Brock Lesnar's Rise from Midwest Kid to WWE Megastar

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterAugust 19, 2015

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Grown men wept when Brock Lesnar pinned The Undertaker at WrestleMania 30 in April 2014.

The Superdome in New Orleans settled on a stunned silence as a collective response. After 21 straight victories, professional wrestling's version of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was finally over. The Undertaker was 21-1.

Sixteen months later—an eternity, given the frenetic pace the WWE sets in order to fill five hours of prime-time television every weekthe two behemoths will meet again Sunday at SummerSlam. But despite the long absence, based on recent appearances, feelings among fans are still very raw. This match matters, in a way wrestling matches in 2015 rarely do.

"Because the streak was something very special and everyone wanted to believe it would be the exception that defines the rule," Lesnar's advocate, Paul Heyman, told Bleacher Report. "That something in the world of sport or entertainment or sports entertainment could truly live on forever. People are still legitimately pissed off because so many people look to live vicariously through the personas and the characters in WWE because it's a fantasy world. 

"And all of a sudden, the fantasy world of WWE got b---h-slapped into waking up from their dream, because, much like everything else in life, the streak came to an end. And no one likes it when their fantasy is burst. No one." 

The rematch with Undertaker cements Lesnar's status as wrestling's biggest contemporary star. It's been an amazing journey—but one you won't hear about from Lesnar himself. With the exception of the occasional television spot at ESPN, Lesnar simply doesn't do press. Any press.

"It's not that WWE doesn't allow you to talk to Brock Lesnar," Heyman explained. "Brock Lesnar doesn't want to talk to anybody. Brock Lesnar lets his performances speak for themselves. And when there's something to say, he has an advocate. And that's how I earn my living."

With or without Lesnar, it's a story that should be told. And like most stories about modern wrestling, the best place to start is Stamford, Connecticut—home to wrestling's last remaining powerhouse promotion, the WWE.

 

The Discovery

Lesnar is the biggest star in all of professional wrestling. That's been his destiny since the moment he first stepped into the WWE ring in 2001. But it all began not on the mats at the University of Minnesota or on a dairy farm in tiny Webster, South Dakota, but with a man who happened to sit down in front of his television in Connecticut and tune in to ESPN for its annual broadcast of the NCAA wrestling tournament.

Life is about opportunity. And opportunity, though we tell ourselves otherwise, is often a product of chance. 

"I saw Brock wrestle his junior year in the NCAA tournament," then-WWE Executive Vice President of Talent Relations and Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross recalled. "It just happened to be that I was watching TV and, you know, I tuned in at the right place, the right time, and I saw this big kid, a Golden Gopher singlet, Minnesota singlet. And I said, 'There's magic in this kid.' I didn't even know his name.

"He made it to the finals, and he actually lost. But he had such presence. He had the 'it' look, the 'it' factor look. One of those star-powered guys that you couldn't take your eyes off of."

Ross, of course, was far from alone in that assessment. With his 56-inch chest and 21-inch biceps, Lesnar turned heads wherever he went. Even the great Dan Gable, America's most legendary wrestling coach, a man who had seen wrestlers in all shapes and sizes, couldn't help but stare in awe.

"When Brock Lesnar strips off his warm-ups," he joked, calling the match for the Iowa Public Broadcasting Company, "he turns more heads than Cindy Crawford in a thong."

He'd certainly turned Ross' head. And Ross wanted to know more. Tasked to rebuild the WWE's aging talent roster, Ross had found tremendous success with former Olympian Kurt Angle. Why not, he thought, try to replicate it with another amateur wrestler?

"I told Jerry, 'This Lesnar kid from Minnesota has got something special,'" Ross said. "'Now, look, I don't know what kind of guy he is. I don't know if he has the aptitude for entertainment. I don't know if he wants to, if he's even interested. I don't know anything about him other than what I see is pretty extraordinary.'"

Jerry was Gerald Brisco, a former wrestler who worked behind the scenes at WWE. While fans of the Attitude Era might remember him best as one of the Stooges, a character comically devoted to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, he was actually an important cog in the WWE machine. And he happened—and here's chance once again inserting itself into the equation—to have been a college wrestling teammate of University of Minnesota coach J Robinson.

