It's been a little over nine months since Brock Lesnar waltzed away from the Octagon and returned to professional wrestling. And yet he remains, to this very day, an ever-present and often heated topic of discussion amongst fans of mixed martial arts.
Plenty of that is due to Lesnar's larger-than-life personality. When he made his first jump into the fighting world, Lesnar brought a ton of professional wrestling fans along for the ride.
They supported him whole-heartedly, much like the way we support a local baseball or football hero who switches teams late in their career; even though we're not a fan of their new locale, we remain hopeful that they'll be a success. We feel a little bit of pride in their accomplishments, even though they're not really "ours" any more.
Wrestling fans felt that way about Lesnar. They probably still do, truth be told. And we know how staunch MMA fans viewed him: as an imposter and a fraud who was fast-tracked to the top without ever proving himself in the manner that just about every other fighter on the planet was required to do on their journey to the pinnacle of the sport.
Even a UFC title win over Randy Couture and tough victories over Shane Carwin and Frank Mir weren't enough to satisfy them. He was given too much, too soon, and it was only because of the name he'd made in pro wrestling.
My own feelings on Lesnar and his legacy in mixed martial arts are a little more complicated. Readers who have been following my work for a long time will remember that I started out as a pro wrestling journalist, back in the early portion of the 1990s. Actually, "journalist" might be a bit strong when describing what I did; I was more like a dude with an AOL subscription that followed the business closely and enjoyed writing about it.
I wrote about wrestling for 10 years or so, until I grew tired of watching what I felt was a stale and boring product. And my love of mixed martial arts was growing at the same time, which meant it was inevitable that I would eventually transition into working in the sport I've covered for the past six years.
But I've got a feeling that once you're a wrestling fan—and by that I mean if you started watching the WWF when you were a kid, when it was a part of the fabric of your being—then you don't really ever stop being a fan. I still watch from time to time. It's nowhere near as entertaining or interesting as it once was, but it's still something I tune into from time to time in the hopes that I'll see the kind of thing that helped me bond with my grandfather when I was a kid.
It's that wrestling fandom that made Lesnar so very interesting to me, and perhaps to you as well. I always looked forward to watching and covering his fights, even if that meant I'd probably have to interview him, which was always a terrifying prospect.
And even when it was clear that Lesnar's battle with diverticulitis had rendered him a shell of what he once was—or what he could have been—I still anticipated each and every one of his fights. It was an event each and every time he stepped in the cage, even when it became clear that he wouldn't be able to compete with the best heavyweights in the world any longer.
Lesnar has been back in the news lately, thanks largely to Dana White's inexplicable decision to stoke the fires surrounding the dream fight that never happened between Lesnar and Fedor Emelianenko. And along with that, a renewed discussion is taking place concerning Lesnar's place in mixed martial arts history and what he meant to the sport on a larger level.
I met Lesnar's good friend, Paul Heyman, several years ago and have maintained correspondence with him ever since, either via email, the phone or the occasional text message. He's an entertainer that I grew up watching, and he's a man I respect very much for his never-stop work ethic and his brilliant touch with all forms of entertainment.
There are few people in the world that know Lesnar the way Heyman does, and so his words carry a lot of weight. He told me via during a recent email exchange that he's confident his friend has earned a place in the UFC's version of the Hall of Fame.
"The UFC Hall of Fame is about IMPACT ON THE SPORT. It's akin to Time Magazine's Man of the Year. How can anyone seriously, intelligently take the position Brock's impact was anything but enormous? His numbers STILL can't be touched," Heyman said. "Will they be one day? Hopefully, for the sake of the sport.
"Charles Lewis—Mask—deserves to be the in the UFC Hall of Fame, and he never competed in a single fight inside the Octagon. By that same criterion, if for no other reason than the fact UFC was dramatically changed by his participation, Brock Lesnar is a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame."
There's no question that Lesnar meant more to the business of mixed martial arts than just about any other fighter in the entire history of the sport. Plenty of the wrestling fans he carried with him from the WWE liked what they saw in UFC events. A lot of them stuck around. They consider themselves MMA fans now, and they order UFC pay-per-view events just like the fans who were following the sport back when Lesnar was still in the middle of his first go-round in pro wrestling.
Before Lesnar started fighting, the UFC faced an uphill battle in getting major sporting outlets to cover their events. But once he came around, ESPN started paying attention. The Lesnar business was a good business to be in, and it wanted a cut of the action. He and his opponents became a fixture on SportsCenter and on various ESPN daily shows.
Again, Lesnar's fights were events, each and every time. And the UFC still reaps the benefits of those days, as you'll see in the coming weeks when Jon Jones becomes a mainstream media mainstay ahead of his UFC 152 fight with Vitor Belfort.
