The Lesnar Legacy: From UFC to WWE, Brock Lesnar Remains World's Scariest Man

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 29, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 08:  Mixed martial artist Brock Lesnar poses on the scale during his weigh-in for UFC 200 at T-Mobile Arena on July 8, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lesnar will meet Mark Hunt in a heavyweight bout on July 9 at T-Mobile Arena.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When Bill Goldberg steps into the WWE ring in Orlando, Florida, for WrestleMania 33, a once-in-a-generation athlete will be standing approximately 28 feet away, waiting to do him highly stylized, ultra-violent harm.

In his 50 years on the planet, Goldberg has had little to fear from another man, even a man like Brock Lesnar. A former college football star, Goldberg once served as Deion Sanders' enforcer in the Atlanta Falcons locker room. In a league known for its physicality, he established a primacy few would dare to even challenge. His play never wowed—but his toughness was unquestioned.

Art, in turn, imitated life. During his wrestling heyday, Goldberg was famous for his long win streak and dominance in the ring. Years later, little has changed. In the WWE's storylines since his 2016 return, Goldberg made quick work of the "Beast Incarnate" Brock Lesnar, beating the former champion in just 86 seconds at last year's Survivor Series

In real life?

Goldberg, for all his bonafides and obvious familiarity with the weight room, wouldn't stand a sliver of a chance.

A healthy Brock Lesnar is one of the most dangerous men to ever walk the planet. 

"Brock Lesnar is a freak of a man," UFC announcer Joe Rogan told Bleacher Report in an interview last year. "That's the deep end of the gene pool. Brock is the creation of generation after generation of Vikings passing on their warrior bloodlines." 

That sounds, of course, suspiciously like hyperbole. And considering that Rogan punctuates almost every sentence in every UFC promo he breathlessly delivers with at least five exclamation points, you'd be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion. But sometimes a man really deserves his press clippings, and sometimes outlandish praise bears the weight of even the most intense scrutiny. 

Lesnar is a former WWE champion. He's a former UFC heavyweight champion. As a college wrestler, he lost just five matches against 106 wins, peaking with a national championship.

Don Feria/Associated Press

He stands 75 inches tall and weighs nearly 300 pounds. His head appears to have been carved from granite, all protruding brow and scowl, blonde crewcut and piercing blue eyes betraying his farm boy roots. His fists are so big, the UFC had to make a special glove just to contain them.

"He's a laboratory guy," former WWE Executive Vice President of Talent Relations and Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross told Bleacher Report in 2015. "If you put all the elements that you wanted in a pro wrestler in a lab, out would walk Brock Lesnar."

In the world of professional wrestling, a man approaching 300 pounds is not unusual. Nor is a man with a musculature typically seen only in high gloss pages of a Marvel comic book, including 24-inch biceps and a chest that expands until it's roughly the size of a barge.

But even in WWE, where the most mundane performer is rightfully and hyperbolically called a "superstar," Lesnar stands out. That's been true since the first day he walked into "Nightmare" Danny Davis' Ohio Valley Wrestling in 2001. 

Rob Conway, one of the developmental territory's veteran performers at the time, remembers his first impression of Lesnar clearly.

"Intensity," he said, summing up an entire ethos in a single word. "You could just feel it. He wanted it bad and was willing to work hard for it." 

It was an impression that never wavered over the years as he watched a greenhorn develop into one of the industry's top performers. Lesnar, Conway remembered, was a walking cliche. He was the first one to the facility every day, leading by example.

"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." 

When asked to pay his dues setting up the ring, he ended up driving from town to town in the new pickup truck he'd bought with his WWE signing bonus. Soon he was the leader of the ring crew, holding everyone accountable for their part in the process.

And when it came time to drill, he intended to be the best at everything.

"We trained in a warehouse that didn't have air conditioning," Conway said. "We only had one ring, and I remember times we actually had to end practice early because the ring was so soaked in sweat. When Brock got there, we were amazed by the things he could do. He could kip up off his back without using his hands. And he did all the flying moves, even the Shooting Star Press.

"When you're that big, why would you even try one? But his athletic ability made things come easy to him. Or at least he had the ability to make it look easy."

In the ring, Lesnar did everything hard. In his first day of practice, he crashed into the ring ropes so hard they gave way, and he went crashing nearly 10 feet to the floor. If Victoria, a female performer who would eventually make the WWE roster, hit the ropes at the same time Lesnar did during a drill, she would fly several feet across the ring.

There was nothing malicious in Lesnar's exuberance, Conway believes. He just didn't always know his own strength. Combine that with an athletic background in which he had spent years training to toss giant men who didn't want to be thrown, and you had the recipe for, if not disaster, at least adventure.

"When Brock grabbed you, you were going wherever he wanted you to go," Conway said.

Conway pointed to a wrestling move called the belly-to-belly suplex as an example, breaking down the way everyone else does it and the way Lesnar does it. "Normally when you go to throw your opponent, his feet are on the ground, so he can kind of jump for you. And when you're jumping with it, you have more control about how far you're going to go and how you're going to bump.

