Rattling The Cage
With his agility, aggressiveness and upper-body strength, Brock Lesnar took quickly to combat in MMA.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has penetrated the defenses of the mainstream with an assault that relies heavily on flash and glitz. UFC fights are flush with pulsating lights and market-tested music and celebrities du jour: Mandy Moore, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton. In between the 20 or so cards held each year, UFC fans troll forums and other online destinations -- that is, when they're not watching the reality show The Ultimate Fighter.
And in the opposite corner is ... the UFC's brightest and most polarizing star, heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar. A self-described Northern redneck, the 31-year-old Lesnar is a wood-splitting, truck-driving, real-life hunter-gatherer who owns more guns (dozens) than e-mail accounts (none). "The people I care about," he says, "they know where to find me if they need me."
The hottest fighter in this hot sport lives in frigid Alexandria, Minn. (pop. 11,187), a town approximately halfway between Fargo, N.D., and Minneapolis and a million cultural miles from the UFC's base in Las Vegas. Alexandria is the kind of place where Carhartts outnumber Nikes and pickups outnumber cars, where six inches of snow is considered a light dusting, and a restaurant marquee on the main drag triumphantly announces, we now serve pepsi!
On July 11 Lesnar will enter the Octagon, the UFC's steel cage, for a rematch against former heavyweight champ Frank Mir. As the main bout of UFC 100 in Las Vegas, Lesnar-Mir could well be the most profitable fight in mixed-martial-arts history, generating more than a million pay-per-view buys. True to himself, however, Lesnar is preparing for the event at his Alexandria training gym, a converted warehouse with no official name, much less a sign out front. The interior is occupied mostly by free weights, treadmills and a wrestling room. Sparring partners drive back and forth from Fargo, about 90 miles away, and the Twin Cities, about 110 miles distant. When the weather is bad, which is often, Lesnar provides them accommodations near the home he shares with his wife, Rena.
UFC image-making types have gently floated the idea that Lesnar relocate to somewhere a bit more accessible, but in this, as in his fights, the 6' 3", 265-pound Lesnar can't be pushed around. "Up here people let you lead your life," he says. "Even if you're the Britney Spears of Alexandria, it means you might have to sign one autograph on your way to go ice fishing."
Lesnar grew up two hours away in Webster, S.D., on a struggling family dairy farm. He was put to work early; he proudly notes that by age five he'd suffered two hernias lifting bales of hay. With his spiky blond hair and penchant for mischief, he reminded some people of Bart Simpson, but with a more active pituitary gland: When he graduated from high school in 1996 he could deadlift 600 pounds. That's a lot of hay.
Lesnar's college wrestling helped hone his body and competitive edge for the UFC.
Blessed with an alloy of strength, quickness and agility, Lesnar wrestled at Minnesota and won the 2000 NCAA heavyweight title in his senior year. (As a junior he lost in the final to Stephen Neal, now a New England Patriots lineman.) He was on only a partial scholarship, though, and he says that by the time he left, he owed $40,000 in student loans -- no small sum for the son of farmers living under constant threat of foreclosure. When World Wrestling Entertainment offered him a six-figure guarantee in a multiyear promotional contract, the decision was no decision at all. "I didn't have this in my pocket," he says, opening an empty hand. "I got into the business for business reasons. Make your money and get out."
With a rippling physique, obvious athleticism and a willingness to play the heel, Lesnar (a.k.a. the Next Big Thing) quickly ascended the WWE organizational chart. And like many who, barely out of adolescence, come into wealth overnight, he lived like a rock star. His Calvinist Upper Midwest ethic vanished: As he made more and more money, he bought houses, planes, gadgets and more vehicles than he could keep track of. "It definitely wasn't the same down-to-earth Brock I knew," says Marty Morgan, a friend who, as a wrestling assistant at Minnesota in the '90s, had recruited Lesnar. "He went from being an athlete to being in show business."
Within a few years Lesnar was beefing with The Rock and busting The Undertaker's hand with a propane tank. (For good measure he began dating Rena Mero, better known by her nom de ring, Sable.) In a memorable match in Wrestlemania XIX, Lesnar faced off against another former NCAA wrestling champion, Kurt Angle. After climbing the turnbuckle, Lesnar botched a "shooting star press" move and landed on his head. Thanks to some deft improv work by Angle, the concussed Lesnar still won.