Lesnar's coach. 

At the time, that was a big deal. For decades, a secret war had waged between amateur wrestlers and professionals. There was significant bad blood between the two groups: Amateurs held their noses in the air and were proud to be "real" wrestlers, while professionals were all too happy to deposit checks in the bank every week after performing in front of thousands.

Brisco helped bridge that gap with Robinson, who agreed Lesnar was a great prospect for wrestling. He was happy to help—so long as the WWE waited one more year to let Lesnar take a second crack at an NCAA championship.

Lesnar in NCAA competition
Lesnar in NCAA competitionBill Greenblatt/Getty Images

"He's a laboratory guy. If you put all the elements that you wanted in a pro wrestler in a lab, out would walk Brock Lesnar," Ross said. "We would have loved to have signed him after his junior year. And I think we could have if we would have pushed the issue, but to be honest with you, we wanted to build a relationship. Jerry's friendship with J Robinson was worth more than rushing to judgment and signing this stud from their team who was ready to go make money. 

"I told Jerry, 'Have J tell Brock that the WWE is very interested if he wins the national championship next year. If he wins the national title next year, we are very interested in signing him and he will be very happy, we think, with the arrangements that we would present.'" 

Whether it motivated Lesnar or not, we don't know. But he did go back to the NCAA finals in 2000, this time winning the championship in a thrilling double-overtime battle with Iowa's Wes Hand. The future was limitless.

But though a run at Olympic gold seemed the natural move to most in his insular world, Lesnar explained in his book Death Clutch that he was done with wrestling—or at least wrestling of the amateur variety:

I knew guys who were chasing the Olympic dream. They were driving up to the gym in their broken-down cars, working nine-to-five jobs to support their training. I had already been doing that my whole life. ... I was done paying my dues. It was time to cash in. ... I hadn't even watched five minutes of pro wrestling in my whole life. All I knew is that I was a poor kid with student loans and I was being offered more money than I'd seen in my entire life. Brock Lesnar was off to join the circus.

A fierce bidding war erupted for Lesnar's services. Rival wrestling organizations staked their claims, as did the University of Minnesota football coach Glen Mason, who cited NCAA rules that would allow Lesnar to return to campus for one season on the gridiron. Tony Dungy, who was then coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, offered to give him a tryout, according to the Associated Press' Dave Campbell, via the Peninsula Clarion.

In the end, according to Ross, the WWE offered him the largest rookie contract in the company's history. Lesnar was on his way to New York—a far cry from where his journey began.

 

The Farm

You could call Webster, South Dakota, a town in decline, but that would suggest glory days that never existed. For all of Lesnar's life, Webster has been slowly dwindling away.

He grew up on a dairy farm as the youngest of three brothers who were dreaming of athletic glory. Many of the kids in his class weren't allowed to participate in sports at all—there were too many chores to do just to keep afloat.

"All I wanted to do was get big and strong," Lesnar told B.J. Schecter of Sports Illustrated. “I was amazed by guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I'd always be doing pushups and pullups at home. On the farm I tried to be a workhorse because I knew if I could cut it on the farm, I could cut it anywhere."

Unlike most athletes who make it to the top, Lesnar was not an immediate success. Tall and skinny, he barely resembled the monster of a man who would go on to sell millions of pay-per-views.

"From early on we found that he couldn't cut weight very well...he got really ornery," Lesnar's high school wrestling coach, John Schiley, told biographer Joel Rippel in the book Brock Lesnar: The Making of a Hard-Core Legend. "So we just decided that he was going to be a big guy and kept feeding him."

He started his high school wrestling career at 152 pounds. By his senior year, he would be the school's heavyweight but barely—he was still lithe enough to double as the football team's halfback at 210 pounds.

"Looking at me now, it might be hard to believe that I didn't even have hair in my armpits when I graduated from high school," Lesnar wrote in Death Clutch. "I guarantee you I was the last guy to go through puberty in my class."

Lesnar, often outsized, still managed to finish third in the state at heavyweight, falling to eventual winner Brian Van Emmerik, a future University of Wyoming football lineman, in the semifinals. When the ink dried on Lesnar's high school career, he received a grand total of zero offers to wrestle at the Division I level. 