"But when you watch Brock, even now, he's one of the few guys strong enough to throw his opponent without any help. He gets down low and scoops them up so their feet don't touch the ground, then literally throws them. Whenever Brock gave you a slam or suplex, you weren't helping at all. So you had no idea how high or how far you were going to go or when you were going to land. You knew when you got in there with him you might be getting thrown harder and higher than you ever had before."

After less than two years of training for the big show, Lesnar was slowly integrated into the WWE universe with a series of matches in front of large crowds, but without the pressure of television. He took turns wrestling performers of all kinds, from fellow behemoths to smaller, more adaptable athletes like "The Hurricane" Shane Helms.

"You always have a little concern wrestling someone that big and powerful," Helms told Bleacher Report. "It won't take much for him to hurt someone. Brock is a monster of a human being. Everything with Brock hurt a bit, because he's just that big. When you have a guy that size, he can knock you around by barely bumping into you, much less when he throws a clothesline or something like that. ...

"I was out there punching Brock, and he's a big guy. He wasn't easy to move around. I remember coming back and Michael Hayes, one of the agents in charge of the matches, telling me 'Hurricane, you've got to hit that motherf--ker. You've got to teach him to move when he gets hit. Move him!'

"Now, in everyday life, I'm a big guy. Brock was about 300 pounds. I looked at Michael Hayes and said, 'Why don't you go hit that motherf--ker? Because he's going to hit me back.'" 

It didn't take long for Lesnar to grab the attention, both of WWE fans and its senior brass. He debuted on Monday Night Raw in March 2002, putting on a scary display against The Hardy Boyz.

Just 126 days later, Lesnar beat the industry's biggest star, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, to become WWE's undisputed champion.

"Did he have a fast track? Maybe so," Helms said. "He just had so many natural gifts. What were they going to do, put that guy on the sideline? What would that have done? He came, they put him in a role, and he did his job really well." 

"Brock Lesnar is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, a once-in-a-lifetime performer, a once-in-a-lifetime attraction," manager Paul Heyman told Bleacher Report in a 2015 interview. "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."

While wrestling matches are athletic entertainment in the ring, the competition to be the best is fierce. Not only is pride a major factor, but paychecks depend on a wrestler's placement on the card. As the champion, especially one so early in his career, Lesnar was challenged, both physically and mentally, by the other performers on the roster. 

"He was one of those guys people wanted to test all the time," Helms said. "If somehow I took Brock down, I would be a legend. It's a no-lose scenario for me. I had seven years as an amateur, so I was no slouch. And I figured, I'm way faster than Brock. There's no way he's going to be able to get me. I could not have been more wrong.

"He shot in on me faster than anybody ever has. I knew it was coming, and I couldn't do s--t about it. He had me up on his shoulder so fast. You don't understand until you are in there with him. You could feel his power and ferocity. Thankfully he decided not to slam the piss out of me. It was truly humbling, knowing this human being could do whatever he wants to with you. And you can't do anything about it. I just patted him on the shoulder and said, 'We're good.' That didn't need to go any further."

While Lesnar's WWE success was meteoric, that just made his eventual fall equally precipitous. The promotion's famously unforgiving schedule ended up doing what few men have ever done—it beat Lesnar down until he couldn't take it anymore.

"It wasn't about being tough," Lesnar wrote in his book Death Clutch:

It was about having a life. A year or two bouncing around town to town, bar to bar, girl to girl, Vicodin to Vicodin, vodka bottle to vodka bottle, is not a life. 

I love being in the ring and performing. Bringing people to their feet. Getting people to hate my character. Entertaining the fans. ... But I wanted to have a family too, and I knew there was no way to do that with the schedule I worked.

"The travel and the grind of pro wrestling is like nothing else," Helms confirmed. "No other sport compares. Other athletes don't compete nearly as frequently, and entertainers with our travel schedule don't take the abuse our bodies take. And we really get no days off. Because even on the days you are home, you have to work to keep your body in a certain state just to be able to take what we do. He didn't like traveling—and it sucks. It's the worst part of the job."  

At WrestleMania 20, Lesnar wrestled what appeared to be the final match of his WWE career against Goldberg. A seemingly endless lawsuit followed, but eventually Lesnar was free to pursue other dreams. After spending years establishing himself as professional wrestling's next big thing, he soon found himself once again at the bottom of the pecking order as the new kid on a very tough block.

Professional wrestlers had helped make mixed martial arts a global success, and amateur wrestlers had dominated competitions since the sport's formative days. Lesnar was a standout in both realms. But, with MMA becoming increasingly complicated and competitive, there was some doubt when he first stepped into former UFC champion Pat Miletich's famous gym in Bettendorf, Iowa, one day in 2006.

"When a guy like Lesnar comes in, of course you recognize he's a specimen and an incredible athlete," Miletich said. "A tough S.O.B. But you've got to remember, the room he walked into was a bunch of badasses. At that time, he was walking into a gym filled with 30 guys ranked in the top 10 in the world.

