his memoir Death Clutch: My Story of Determination, Domination and Survival, Lesnar stated, "I don’t think Heath took me seriously, and that rubbed me the wrong way. He looked at me like I was a greenhorn, a WWE wrestler who didn’t belong in the Octagon with an experienced veteran like him. He acted as if It was beneath him to fight me, and I was determined to make him eat his own words."
Dana White had suggested to Brock Lesnar that perhaps he should learn to fight somewhere else and that the UFC wasn’t a place to learn to fight. But in only his third-ever MMA contest, Brock Lesnar took home a convincing one-sided win.
After the fight, but before the official decision, a riled-up Lesnar pretended to lasso “The Texas Crazy Horse” Heath Herring and acted as though he was riding ride him like a bucking bronco. UFC fans, used to mutual respect after the fights, didn’t quite know what to think.
He hadn’t buckled under the pressure. Heath Herring had done all the buckling, thanks to Lesnar’s overpowering blows and demoralizing ground and pound strategy.
No doubt about it, Brock Lesnar had arrived. "Can you see me now!?" had become Brock Lesnar’s famous saying in the UFC, and people took notice.
His next opponent was supposed to be French striker Cheick Kongo, but instead, Lesnar would go all the way to the top and challenge for the UFC Heavyweight Championship.
"What a great opportunity. A once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m going to seize this moment. I’m going to seize this opportunity, and I’m going to seize that UFC Heavyweight Title."
– Brock Lesnar, before facing Randy Couture at UFC 91.
UFC 91: Couture vs. Lesnar
Unlike the previous UFC pay-per-views Lesnar had been a part of, this one didn’t have a name and was simply called Couture vs. Lesnar. That is how confident the UFC was about these two men headlining the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Randy Couture had been away from the Octagon for almost a year in a brutal contract dispute with the UFC that saw dueling press conferences, leaked contract terms, and name-calling.
Most expected Couture to challenge the UFC in court to get out of his contract, but at 45 years old, the two-time Olympian and bona fide Octagon legend saw his window of opportunity rapidly closing and decided to let the bad blood subside.
Although Dana White claimed Brock Lesnar wasn’t ready for a title shot, money and Couture both said otherwise.
Randy Couture represented Lesnar’s polar opposite. While Lesnar represented a brash and cocky pro wrestler, Couture represented the humble, respectful fighting culture. But Lesnar was on a different level and possessed the kind of charisma that drew everybody in the room to him.
Falling just short of a million pay-per-view buys, UFC 91 didn’t become the best-selling event in the company’s history but was still an enormous success. Lesnar had the opportunity to become only the third pro wrestler in history (Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn are the other two) to win the UFC title.
With a record of 16-8, Randy "The Natural" Couture entered the fight as champion. Most of his fights had been for a title. His most significant advantage over Lesnar, who was now being referred to as "Superhuman" by UFC fans, was his experience.
"He is a freak super athlete," offered Dana White before the fight. "You have a guy who struggles to make 265 lbs and moves like a guy who weighs 150 lbs. If you can teach that guy to move correctly, throw punches, kicks, and submit guys, that guy’s going to create problems. Not to mention a 2000 NCAA National Champion wrestler, that’s a freak combination. That’s a very rare human being!"
Randy mentioned that Brock Lesnar’s straight ahead and one-dimensional fighting style reminded him of how he used to fight ten years prior. Lesnar went on to answer, "We’re going to come in and show Randy Couture that he’s just too damn old to be here."
Before the fight, 54% of fans texted that Randy Couture would retain his title. They were wrong.
Randy Couture certainly sounded like the crowd favorite in the arena, but it wasn’t enough to pull him through. The first round saw a very even fight with both men wrestling on the ground and taking little damage from one other.
Surprisingly, the fight ended in the second round by TKO.
With a right punch grazing Couture on the temple, he went down. A crushing hammer fist from Lesnar, coupled with more than a dozen more blows, pushed the referee to stop the fight.
Against all odds, Brock Lesnar, a former pro wrestler, had come to arguably the most competitive MMA league, and in only his third contest, became the champion.
Randy Couture stayed on the mat for quite a while as medical attention surrounded him. Once back to his feet, the crowd rained down their approval in appreciation, but there was now a new king of MMA.
Rena joined her husband in the middle of the Octagon. After they hugged, Lesnar kissed her around her abdomen. Duke Lesnar was born a few months later.
A much more subdued Lesnar didn’t taunt anyone this time. Once presented with the championship belt, a humble Lesnar said, "I want to thank Dana, the UFC, and Randy Couture. He had a lot of balls taking the year off and coming back to fight a young buck like me. I got the utmost respect for Randy Couture."
He continued, "I just believe in hard work and that it pays off. I may come across as a cocky SOB, but I’m just confident. That’s what the Lord gave me. He gave me my body and my mind. God bless you."
The Aftermath of Becoming UFC Champion
Brock Lesnar would go on to have a tumultuous but short four-and-a-half-year career in the UFC. After two successful title defenses against Frank Mir and Shane Carwin, he’d lose two straight bouts against Cain Velazquez and Alistair Overeem.
He also battled severe health issues related to his digestive tract (diverticulitis), where he needed emergency surgery to have 12 inches removed from his lower intestine at the Mayo Clinic. His planned fight against Junior Dos Santos never happened.
Brock Lesnar returned five years later in 2016 to co-main event UFC 200 against Mark Hunt in a non-title bout.
Lesnar won, but the UFC overturned the win and declared it a no-contest after revealing that Lesnar failed a pre-fight drug test administered on June 28nd and a second one on July 9th, the same night the match took place. Lesnar tested positive for clomiphene and hydroxy-clomiphene, an anti-estrogen agent.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission later fined Lesnar $250,000, 10 percent of his $2.5 million purse, and suspended him for one year.
Mark Hunt sought millions in damages, accusing the UFC, Dana White, and Brock Lesnar of collusion ahead of their bout to allow Lesnar to use performance-enhancing drugs. He also accused the UFC of delaying the fight’s date to help Lesnar circumvent anti-doping rules and alleged he suffered financial damages as a result.
He also claimed federal and state anti-racketeering violations, fraud, and breach of contract.
The US District Court for the District of Nevada ultimately disagreed with Hunt’s claims except for one and thus ordered Hunt and the UFC to reach a mandatory settlement. The same court dismissed all claims against White and Lesnar.
Other than the unfortunate turn of events during his second stint in the Octagon, in his first run in the UFC, Brock Lesnar accomplished more than most fighters do in a lifetime, winning the UFC title and becoming the sport’s biggest box-office draw.
"He made a lot of money in his career and achieved a lot of things," admits Dana White. "He brought a lot of excitement to the heavyweight division. What he accomplished in a short time is amazing."
These stories may also interest you:
- Muhammad Ali, Antonio Inoki, and the Controversial Birth of MMA
- Kurt Angle and Ken Shamrock | The MMA Fight That Almost Was
- Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman – A Bond That Runs Deep
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