But he never stopped working. More importantly, perhaps, he never stopped lifting, making the weight room his second home. By his sophomore year at Bismarck State, where he won the national junior college championship, he weighed a lean 258 pounds.

"He's got a very devoted worth ethic because that's how he was raised," Ross said. "When you're raised on a dairy farm, people have to understand, those cows are milked every morning and every evening every day of the year. So when you're raised on a dairy farm, you understand the word 'commitment' and nose to the grindstone, for lack of a better term. 

"And that's the environment that he knew. That's all he knew. So I think that has helped him establish his character, his integrity, as far as how he approaches his vocation." 

His musculature and feats of strength were so absurd that Robinson had him tested for steroids when he arrived on the campus of the University of Minnesota, according to Schecter. He passed, as he has every subsequent test in his athletic career.

"All that talk is jealousy. I don't need anything to get me up at the gym other than Metallica and AC/DC," Lesnar told ESPN.com's Wayne Drehs in 2004. "When it comes down to it, bring your little piss cup and I will fill it for you."

 

The Warehouse

When you picture the world of professional wrestling, you probably see Hulkamania running wild or the Granddaddy of Them All, WrestleMania, with tens of thousands of fans cheering the performers' every move. 

What you likely don't picture is a warehouse across the river from Louisville in Jefferson, Indiana—a tiny box packed with a ring and more than a dozen wrestling prospects of varying degrees of promise. But what Ohio Valley Wrestling lacked in world-class facilities, it made up for in world-class instruction.

Danny Davis, a former wrestler, handled the physical side of the training. Jim Cornette, a Hall of Fame manager and promoter, handled the psychological aspects of the business. Together, they created a slew of wrestlers who were ready to contribute in the big leagues.

Lesnar's class included athletes who would become the future of the industry, including John Cena, Batista and Randy Orton. It wasn't competitive athletics, not exactly, but it awoke something within Lesnar and pushed him to learn this new business at an astounding speed.

"Lesnar was not a pro wrestling fan, but he was so competitive that every drill he wanted to be the best at," Ross recalled. "If he saw somebody do like a moonsault [a backward flip off the top rope] even though he's 300 pounds, he thought, 'Well, there should be no reason I shouldn't be able to do a moonsault.' And athletically, there wasn't any reason, certainly. You know he could do anything he wanted to do. There's nothing anybody else could do in the ring that he couldn't do."

His time in the minor leagues was short, and his time paying his dues was nonexistent. He made his WWE debut in March 2002. Six months later, he beat The Rock for the WWE title, becoming, at 25, the youngest champion in the promotion's history. 

"Brock Lesnar is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, a once-in-a-lifetime performer, a once-in-a-lifetime attraction," Heyman said. "I've never seen anyone pick up the nuances and the idiosyncrasies, and the big picture as well, as quickly as Brock Lesnar picked it up."

At the time, Heyman was a key player in WWE's creative structure, and he made promoting Lesnar his mission. While most WWE wrestlers win some and lose some along their path, Heyman helped make sure Lesnar always looked strong, demolishing everything in sight. Although wrestling matches aren't on the level, winning still matters, especially when a wrestler is new to the scene and fans are trying to decide where to slot him among his peers.

"If you don't have someone who will champion your cause, it is certainly an uphill battle to break into the main event level," Heyman said. "Because when the decisions are always being made at the top by one man, if that man doesn't hear your praises being sung by several people, or at least the influential ones, then he has to second-guess himself sometimes.

"But when Vince McMahon sees it, and influential people around him also say, 'Hey, you see this, don't you?' 'Of course I see it.' 'You see it too, right?' 'Yeah, we see this too.' It just makes the investment in that human being, let alone the character and the persona, much easier."

The match with The Rock was a turning point in Lesnar's career. Not only did it establish him as the industry's next big thing creatively, but it was the first time he lived up to his potential in the ring. Both before the match, in a series of workout vignettes opposite The Rock, and then in the ring, Lesnar more than held his own.

