Brock Lesnar announced his retirement in the cage at UFC 141.
The man from Webster, South Dakota who had faced down the toughest heavyweights the sport has to offer as well as two separate bouts with diverticulitis, said he was fulfilling a promise to his family that if he lost to Alistair Overeem, he would pack in his MMA career and head back home. Thus ending the career of the most famous 5-3 fighter in the history of the sport, a man whose arrival on the MMA scene was as sudden and violent as his departure. A whirlwind of a career that packed highlights and controversy into four years what it takes others a lifetime to accomplish.
His sudden departure from the sport will only further his near-mythical status, turning him into the MMA equivalent of Keyser Soze.
“I work for Keyser Soze.
Who’s Keyser Soze?
Judging from the sudden change in mood….I’m sure your associates can tell you.”
Lesnar burst onto the MMA scene in 2007 after a career as a pro wrestler and a failed attempt at making the NFL as a walk-on. The former NCAA amateur wrestling champion debuted at K-1 HERO’s debut on US soil, taking on Korean judoka Min Soo Kim. Lesnar destroyed Kim in just over a minute, and the MMA world waited with baited breath to see what he would do next. They wouldn’t have to wait long.
At UFC 77, Dana White announced that Lesnar had indeed signed with the promotion, and would make his debut in the main event of UFC 81, taking on veteran Frank Mir. The move immediately polarized the MMA fanbase, with some decrying how a “phony pro wrestler” with a career record of 1-0 could be put in a prestigious main event slot. Others chose to focused on Lesnar’s collegiate background, size and athleticism and wondered if we might be seeing the birth of something truly special.
The time came for UFC 81 and as soon as the bell sounded, Lesnar immediately took Mir down and unleashed with vicious ground and pound. As Mir turned his head, one of Lesnar’s canned ham-sized fists made contact with the back of the head. Referee Steve Mazzagatti immediately called time and deducted a point for the foul, then stood both fighters back up. Lesnar appeared angry, but after the restart dropped Mir with a cannon-like right hand and resumed the ground and pound. Mir, the jiu-jitsu expert, worked to retain guard and Lesnar made the rookie mistake of standing up, leaving his leg exposed. A kneebar later, and Lesnar had lost his UFC debut.
The result undoubtedly was not the one Lesnar wanted, but the debut was still impressive. People who had doubted Lesnar’s claim for a place on the UFC roster went silent. The volume and ferocity of the ground and pound Lesnar had dished out had won over many of his detractors and left pundits wondering who hew would take on next.
“Soze showed these men of will what will really was.”
Lesnar’s next opponent proved to be Heath Herring, the Pride veteran who almost equalled Lesnar’s size and was famous for both his wars with Minotauro Nogueira and crazy hairstyles. Herring, the logic went, would be a good litmus test of just how much Lesnar was “for real”, and show where he was in the division’s pecking order. The answer was clear just seconds into the fight, as Lesnar landed a massive right hand that sent Herring somersaulting backwards. Lesnar pounced on Herring and never let up, using his wrestling to completely neutralize Herring en route to a unanimous decision victory. “Can you see me now?” Lesnar bellowed in his post-fight interview. Indeed, every pair of eyes in the sport were now focused directly on him.
UFC Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture was embroiled in a contract dispute with Zuffa at this time, so the promotion had created an interim Heavyweight title, held by Minotauro Nogueira, who was prepared to defend that title against Frank Mir. In a move that surprised many, Couture reached a settlement with Zuffa and agreed to return to the octagon to defend his title against the heavyweight division’s new phenom, Brock Lesnar.
Couture had a history of doing what was perceived to be impossible. He did it so many times that you couldn’t use the word “upset”, Couture simply defied the odds. He had won the heavyweight title by defeating Tim Sylvia, a man even larger than Lesnar. It was a clash between a wily veteran known for having the best game plans in the sport and a man who looked and fought like he was created by scientists in a genetic engineering lab.
