A Winding Road for Brock Lesnar
The reigning UFC champ has taken a path less traveled
ANAHEIM -- Pop quiz. What do you get when you take a 285-pound man that moves like a cat, an NCAA wrestling championship, three WWE wrestling championships, a failed stint in the NFL and a life threatening disease called diverticulitis? UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar of course. Did you expect anything else?
The path Lesnar paved to his heavyweight title defense on October 23rd at the Honda Center in UFC 121 is not a road most traveled by. Facing undefeated American Kickboxing Academy standout Cain Velasquez, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher had to clear more hurdles than a high school track team only to face one of the UFC's most highly touted heavyweight prospects. But Lesnar would not have it any other way.
Born in Webster, North Dakato, Lesnar found success in athletics early earning an undefeated record his senior year of high school in wrestling at 33-0. After a two year stint in junior college, he wrestled for the University of Minnesota becoming a two-time NCAA All-American and capping off his senior year with an NCAA national championship.
There are few options for college wrestlers once they leave school. If the talent and drive are there, they can pursue Olympic gold or coach, otherwise their wrestling career is over. So when president of the WWE Vince McMahon came knocking with a six-figure deal to trade in his singlet and wrestling shoes for spandex and a spray tan to become a professional wrestler, the young Lesnar saw the money and took it. Or to be more precise, he ran with it.
In a few short years, the farm boy from North Dakota became one of the biggest stars in sports entertainment. He became the youngest WWE champion at 25-years-old starting a stint that included three WWE championships, the 2002 King of the Ring and the winner of the 2003 Royal Rumble. Lesnar had money, fame and even married WWE Diva Rena Mero, better known as "Sable."
Lesnar could not have entered professional wrestling at a better time. Making his debut in 2002 in the then WWF, the 6'3" wrestler and the largest professional wrestling promotion in the world would share massive success hand in hand. Both Lesnar and the WWE were making millions in pay-per-view sales, live events, product licensing and direct product sales.
But the rigors of the professional wrestling circuit were starting to weigh on the future MMA superstar. The schedule of a featured WWE wrestler includes near daily travel, living in hotels and, in Lesnar's case specifically, away from his family. The physical toll is also excruciating wrestling several nights a week while maintaining a massive physique. By 2004, he had had enough.
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Leaving the WWE to the chagrin of company management and wrestling fans, Lesnar once again made the surprising move of turning in his spandex for shoulder pads and a helmet trying out for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Seen as a stunt by many, Lesnar assured the media he was serious about committing to playing for the team representing the state he lived in and vowed to be successful. Although he nearly made the team, avoiding being cut until late in the preseason, Lesnar was not asked to join the Vikings and was left without many options.
Yet another surprising change in profession came in 2006 when he announced he was entering Mixed Martial Arts. He started training with Minnesota Martial Arts Academy owner Greg Nelson and former Greco-Roman wrestling Olympian Marty Morgan. June of 2007 in K-1 Dynamite!! USA, Lesnar defeated Min Soo Kim at the Los Angeles Coliseum for his first professional MMA win.
It was shortly after that Dana White and the UFC came calling. Although he lost his first fight in the UFC to former heavyweight champion Frank Mir by kneebar, Lesnar looked impressive knocking down Mir with a punch before nearly finishing him. The UFC rookie was deducted a point for illegal strikes to the back of the head by referee Steve Mazzagatti, a controversial ruling, allowing Mir time to recover and ultimately submit Lesnar. He has yet to lose since.
Lesnar bounced back with a win over another veteran in Heath Herring and was immediately awarded a title shot against Hall of Famer Randy Couture. Lesnar defeated Couture in 2008 for the heavyweight strap and in July of 2009 avenged the only loss of his career to Frank Mir. After barely two years of professional fighting Lesnar held the most coveted title in MMA, defeated every opponent he had ever faced and cemented himself as the biggest draw in the UFC.
While in preparation to face the undefeated Shane Carwin, Lesnar's health started to fade. Famed trainer Erik Paulson, currently based out of Fullerton, CA, noted, "I was holding (striking) mitts for him and he could barely do one round. I knew at that point something was seriously wrong." Massive fatigue plagued the champion and he was forced to pull out of his bout with Carwin as doctors attempted to figure out what was wrong with him.
First diagnosed as mononucleosis, it was later discovered after several trips to different hospitals in both Canada and the US that Lesnar had a severe case of diverticulitis, an intestinal disorder, which required immediate surgery. Threatened with the possibility of having to wear a colostomy bag and never fighting again, Lesnar underwent the surgery successfully and began making a full recovery.
In January of 2010, Lesnar announced his return to the UFC in the following summer. After Shane Carwin defeated Frank Mir for the interim heavyweight title, Lesnar overcame a first round knock down at the hands of Carwin and won by submission in the second defending his title. The bout marked a major comeback in both the fight and Lesnar's ability to bounce back from a major illness.
Brock has the ability to see things and pick things up so fast. (His) sheer power more than anything. It's something people know nothing about.” -- Lesnar's trainer Erik Paulson
Lesnar's resiliency will once again be challenged in the form of top contender Cain Velasquez. The undefeated heavyweight has progressed nearly as fast as Lesnar in his run to the title and promises to deliver a stern test for how far he has come. The young Mexican-American fighter brings cardio, a hard work ethic, college wrestling background and a great kickboxing.
Erik Paulson has helped train Lesnar for his past several fights and has been working with Lesnar off and on for two months. Flying out to Lesnar's camp in Alexandria, MN every week for two weeks at a time, few have more insight into Lesnar's mostly secretive camp that Paulson.
When asked what separates Lesnar from the rest of the heavyweights in MMA he says, "Brock has the ability to see things and pick things up so fast, which most people don't." He also notes Lesnar's "sheer power more than anything. It's something people know nothing about." Its also Lesnar's work ethic in the room that gives him an edge losing up to twelve pounds of water weight in one practice.
With what Velasquez brings to the cage is also going to be a handful. The former two-time wrestling All-American from Arizona State has never been an easy takedown for anyone for in the UFC. But Paulson is confident in stating an emphatic, "No!" when asked if Lesnar will struggle taking him down. "He has a great gas tank so the biggest factor is the conditioning," concedes Paulson.
Regardless of how the fight goes on October 23rd at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA at UFC 121, Lesnar can hold his head high accomplishing as much as he has. Currently working with former WWE personality Paul Heyman, who accompanied Lesnar in his first WWE bout, he has already lived a life that could fill several volumes.
While Lesnar at 5-1 has defeated every man he has ever faced, he avenged his only loss when he defeated Frank Mir at UFC 100 by TKO, many experts have criticized his resume. If he beats Cain Velasquez at UFC 121, the champ would have defeated three opponents in a row with a combined record of 32-3 at the time he fought them and that is a path few, if any, have taken.
RJ Clifford is the host of MMA Worldwide LIVE on 710 ESPN Fridays at 10PM/PT. Follow RJ on twitter at twitter.com/rjcliffordmma.
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