For someone with Lesnar's taste for honest competition, the prearranged outcomes in the WWE were frustrating. "I'd put on the best damn show I could, and that's where the competition came from," he says. "If I couldn't beat you, I wanted to outperform you. But that gets old." So too did the 250 nights a year on the road. "It's a traveling f------ circus," Lesnar says with an ursine growl. "At first I enjoyed it, but I wasn't born to be a pro wrestler. You spread yourself so thin, you end up bitter."
In 2004 Lesnar left the WWE midway through a contract reportedly worth $45 million over seven years. With a great deal of fanfare he tried out for the Minnesota Vikings as a defensive tackle. He hadn't played a down of football since high school, but through sheer physical freakishness he held his own. At the time he was bench-pressing 475 pounds and squatting 700 pounds, and despite having injured his groin and pelvis in a motorcycle accident two months before the tryout, he clocked 4.75 seconds in the 40-yard dash. (For the record, Lesnar has never failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs.) He made it to the last round of cuts before being asked to surrender his playbook. By sundown on the day of his release Lesnar was on his stand bow-hunting whitetail deer, and he hasn't played football since.
After settling a bitter lawsuit that challenged the noncompete clause in his WWE contract, Lesnar moved on to MMA. Like many former college wrestlers, he found that the new sport fed something inside him. He hired Morgan to help coordinate his training and Twin Cities MMA guru Greg Nelson to help him with striking and jujitsu skills.
Known as "The Next Big Thing," Lesnar gave up his midwest lifestyle for a hefty salary in the WWE.
Lesnar took well to instruction. "He's stubborn, but he listens," says Morgan. He was singularly well-suited for MMA, Nelson adds. "He has tons of upper-body strength but also has strong hips, which help with takedowns and positioning, and footwork that [enables] him to sprawl and scramble." But Lesnar reckons that his real MMA asset is what he calls "a fighter's instinct." Pressed for a definition, he strokes his chin. "I guess it means not being afraid of competing. I think you either have that or you don't. I knew I could be a champion."
Lesnar's first pro MMA fight was in the summer of 2007, for an organization called K-1. He required less than a round to pummel his opponent, Min Soo Kim, into submission. MMA purists -- yes, they exist -- were wary of Lesnar's past in pro wrestling. But on that same card, Johnnie Morton, the former NFL receiver, made his own MMA debut. Morton lasted 38 seconds before getting starched by his opponent. He left the canvas on a stretcher. So much for the notion that anyone could be an MMA star.
Lesnar made his UFC debut, the equivalent of a call-up to the big leagues, in February 2008 against Mir. For most of the fight Mir looked like an assault victim, as Lesnar took him down at will and landed concussive punches. But Mir, an experienced fighter known for his jujitsu skills, stealthily caught Lesnar in a knee bar. A few seconds away from having his femur snapped like a carrot, Lesnar "tapped," MMA-speak for surrendered. The fight helped extinguish the notion that an MMA bout is simply a sanctioned street brawl, devoid of tactics.
Lesnar performed well enough -- and generated enough pay-per-view buys -- to get two more UFC fights in 2008, both of which he won. In November he fought for the heavyweight title against Randy Couture, perhaps the most popular fighter in the UFC's brief history. If Lesnar had to play the heel again, so be it. He ground down Couture in the manner of a man crushing a cigarette butt in an ashtray. Mercifully the ref stepped in and declared a TKO in the second round.
Promotion of the rematch with Mir has followed the WWE playbook, pitting one caricature against another: Mir, 29, is the honorable veteran; Lesnar is the arriviste from the WWE. Mir boldly predicts that he will "expose just how raw this guy is"; Lesnar counters, "Frank Mir is in for a rude awakening."
Growing animated, Lesnar begins to explain why this fight will be different from the last one. Then he stops himself. "You know what I like about this sport?" he says finally. "We can talk all we want, but then the fight comes, and this s--- is for real."