The clash at UFC 91 was billed by some as the biggest in UFC history. Couture was attempting to employ a strategy that involved a lot of clinch work but was tellingly having difficulty with Lesnar’s size and strength. Then it happened. Midway through the second round, Lesnar nailed Couture with a right hand that landed behind the ear and hit Couture’s reset button. The follow-up ground and pound was merely elementary as the fight was stopped and Lesnar was declared victorious. There was no one who could dare doubt Lesnar now. He was now at the pinnacle of the sport. He was the Heavyweight Champion of the world.
The fight not only determined that Lesnar was the top fighter in the heavyweight division, he was now the company’s top pay per view draw. UFC 91 did over one million buys and at the time was the second highest drawing card in the promotion’s history. But there was one dragon that had to be slain, one loss that had to be avenged. Frank Mir.
Mir had defeated Nogueira for the interim Heavyweight title and now he and Lesnar were poised to face each other in a rematch to unify the two titles. The event was to be held at UFC 100, a historic number that UFC hyped massively. The two had exchanged taunts in the media, with Lesnar claiming Mir was simply lucky in their first encounter and putting much of the blame for the loss on referee Steve Mazzagatti. Mir responded by saying that he was hoping Lesnar would be the UFC’s first in-cage fatality.
They met at the centre of the octagon for the staredown each flanked by extra security. The amount of rhetoric between the two had increased so much that no one was wanting to take any chances that the fight might begin before the bell.
Lesnar pulverized Mir over the next two rounds before referee Herb Dean (who was appointed the official after Lesnar has specifically requested that Mazzagatti not be assigned to the fight) called a merciful end. Mir’s face was was a grotesque sight, swollen and bloody. Lesnar then went on a post-fight tirade in his interview where he not only insulted Mir but UFC sponsor Bud Light, and also talked about his plans to “get on top of his wife” later in the evening.
UFC 100 smashed the all-time pay-per-view record with a staggering 1.6 million buys. The event is still by far the highest-grossing event in the promotion’s history. ESPN covered both Lesnar’s win and post-fight antics. Brock Lesnar was mainstream. There appeared to be nothing that could stop him.
“He becomes a myth. A spook story. Something criminals tell their kids at night. ‘Rat on your Pop, and Keyser Soze will get you.’”
Indeed a took something outside the cage to bring down the Lesnar juggernaut. In November 2009, Dana White announced that Lesnar had taken ill with diverticulitis, and the future of his career was in doubt. Lesnar didn’t return to the cage until the next summer to face Shane Carwin, who had won an interim title in Lesnar’s absence. Carwin battered Lesnar in the first round, with Lesnar showing a vulnerability that had eluded him to this point in his career. Carwin exhausted himself from punching and in the second round Lesnar took advantage, sinking an arm-triangle choke and again becoming the undisputed Heavyweight Champion.
The formerly invincible veneer of Lesnar had been shattered however. He continued to insist he had made a complete recovery from his illness but questions persisted whether Lesnar was the same fighter that had struck fear throughout the division. His next title defence against Cain Velasquez saw Velasquez dominate Lesnar en route to a second round stoppage. Without the title and forced to re-evaluate his approach, Lesnar prepared for a number one contender fight against Brazilian striker Junior dos Santos.
During training for the dos Santos fight, Lesnar’s diverticulitis returned. This time, Lesnar was forced to undergo a major operation that removed a foot of his colon. Again his career was thrown in doubt as the toll on Lesnar’s health was immense. He sat out for a full year before the loss to Overeem, in which the Dutch kickboxer targeted his surgically repaired midsection with pinpoint accuracy.
“And like that, …. he’s gone.”
Lesnar became a legendary figure in his brief career. He retires with four of the top-six highest grossing pay-per-views in company history. Additionally, he became the prototype of the new generation of heavyweights who cut weight to make the 265 pound limit but sacrifice nothing in the way of skill. In the end, it was not a fighter but a disease that felled the monolithic warrior. He will be remembered as a Tyson-like figure, known not just for his vicious power but his controversial nature. He has the sort of mythic quality that transcends the sport. In the future people will ask of heavyweights of the day “could he have beaten Lesnar in his prime?” as if he were a spectre haunting the heavyweight division from his reclusive ranch in South Dakota. Lesnar’s impact will be felt for years to come.
All quotes from the film “The Usual Suspects”. If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately.
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