Let's Remember A Guy: Brock Lesnar
What do you get when you combine size, strength, freakish athletic ability, and a deeply dull and incurious mind? One of the UFC's biggest stars, apparently.
Hello and welcome to Let’s Remember A Guy, a possibly regular feature in which we hit pause on the ceaseless MMA carousel of weekly fighting events to reflect on some figure from the sport’s past. This is not meant to imply that they are dead, retired, a good (or bad) person, or really anything else. It’s just an opportunity to remember a fighter who may or may not be all that well-known or understood by newer fans, while also giving those us who do remember him/her the chance to go, oh yeah I remember that guy. This week: Brock goddamn Lesnar.
I’ve often thought that sports writing needs some kind of semi-official metric to measure a few important factors that, collectively, determine the value and quality of any story about one particular person. I propose that this metric be called The Lesnar Scale, and that it measure three key variables:
1. Ease of access to the subject
2. Level of interest that the reading public has in the subject
3. Difficulty in getting anything worth a damn out of the subject
In all of MMA history, I don’t know if there’s anyone who scores higher (or lower, depending on how you think about it) on this scale than its namesake, Brock Lesnar.
Ease of access to subject? He was definitely a 1. Or a zero. Whatever the absolute lowest point was. His entire time in MMA, there was no such thing as a quick, easy interview with him. You couldn’t text him real fast just to confirm or deny something. You couldn’t speak to him without going through handlers or managers or middlemen of some sort. I once did a magazine profile on the man while he was UFC heavyweight champ, for which I was afforded roughly 20-30 minutes of his time at a hotel breakfast buffet. Even that required weeks of emails and guarantees and assurances first just to set it up.
But the level of interest that the reading public had in the subject? Easily a 10, every damn time. Even years after he’d lost the UFC title. Even well past the point when it became clear he didn’t really want to be a fighter anymore. Even now his name in a headline guarantees increased interest and attention. From the moment he showed up on the scene – hell, even before then, when it was simply a rumor that he might bail on pro wrestling (or the NFL) and try out MMA – the fight game was utterly fascinated with the big man. No one else captured our attention so quickly while clearly giving so little a shit about it.
Which, of course, brings us to the difficulty in getting anything worth a damn out of the subject. Here Lesnar was also a 10. It’s not just that he wasn’t an interesting interview. It’s more that he was such a colossal blockhead that it was as if the very idea of an interesting and engaging conversation was totally foreign to him. One of his Lesnar’s go-to moves in interviews was to treat every question as if it was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. It’s a classic Big Dumb Guy move, really. When you don’t exactly have much capacity for expansive or abstract thought, but you’re also used to everyone being frightened of or at least endlessly deferential to you, you can mask your own dull simplicity with a scoffing disdain. This is what I recall most when I think back to the times I interviewed Lesnar. I picture him sitting there, chomping on a piece of gum as he half-listened to every question, then making that pffffft face that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever interacted with a 13-year-old boy. Now try turning that into an interesting story when you go home to write it up.
But again, thanks to how high he scored in the interest category, it almost didn’t matter whether or not you wrote a good story. People were always interested. Lesnar isn’t the only fighter to max out the score here. Conor McGregor is also a 10. So was Ronda Rousey, in her time. Both of them are also incredibly difficult to get to. But at least with Rousey and McGregor you could count on them giving you something for all your trouble once you did get them. They had a knack for producing memorable quotes. They had some real, actual charisma. Lesnar, on the other hand, was always better off as the pro wrestling character who just stood there being big while his manager did all the talking for him.
Looking back on the Lesnar Era in the UFC, I think what it really has to teach us is how far you can go in this sport on pure potential and raw ability. At least at that time, and in that division, an enormous man with a strong wrestling base and a lot of natural physical gifts could really just show up and become champ in roughly a year’s time with all of four (4!!!) professional fights.
Seriously, that actually happened. Lesnar technically made his MMA debut in a joke of a fight with Min Soo Kim (who at the time was 2-5 in MMA) at a K-1 Hero’s/EliteXC co-promotion at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2007. Eight months later he was in the UFC, getting kneebarred by Frank Mir for his first loss in his second pro fight. By the end of that year he was heavyweight champ, having knocked out MMA legend and woefully undersized heavyweight Randy Couture with his go-go-Gadget arms that just happened to have giant-ass lunchbox fists on the end of them. Poor Randy. He thought he’d slipped that punch, or that he was out of range maybe. But the punch just kept on coming and its path of destruction was much wider than it first appeared.
