Earlier today, there was an interesting article posted here at Bleacher Report, which posed the question of whether or not Brock Lesnar's time as a UFC championship contender was over. Obviously, this is a question that only Lesnar himself will be able to answer. However, even as a huge supporter of the former heavyweight kingpin, I find myself doubting that Brock will ever return to the top of the mountain in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
After his first bout with diverticulitis, the toll taken on Brock Lesnar's body was readily apparent. He fought two fights after his original year-long layoff from the sport, and though he was miraculously victorious in his return bout against Shane Carwin, he was far from impressive in either. Both times, Brock was quite a bit smaller (but still huge, in fairness) than he had been prior to the onset of his illness. Both times, he was absolutely clobbered by his opponent throughout Round 1.
For the first fight back, luck was riding on Lesnar's side. Carwin gassed himself out looking for the Round 1 finish, allowing Lesnar to gain an easy takedown and submission in Round 2. Unfortunately for Brock, he would have no such luck in his next fight against Cain Velasquez. This time, his opponent had a gas tank that would take much longer than two minutes to hit empty. Velasquez easily brutalized the much larger Lesnar, and walked out with a championship belt around his waste.
After coaching on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter, Lesnar was forced to pull out of his last scheduled fight with Junior dos Santos. The dreaded intestinal disease had struck again. Though he has been out ever since, Brock will return. That much is certain. But it is highly doubtful that he will ever be the same as he was during his initial run. One bout with diverticulitis was hard enough on him, and I doubt the second will be much better. If I were to guess, I'd say he will be out of the fight game entirely by 2013. Brock Lesnar isn't the type of man to stick with a sport just to be second best. If he can't recapture his former glory, and he probably won't, I imagine he won't be around long for the MMA world.
So, the question I ask is this: Who IS the "next big thing" for the UFC?
Regardless of your personal opinion of Brock as a mixed martial artist, no one can deny the amount of attention (read: money) he brought into the UFC. There has never been a single fighter who has received as much fanfare, controversy, love and hatred as Brock Lesnar. Be it WWE fans who have followed him since his debut there in 2002, hardcore MMA fans who simply want to see him exposed as some sort of fraud or anything in between, people will pay good money to see Lesnar fight. Period.
If Brock Lesnar's UFC run truly has seen its peak, which fighter out there can pick up where he left off? Hardcore MMA fans will buy monthly pay-per-view shows whether Brock is to be found or not, but who will retain the casual fans whose wallets he opened up for Dana White & Company?
I only have one answer, given the current crop of talent, and that is Chael Sonnen. Like Lesnar, there isn't a single fan of the sport who doesn't have some kind of opinion of the man. You either love him or hate him, and that's definitely a good thing for business. People will pay to see Chael Sonnen back up his ridiculous trash talk, or people will pay to see Chael Sonnen get his mouth shut by a superior athlete. Either way, his presence is good for the UFC.
I'm not saying that Sonnen is the most talented fighter in the business. That's certainly not the case. He is, however, the most interesting fighter in the business. If Brock Lesnar is on the way out, and that very well may be, I believe Chael Sonnen must be the man who picks up the incredible amount of slack that will undoubtedly be left in his wake.
... I want to know what you think, readers. In your opinion, who is the next big thing? Cast your vote, and please elaborate, in the comments section below. I'm looking forward to seeing what you think!