Minneapolis Is Watching As Brock Lesnar Fights for Legitimacy at UFC 91
Only three fights into his fledgling Ultimate Fighting Championship career, Brock Lesnar is the envy of his heavyweight class, a brand name with a chance to seize the championship belt from a mixed martial arts legend.
The fast track to UFC 91 and tonight's pay-per-view clash with Randy Couture in Las Vegas is Lesnar's "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for which he makes no apologies considering the hype surrounding this bout.
"Brock Lesnar versus Randy Couture for the heavyweight title is a fight that people are going to tune in and want to see," Lesnar said last week. "You can't take that away from myself or from Randy or from the company."
UFC Commissioner Dana White, never shy about hyperbole, predicts the fight will generate about 1.2 million pay-per-view buys, more than twice the sport's 2008 average.
"Couture versus Lesnar will be the biggest fight in UFC history. Mark my words on this one," White boasted.
The UFC is banking on attracting more first-time buyers intrigued by intersecting story lines of two former collegiate wrestling champions — one an icon, the other a rising star.
Couture, 45, is defending his heavyweight belt after resolving a nasty contract dispute with White that kept the decorated champion out of the Octagon for more than a year.
Moreover, Couture is the oldest UFC champion and the only combatant to win the heavyweight crown three times, in addition to his two light heavyweight titles.
Lesnar, 31, is trying to do what Couture did in 1997: win a championship in just his fourth UFC fight.
His credentials as an NCAA wrestling champion with the University of Minnesota and pro wrestling entertainer gives him a larger-than-life profile to fit his hulking 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame. His dominant victory over Heath Herring at Target Center's UFC 87 in August vaulted him to contender status in a wide-open heavyweight field.
"Randy has something that I dearly want," Lesnar said. "From the day I signed with this company, I wanted to be the heavyweight champion."
Defeating the veteran Herring allowed Lesnar to redeem himself after a disappointing loss to Frank Mir in February. And it gave him a comfortable platform to dust off the showmanship he burnished as a goliath in the scripted World Wrestling Entertainment circuit.
Herring, whom Lesnar accused of talking trash before the fight, entered Target Center in a black cowboy hat and full-length black leather coat. Seconds after his three-round victory, Lesnar pantomimed lassoing Herring and yanking him across the Octagon.
Then he grabbed the microphone out of interviewer Joe Rogan's hand and declared his arrival as the next great heavyweight:
"Can you see me now? Can you see me now?" he yelled.
Asked about the outburst during a media conference call with Couture, Lesnar sheepishly acknowledged he was caught up in the moment, adding that such antics are back in the closet.
"It was me getting the last word in and then putting the nail in the coffin," he said. "I'm a sportsman. I've always been a sportsman."
Lesnar spent most of the past three months studying tapes of Couture's fights and training in an isolated cabin near Alexandria, Minn.
He and Couture share similar wrestling styles and strong ground games, though Lesnar has a 45-pound advantage. Analysts predict the fight will hinge on Couture's experience and quickness versus Lesnar's sheer power.
"I have to find a way to make that an advantage," Couture said about the weight difference. "I think I'm a pretty fair athlete myself. I move fairly well. Brock's a big, strong and explosive guy but ... there's two sides to every coin."
Lesnar has size and age on his side, but he never has fought a five-round fight. Couture has endured almost every scenario in his 24 bouts.
"I wouldn't even consider Randy as an underdog," said Lesnar, who grew up on a dairy farm in Webster, S.D. "I got a lot of plowing to get done before I get to see the end of the field."
In his mixed martial arts debut on the K-1 circuit in June 2007, Lesnar needed less than two minutes to submit Min Soo Kim. That got him noticed by UFC officials, who signed Lesnar to fight Mir, a former heavyweight champ.
Seven seconds into the bout, Lesnar attacked Mir and pummeled him to the canvas. But the more experienced Mir caught the overly aggressive Lesnar in a knee bar and submitted him. By all accounts, Lesnar led for all but 10 seconds of the 1-minute, 30-second fight.
Couture, a national champion wrestler at Oklahoma State in the 1980s, has not fought since defending his title with a third-round technical knockout of Gabriel Gonzaga in August 2007. Two months later, he walked away from the UFC with two fights remaining on his contract.
The bitter breakup punctuated a decadelong run in which Couture became one of the faces of the UFC.
His three-fight trilogy with Chuck Liddell, another UFC icon who won two of the three fights, launched the wildly successful reality series "The Ultimate Fighter" on Spike TV that helped the UFC become the fastest-growing sport in North America.
Couture and White resolved their problems this August and agreed on a new contract that should allow Couture to retire as a UFC hall of famer.
Couture has thrived defying oddsmakers, defeating heavily favored Tim Sylvia and Gabriel Gonzaga in 2007 to retain his title.
Asked what compelled him to return to the Octagon, Couture said he was not ready to quit fighting.
"The competition. I mean, that's what it's all about. I love to train and learn new skills and develop new tricks, but the ultimate is just to test that, to go out and get in the ring and showcase what you learned."
In February, Brazil's Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira won the interim heavyweight belt by submitting Sylvia. Nogueira is scheduled to defend his title against Mir in December.
White said the winner of that fight and Lesnar-Couture will clash for the unified belt next year.
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