Love him or hate him, but you can’t deny that Brock Lesnar is making progress as a mixed martial artist.
In February 2008 when Brock Lesnar first walked into the Octagon to face Frank Mir, a number of fans and critics voiced their displeasure and disinterest in seeing the former WWE superstar fighting under the UFC banner.
He was viewed as an interloper, an over-hyped figure from the world of professional wrestling whose entry into MMA would show the vast difference between scripted sports-entertainment and a sports that’s sold as being “as real as it gets.”
When he was submitted by the former champion in his debut, those same doubters saw proof that Lesnar didn’t belong. Others saw promise, the initial onslaught of offense from Lesnar that put Mir on his back proof enough that there was room to grow.
That growth was obvious when Lesnar stepped into the cage with Heath Herring, a tough veteran with more than ten-times as much experience as the former NCAA national champion. Herring’s experience meant little, as Lesnar blasted “The Texas Crazy Horse” with a massive right hand right out of the gate that sent Herring flying across the cage and broke his orbital bone.
For fifteen minutes, Lesnar dominated Herring, earning a clean sweep on the scorecards and a few more believers in the process. Those who still doubted his talent wouldn’t like what followed.
After a lengthy legal battle with the UFC, Hall of Famer Randy Couture was returning to the cage, and Lesnar would be the man to welcome him back. With just two fights under his belt, the hulking heavyweight would be vying for Couture’s championship belt.
His detractors questioned how a fighter of such limited experience could face-off with one of the most decorated competitors in the history of the sport. Admittedly, business played a large factor in the decision; Lesnar’s pro wrestling drawing power and over-sized persona made him an instant pay-per-view powerhouse, and a pairing with the UFC icon would be huge.
The event, UFC 91 in November 2008, earned over a million buys and continued to show the improvements in Lesnar’s abilities inside the cage. Not only did he take the best Couture had to offer, but Lesnar dished it out just as good, dropping “The Natural” in the second round to become the UFC heavyweight champion.
Despite defeating Couture, Lesnar remained an incredibly polarizing figure. Some could still not get beyond his pro wrestling pedigree, ignoring the NCAA wrestling dominance that came first and serves as blueprint for many of the sport’s top emerging stars. Others remained frustrated by the fast-track to stardom Lesnar was placed on, oblivious to the obvious drawing power the new champion brought to the table.
The proof of that drawing power was no more apparent than at UFC 100, the centennial show of the organization that saw Lesnar square off in a title-unification rematch with Mir, the man who defeated him in his debut.
While former Pride double-champion Dan Henderson and welterweight title holder Georges St-Pierre were also featured on the biggest card in the company’s history, it was Lesnar who served as the main attraction. A year-and-a-half into his UFC career, Lesnar had grown into the biggest name in the sport and a constantly-improving mixed martial artist.
The evolution that was on display as Lesnar dominated Mir was overshadowed by his post-fight performance, a crash offering that channelled his WWE days of cutting a promo on an upcoming opponent. Despite a thorough manhandling of a former two-time champion, many still doubted the skills Lesnar brought to the cage.
His victories were chalked up to the vast size advantage he possessed on every opponent he had faced. Outweighing everyone by at least twenty pounds worked in concert with his suffocating top control to give Lesnar an unfair advantage according to some. The beating he endured at UFC 100 prompted Mir to hit the gym and add significant mass, countering the size of Lesnar and fellow heavyweight monster Shane Carwin the sole objective.
The two massive heavyweights would be paired together, with Lesnar and Carwin first slated to square off at UFC 106 in November 2009. An illness to the champion pushed the bout back until UFC 108, but it was postponed indefinitely when Lesnar came down with a mysterious illness that would later be diagnosed as diverticulitis. The internal disorder that caused small holes to form in the champion’s intestine would keep him on the shelf long enough for the UFC to match Carwin and Mir in an interim title bout at UFC 111.
Carwin entered unbeaten and ran through Mir from the word go, delivering powerful uppercuts in close, flooring the former champion before following him to the ground and pounding out a first-round finish. He was met inside the cage by Lesnar, who congratulated Carwin on his victory but reminded him who the true champion was.
Eight months after they were first scheduled to meet, Lesnar and Carwin finally faced off at UFC 116 in a heavyweight title unification bout for the ages. In addition to proving that Lesnar was fully recovered from his health issues, the bout showed that despite a life-altering experience and a year away from the cage, the athletic freak of nature was continuing to evolve.
Carwin had Lesnar on the verge of being defeated in the first round, hitting the champion with powerful shots that had the champion back-pedalling into the cage. After surviving the worst beating of his career in the opening frame, Lesnar offered up a smile for Carwin as the pair stepped out for the second round. The first round proved the champion was human, and the second would show that the fighter who entered as little more than a powerful wrestler had been replaced by a steadily-improving mixed martial artist.
Many could have predicted that Lesnar would use his explosive double-leg takedown to get Carwin off his feet, but few, if any, would have expected the champion to fluidly transition to side control and apply an arm-triangle choke for the win. The champ was back, and he had improved.
Hours before his next title defence, even the biggest Lesnar detractors cannot avoid giving the devil his due.
Lesnar has grown by leaps-and-bounds since debuting two years ago. Though his striking remains somewhat mechanical and unpolished, his already impressive ground skills have become even more dangerous. In addition to being able to drop the flying pans he calls hands in rapid succession and with great force, Lesnar has now added submission skills to his arsenal. The truly scary part of it all is that as good as Lesnar has already become, the champion is only getting better.
A win this evening will make Lesnar the first heavyweight champion to defend the belt three times. While it is still possible to dislike him and root for his opponent to hand him a second career loss, there is no way to deny the progress Lesnar has exhibited over his career.
Each time he’s stepped into the cage has been an improvement over the last performance, and this meeting with Velasquez will be no different. Regardless of the outcome tonight, the harsh reality for the anti-Lesnar set is that no matter how great the evolutionary exhibit that takes place this evening, his next fight will be even better.
And the fight after that will be better still.
Lesnar is a force of nature inside the Octagon and that isn’t going to change. He may have a professional wrestling background and a personality that rubs some the wrong way, but the one-time WWE champion is one of the best heavyweights in the sport and that isn’t going to change any time soon.