"We didn't give a s--t who you were. He got beat up standing up by Brad Imes, Ben Rothwell and Tim Sylvia. He was still, in many ways, a fish out of water. He was still learning the game."

Lesnar did better on the mat, where his finely honed wrestling game allowed him to control the big heavyweights. 

LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 2:  Frank Mir (red/black shorts) def. Brock Lesnar (white/black shorts) - Submission (knee bar) - 1:30 round 1 during the UFC 81 at Mandalay Bay on February 2, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Imag
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

But even in his comfort zone, Lesnar was forced to face his own limitations by UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes, who gave up more than 100 pounds to the enormous pro wrestler.

In other words, according to Miletich, Hughes had Lesnar right where he wanted him.

"Hughes loved to do that. New big guys who came in always thought they were the alpha male," Mlietich said. "Then this little 170-pound guy just pulled the arms off of them, and a lot of them thought, 'I'm not made for this.' 

"Lesnar certainly never quit. Brock was humble. He didn't know hardly anything about the sport of mixed martial arts besides the wrestling. He said 'S--t. I've got a lot to learn.' It happens to everyone. ... They realize real quickly how much they don't know. It's the same with any combat sport. If you go into a wrestling room without the right background, you're going to get rag-dolled for two hours. You go away mumbling 'That sucked.' But you learn you're not the badass you thought you were. And that's motivating."

Training hundreds of miles from home with Miletich did little to solve Lesnar's weariness with life on the road, and he soon established a camp closer to home. One of his former amateur wrestling coaches, Marty Morgan, supervised his training, and Minnesota-based MMA trainers Greg Nelson and Erik Paulson taught him the finer points of the game. 

Though Lesnar lost his first fight in the UFC to former champion Frank Mir, his obvious physical gifts had the sport buzzing. Dismissed by some as a novelty act before the fight, he ended the night as one of the most promising prospects the promotion had ever seen.

He lived up to that promise, just as he had in WWE, in record time. Four fights into his career and just nine months into his UFC run, he was dispatching the legendary Randy Couture to win heavyweight gold. 

"You can't demean what he accomplished," former opponent Heath Herring said. "He won the belt. He came into the sport late, and he got it done. You can't take that away from him. I fought so many tough guys. I fought Fedor [Emelianenko] and [Minotauro] Nogueira. I fought actual giants. And Lesnar was a tough fight."

At UFC 100, at the time the biggest event in the promotion's history, Lesnar avenged his loss to Mir in dominating fashion, controlling the submission artist on the mat with a staggering combination of size and savvy. 

"I had always been taught that being a big, strong guy wasn't enough to win fights," Mir told me in a 2010 interview. "You learn martial arts because you believe technique and intellect can defeat size. But he taught me strength and size do matter. He showed me the error of my ways."

In Herring, Couture and Mir, Lesnar had vanquished MMA's three archetypes: the striker, the wrestler and the grappler. No opponent seemed likely to beat him—and, in the end, that remained true. It was, ultimately, Lesnar who beat Lesnar.

While Lesnar was dispatching Mir, diverticulitis was eating away at his insides. Eventually the disease necessitated a desperate race against time to the hospital. Two surgeries eventually cured the problem, removing 12 inches of his colon. The cost, it seemed, was his athletic prime. 

Consecutive losses pushed Lesnar out of the sport and back to the world he had long ago abandoned. WWE, despite the bitter parting of ways almost a decade prior, welcomed him back in 2012 with open arms. His departure, once seemingly the end of the world, had only made him a bigger star. 

His newfound cache allowed Lesnar to demand a schedule that could accommodate his dual lives as a performer and a family man. Free from the grind that typically wears performers down, Lesnar was able to give everything he had to each match. The result was something truly unique in a sport increasingly plagued by a ubiquitous monotony.

"Even other wrestlers want to watch his matches. Because they are different," Conway said. "It's so intense, and it's not real smooth. It doesn't look like a dance or choreographed.

"I've done this for 20 years, and I still watch Brock's matches and wonder, Man, that really looked like it hurt. Because it looks as legitimate as it gets. That's the art of it, to make it look like he's really hurting the other guy. The truth is, he's a pro. I never had an experience with Brock where he hit me too hard or was stiff. The difference is, you know if he wanted to, that he could."

In the years following his return, Lesnar had a memorable series of matches against the promotion's top stars, including John Cena, Triple H and the Undertaker. After a brief flirtation with the UFC in 2015, he decided not to return to the Octagon. 

But his desire to prove something to himself lingered, and last year Lesnar made a surprise return to the cage at UFC 200. There he looked like the Lesnar of old, destroying contender Mark Hunt over three definitive rounds with his dominant wrestling game. 

Though the win would later be overturned after Lesnar twice tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the legalities could only impact the official record book. Lesnar was suspended from the UFC and later announced his retirement from MMA. 

But nothing could be done about his re-established aura and the reminder to all watching that Lesnar, even at 39, remains a very dangerous man. 

It's a lesson Goldberg, no matter how confident he is in the script, should hold close to his heart Sunday in Orlando. 

   

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.