Lesnar was already a superstar well before any of this. He’d been a big deal in the WWE, then caused a big ruckus when he left and briefly tried to be a pro football player, then ditched that too and came to MMA, where we don’t ask you to learn too much craft as long as you can sell tickets. He had a good head start, having been an NCAA champion wrestler. He just had to learn how to stay out of submissions and throw a decent punch. His freakish power and athleticism – people forget now just how agile and quick prime Lesnar was, especially for such a monstrous human – would handle the rest.
And yeah, that’s pretty much how it happened. Lesnar set up his own training camp, importing coaches and sparring partners as needed. His preparations were all very secretive. I remember talking to Pat Barry once while he was Lesnar’s kickboxing sparring partner-in-residence, and Barry was afraid to even admit where in the United States he was, lest he be accused of violating Lesnar’s privacy.
That sense of privacy was very important to Lesnar. This always struck me as one of the great ironies of his life and career. Here was a man who seemed at times like all he wanted in the world was to be left entirely alone in a remote setting. The only other thing he wanted was a whole bunch of money, but in order to get that second thing he had to ignore his impulse toward the first thing. The more famous he got, the more he seemed to despise it. Being gawked at was the price he paid to get rich, and it was like he always resented that aspect of the bargain while also being totally unable to refuse it.
This is one of the few specific moments I remember now about that breakfast buffet interview I did with him. We were in Columbus, Ohio, the week of the Arnold Classic. He’d come to stand around in a T-shirt promoting some supplement sponsor of his. I’d come to cover the UFC event in town that weekend. I first made contact with him at a private event put on by the supplement company, and here I got to be the one to tell him the unfortunate news that Frank Mir was injured and out of their planned rematch. The news had just broken that day, but apparently nobody had thought to tell Lesnar, and it wasn’t like he was reading MMA websites on the regular.
(Side note: That night I attended a party at some Columbus nightclub with an annoying frat bro vibe and I talked to Mir’s manager, Dean Albrecht, who told me that Mir had always been hurt, that he’d never told the UFC he’d be healthy enough to make the planned date with Lesnar, but the UFC announced it as the main event anyway. When he asked why they’d do that, knowing the fight wouldn’t actually happened as planned, he said the reply he got was: “you can’t sell tickets without a main event.” Something to think about when you hear “fight card subject to change.”)
The next morning at breakfast Lesnar was sulking about the fight being off, all the money he’d lose out on and so forth. As gently as I could I inquired, yeah, but it wasn’t like he was hurting for cash, right? He’d been a WWE star and now was likely the highest-paid fighter in the UFC. Plus, he lived out on a damn farm in Minnesota or some shit. It wasn’t like he was blowing through money with a lavish lifestyle, was he?
Here we verged into a conversation about Lesnar’s spending habits, and for the first time in our interview he seemed passionate about something. That something? His fervent resolve to never again buy a new car.
“New cars are the biggest fuckjob in the world,” he said. They lost value as soon as you drove them off the lot. You could get more or less the same car used for thousands of dollars less. It was all a scam. He refused to be taken in by it. His own life and career didn’t seem to interest him at all. But this? This was important.
I tried to bring us back around to the whole prizefighting thing. He’d made clear that he was only in it for the money. He didn’t care about titles or legacy. He wasn’t interested in testing himself against the best in the world, or any of that other shit that fighters sometimes say. He was here for the cash. End of story. So how much money is enough, I asked him.
“No such thing,” he told me. He seemed to mean it, too.
I thought about this often over the years. I thought about it when Lesnar, having lost his title and been soundly beaten by guys like Cain Velasquez and Alistair Overeem, ditched MMA and went back to pro wrestling. I thought about it every time I heard some story about how Lesnar wanted to be paid more to do less in the WWE. He didn’t ever seem to really enjoy it. He certainly always hated the travel involved. And yet he kept coming back for more and more and more. A lot of pro wrestlers (and pro fighters) do that because they become addicted to the feeling as much as the money. But with Lesnar it was hard to tell. Was he really that convinced that there was no such thing as enough money? Or did he just not know what to make of himself whenever he was occasionally granted his wish to be left alone?
Was Lesnar a good fighter? I mean, yes. Sort of. He probably could have been a great one. He never really got comfortable with being hit, though. Getting seriously sick with diverticulitis didn’t help either. His growth as a martial artist seemed limited by his own lack of interest or curiosity at times. Maybe he was just so used to being instantly incredible at each new sport that he never developed the discipline or drive to commit to one for a long time and really get all the details right.
That’s not to say he didn’t improve, especially in the striking department. But he also seemed mostly content to go as far as his natural ability could take him, which was pretty damn far, and then move on to easier money elsewhere. Plus, who needs the hassle from drug tests and athletic commissions, always checking to see what’s in your foot cream? There’s other ways for a guy like him to keep the cash flowing in. And why would he ever want that to stop?
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