- Myron Medcalf, College Basketball Reporter
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Is it possible for a mixed martial artist to evolve within the confines of the Octagon after just two fights?
Is it possible that Brock Lesnar, the former WWE star who was taken out by leg lock in 89 seconds against Frank Mir in February, was a new fighter by the time he stepped into the cage for his three-round domination of Heath Herring in August?
Lesnar will have his chance to show whether he has matured into one of the UFC's top heavyweights when he takes on no-longer-sidelined-by-a-contract-dispute heavyweight champ Randy Couture, who hasn't fought in more than a year, at UFC 91 in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Lesnar's collegiate wrestling background, athleticism and size have given him all the building blocks to grow at a far more rapid pace than most fighters. And like an NFL rookie quarterback who throws his first pick, Lesnar has only grown since the Mir loss because of his devotion to the craft and to not making the same mistakes twice.
"That first fight for me against Frank was a huge fight for me," Lesnar said during Thursday's conference call. "I went in, obviously, I learned a lot, just to relax and control a fight and I've got 15 minutes to win a fight. Coming off the [Heath] Herring fight, I just try to improve in the gym off of that. We watched that fight over, probably, 100 times looking for other things I can do to stay busy and to stay more dominant There's a lot of things we picked apart just to grow as a fighter. I want to grow every single day."
For the Couture fight, Lesnar took his training camp to a remote spot in northern Minnesota. For previous bouts, Lesnar trained at a gym in the Twin Cities, where locals remember his storied NCAA wrestling career at the University of Minnesota, where he won a national championship, and WWE followers recognize him from his days as "The Next Big Thing."
This time around, Lesnar wanted to prepare away from any potential distractions for his fight against Couture, who will fight for the first time since August '07 but has trained continuously with a deep stable of fighters from his Las Vegas gym. Couture emerged as a heavyweight top dog after beating Tim Sylvia and Gabriel Gonzaga in 2007, and he has an extensive Greco-Roman wrestling background. Because of the way he has performed in recent years, few believe his age, 45, puts him at a disadvantage.
Lesnar said last week that he doesn't have any concerns about Couture, but he also respects his legacy. Lesnar said he isolated himself so he could study the most important opponent of his brief MMA career. He also brought in former Minnesota wrestling assistant Marty Morgan, who trained with Couture as both attempted to make the Greco-Roman wrestling teams for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
"I had to move my camp a couple hours away up in northern Minnesota," Lesnar said. "We're out in the back woods for about eight and a half or nine weeks, kind of away from the outside world. All we had was Randy Couture fights and Randy Couture books to read so we got to know Randy pretty well."
Anyone who watched Lesnar's first two UFC fights could see the difference between the two.
Against Mir, Lesnar did what few expected from an inexperienced fighter: He dominated Mir for the bulk of their match before making a costly mistake against the former champ.
Five months later, Lesnar struck Pride veteran Herring with a right hand in the opening seconds that catapulted him back to somewhere in Japan, where he fought before joining the UFC in 2007. But instead of pouncing prematurely, Lesnar bided his time and proceeded to dominate Herring, who entered the ring in the best shape of his life, for three rounds.
The added patience and precision paid off for Lesnar.
But Couture has had his share of beastly characters. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound fighter didn't have a size advantage when he faced Sylvia (6-8, 260) and Gonzaga (6-2, 252). But at 6-3, 275 -- depending what scale you use -- Lesnar will pose a unique challenge to Couture, who used his wrestling skills to control Gonzaga and Sylvia. Couture said he had trouble fighting gargantuan sparring partners to imitate Lesnar. But he also had the same problems during his preparation for Sylvia.
"It's hard to fight guys that are going to simulate a guy like Brock or a guy like Tim so there's been some déjà vu during this 10-week camp," Couture said. I think the outcome in the Sylvia [fight] was good, and I think it's going to pay off again in this fight."
Heading into Saturday's matchup, Lesnar talks like a confident fighter who is convinced that Couture will have to figure out a way to stop him, rather than the other way around. He's content with his own development in recent months, but he also is serious about making adjustments, as his strides in the past year have proved.
"He's a well-rounded fighter," Lesnar said about Couture. "Definitely experienced and a veteran in the Octagon. For me, it's just to try to dominate this fight and control, and I think he's got some of the same ideas, try to nullify me and my weaknesses, which I don't think I have too many . If I exposed any weaknesses against Herring, we fixed them."
Myron P. Medcalf is a staff writer for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and a freelancer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
With just two fights under his belt inside the Octagon, Brock Lesnar admits he's a work in progress. But what he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in devotion and work ethic, writes Myron Medcalf.