I'm not saying that this wouldn't have happened without Lesnar. Perhaps it would've occurred naturally without his help. Perhaps Jones and other major stars such as Georges St-Pierre would've received that mainstream sports coverage without Lesnar breaking the ice.
But the fact remains that he did, in fact, break that ice and helped usher the UFC near the forefront of the sporting world, if only for those brief moments surrounding his fights.
"People think I'm just playing old school pro wrestling manager when I say things like Brock Lesnar is a once in a lifetime athlete. It's not hype, not an embellishment, not even a catchy phrase like The Next Big Thing. He's the only man to ever win the NCAA Division I Heavyweight Championship, the WWE Title, and the UFC Title," Heyman said.
"He didn't win the WWE Title because a decision was made to stunt a title change based on his celebrity status as NCAA Champion. He was a performer of such note, they were going to build the empire around him.
"He didn't win the UFC Championship because he got handed what they used to call a tomato can. He went up against Randy Couture. RANDY F'N COUTURE. And then he defended that title against Frank Mir, who proved his own capability in their first fight; and Shane Carwin, who up until the Lesnar fight was a 12-0 First Round Terminator.
"This is a fascinating athlete of rare skill who picks and chooses very careful what small glimpses he allows into his own life. He's not a media whore, and that makes the media—and the public—hungry for more!
Lesnar's detractors will point to his meager 5-3 record as evidence that he's not a candidate for the Hall of Fame. They do have a point, and if we're looking at things strictly from a sporting perspective, then there's simply no way to make a case for Lesnar having a place amongst the greats. Or really, even the goods.
Sure, he beat some tough fighters, but he also lost to other tough fighters, and those losses weren't remotely competitive. It became increasingly easy to overlook his dominance from 2008-2010 when he was being mauled by Cain Velasquez and then Alistair Overeem, but if he was one of the best heavyweights in the world, shouldn't he be a little bit more competitive with those guys instead of crumbling and flailing about the cage upon first contact?
I tend to believe that every big moment, every big knockout or submission that happens in mixed martial arts allows us to completely forget the things that have happened in the past. This is not a "what have you done for me lately" sport, but rather a "what are you doing for me at this very moment" kind of sport.
By the time Lesnar walked away, we knew three things that could potentially be true: that he couldn't compete with the best in the world, that his bout with diverticulitis had chipped away major chunks of the potential he had, and that his heart wasn't really in the fighting game any more. And that's assuming that his heart ever was in the fighting game instead of the "making as much money as possible before walking away" game.
But the major question—and the most lasting one, I think, surrounding Lesnar's career—is this: Does Lesnar's record, and the fact that he was mauled in his final two UFC appearances, mitigate what he meant to the sport as a whole?
Are those final two losses to Overeem and Velasquez the thing we should remember? Or should we consider all of the new fans he brought in and all of the inroads he helped make toward helping the sport be just a little bit more socially acceptable?
It really all depends on how you view the UFC's version of the Hall of Fame. If you're the type who believes that kind of honor should be reserved for the very best fighters in the history of the sport, then you're probably adamant that Lesnar isn't the slightest bit deserving. And you'd have a point.
He won't be remembered as one of the best fighters in history. He likely won't even be remembered as one of the best heavyweights in the sport. His time was too short, and his record was too close to the middle of the road.
But I think we all realize that's not what the UFC's Hall of Fame is about. It's not about records or who is the greatest. It's not about sport.
It's about the people that Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta believe have made significant contributions to the UFC's business. And from that perspective, there's absolutely no question that Lesnar is a lock for the UFC Hall of Fame. No question at all.
That doesn't mean he'd ever come close to darkening the door of a regular sports Hall, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about what is essentially a garnishment, a thank-you note for helping out the company and being loyal to the brand. This isn't rocket science.
Lesnar may never fight again. Or maybe he will. Maybe he'll finish up his contract with the WWE and make his grand return to the Octagon next year. And if he does, maybe he'll go back to being a force in the heavyweight division, or maybe he'll lose a fight or two and walk away again. Or maybe he'll decide that getting punched in the head just isn't worth it, not when you're financially set for life and have a loving family to take care of. Perhaps he'll just sit at home and live the rest of his days in peace.
I realize there's a good chance you don't like Lesnar on a personal level, the fact that he was a fake professional wrestler or the brash and arrogant attitude he carried with him like a badge of honor.
But I also realize one important thing, one thing that absolutely must be considered: Regardless of the chapters that are yet to be written in the Brock Lesnar story—regardless of what happens from this point on—there should be no question that Lesnar meant a whole lot to mixed martial arts.
And for that, he's deserving of whatever honors the UFC feels like bestowing on him.
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