"You've got The Rock, who's a bona fide made man. And then you got the new kid on the block, who's the new young bull. Rock created a good deal of energy and excitement," Ross said. "But the other guy he's dancing with ain't bad. This thing ain't done a cappella.

"If you're a fan of any sport, how do you not look at those two guys and say, 'Those two guys are legit'? Just look at their bodies, look at their athleticism, look at how quick they get up. They get down. They can get up. They move. Their feet movement, hand and eye coordination, everything. Everything." 

 

The Road

The Rock vs. Lesnar was a match that easily could have been the future of the wrestling business, a new generation's version of Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat or Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage. Instead, the two wouldn't meet in the ring again on pay-per-view. The Rock was off to become Dwayne Johnson again, transcending wrestling for a career in the movies. 

And Lesnar? Despite his rocket-ship rise to the top, he was slowly falling apart, a victim of every wrestler's most fearsome opponent—the road.

"Brock just wasn't built for working as a full-time professional wrestler," David Bixenspan, lead writer for Figure Four Weekly, told Bleacher Report. "The constant travel wore him out more than most. He hates airports, to the point he bought a plane and hired a pilot.

"And while he's clearly not someone who has issues with pushing through and dealing with pain, pro wrestling is different. A wrestling match is like having multiple low-speed car crashes each night and takes its toll. He's been pretty open about having hazy memories of his original two-year WWE run because he was constantly washing down painkillers with vodka. He was and is an incredible performer, but he's not someone who can do this four times a week." 

A long trip to South Africa in 2004 was the last straw for Lesnar. He was already exhausted and bored with his career as a wrestler—and looking around the locker room at wrestlers in their 50s like Hogan and Flair made it clear the wrestling business was a treadmill you never truly climb off.

"You get so brainwashed," Lesnar told Maxim's Nate Penn in May 2009. "You're on the road 300 days a year, and that's why guys get so messed up. This life becomes a part of them. It's not real, but some guys who are still in the business think it is. You look at Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler—he just couldn't let it go. You live a double life. I was tired of trying to be who I was in the ring and then coming home for two days to be normal. They didn't allow you to be. The guys who get out are the smart ones, really and truly."

On March 14, 2004, less than two years after making his WWE debut, Lesnar walked away from a record-breaking contract and wrestled his final match at WrestleMania XX. He wouldn't step into the WWE ring again for eight years.

 

The Phoenix

Not content to rest on his laurels, Lesnar decided to pursue a dream. Although he enjoyed the physicality of pro wrestling, he felt he still had something to prove as an athlete. His 1999 opponent in the NCAA championship, Stephen Neal, had become a mainstay on the New England Patriots offensive line.

Why, Lesnar reasoned, couldn't he make a similar leap? 

"This is not some half-assed shot to see what I can do and try to make the NFL," Lesnar told Drehs. "For me, this is balls out, 100 percent. And I plan on knocking the snot out of somebody."

In tryouts, Lesnar wowed teams with a skill player's speed (4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and a lineman's performance in the weight room. He spent training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, but in the end, his measurables couldn't make up for a lack of football sophistication. Coaches suggested his football knowledge was less than a high school kid's thanks to his long absence from the game. He even had to be instructed how to assume a three-point stance, according to Drehs.

"Is his first step up to par? No. Is his footwork up to par? No. Is his hand speed up to par? No. He's just raw, just as raw as they come from a football-playing perspective," the Vikings' director of college scouting, Scott Studwell, told the Associated Press, via ESPN.com. "He's not raw from an athletic standpoint."

With his NFL dream dead and a motorcycle accident pushing him right back to the Vicodins he thought he'd left behind with professional wrestling, Lesnar did the unthinkablehe gave up and went back to McMahon and the WWE, asking to return. 

They said they didn't want him back.

"All of the sudden my problems were mounting," Lesnar wrote in Death Clutch. "I missed the NFL by an inch. IRS problems...No money coming in, and not that many options left because I signed that stupid no-compete clause with WWE. I had no one to blame but myself."

After a protracted legal battle with WWE that saw Lesnar unable to pursue pro wrestling or mixed martial arts in America, the two sides finally reached a settlement. Two months later, he made his MMA debut. MMA fans didn't know quite might to make of the convert, according to the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer:

You had a number of diametrically opposed schools of thought. He was a fake pro wrestler who was going to be humiliated by the real fighters in UFC. He was a freak athlete with great wrestling ability, strength and speed, who when he learned to fight, was going to be difficult to beat in a year. He was the worst thing for UFC, made UFC into a joke, and if he would bring in more fans, those aren't the kind of fans we want. Or, he was the best thing for UFC, would expand their audience and be one of the biggest draws the company ever had.

Lesnar was a hit right out of the gate, somehow managing to wow the fight world in his first UFC bout against former champion Frank Mir despite losing by submission in 90 seconds. His size and ferocity, once tamed with fighting science, were clearly going to be too much for most heavyweights to handle.

In just his fourth fight, he beat Randy Couture to become UFC heavyweight champion. While his game lacked polish, Lesnar simply overwhelmed opponents with his raw athleticism and wrestling prowess.

“If you haven't worked out with him and felt that athleticism and explosion, it's hard to comprehend," Lesnar's former training partner Cole Konrad told the Houston Chronicle in 2010. "As big and strong as he looks, he actually feels more powerful and more explosive. It's hard to believe."

While his rise was meteoric, Lesnar's fall was gradual, like a balloon slowly leaking air. Two battles with diverticulitis, including surgery to remove 12 inches of his colon, left him a changed man physically. He fought just three times in his last two-and-a-half years in the UFC, retiring on the last day of 2011 after a loss to Alistair Overeem.

In the end, Lesnar's 5-3 record does paltry justice to his impact on an entire sport. His charisma and worldwide fame from pro wrestling helped propel the UFC to new heights. According to MMA Payout, he topped 1 million pay-per-view buys three times, including a promotional record at UFC 100. But at just 34, his time as a competitive athlete seemed over. 

 

The Return

The obvious next move for Lesnar was a return to wrestling. And while WWE was the logical choice, all the problems that existed the first time around were still there. Worse, from WWE's perspective at least, Lesnar was long on money after his UFC run and short on flexibility. If a deal was going to come together, McMahon would have to concede to the big man on every point. 

"It proved to me that despite all those people who love to stand on their soapbox and talk about McMahon's ego, that he still is gonna do what's best for his company that he's built from the territorial smoky arenas to the global brand that it is," Ross said. "It has been built on his back. And he's had to eat a lot of s--t over the years. 

"That was one of the things he taught me when he promoted me to be in charge of the talent roster and to retool it and to try to change the personality of the locker room. He said, 'You have to learn to eat a lot of s--t.' He said, 'You'll never like the taste of it, but you'll get used to it.'"

The day after WrestleMania 28 in 2012, Lesnar made his return to WWE. The crowd, which had booed him out of the building in his final night eight years earlier, treated him like a conquering hero. Much as his pro wrestling success had elevated his status in the world of MMA, his time as UFC champion added something special to his WWE persona.  

"The first thing he did in his first match back was take John Cena down and legitimately slice his head open with elbows," Bixenspan said. "That's not what WWE-style pro wrestling is supposed to look like these days, and that's the point. Even though you know you're watching entertainment, when you watch Brock, you feel like the match is, if not real, something that shouldn't be happening, like it's about to go off the rails."

Now treated as a special attraction, returning just a few times per year to wreak havoc and generate excitement, Lesnar has finally found the formula for wrestling success. Despite, or perhaps because of his abbreviated schedule, Lesnar always looks sharp each time he leaps onto the ring apron, with rust seemingly never an issue.

After a brief flirtation with a UFC return earlier this year, he signed a three-year deal with the WWE that all but ended his legitimate athletic career. Lesnar, finally, is a wrestler in truth—and one just coming into his own.

"His timing is impeccable. He knows what he's doing," Heyman said. "He is a world-class global athlete in his prime yet understands how to maximize the money he will make based on the exploitation of his persona. 

"Brock Lesnar is not done yet. Brock Lesnar has not accomplished all that he wants to accomplish yet. And there are still things that Brock Lesnar wants to do that the public is going to be in awe of. We're just getting started here." 

 

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.