It was a stunning display of athleticism and violence, a flurry of suplexes and lariats, an NCAA wrestling national champion and Olympian pushing each other to their physical limits. An hour-long seesaw battle this good had to delight the wrestling gods.
The Lesnar who walked away with the WWE Championship that night no longer exists.
His ensuing transformation goes beyond adding a sword tattoo down the center of his chest. It goes beyond the experience and swagger gained from a stay atop the UFC world. This isn't a case of stripes changing; today's Lesnar is a different fighter altogether.
The way in which WWE presents him, his workload and his move set have all changed. You won't see him wrestle on TV. He's strictly a pay-per-view fighter now.
And there is no way The Beast Incarnate of 2019 would wrestle for 60 straight minutes, much less employ the pedal-to-the-floor style that he did against Angle 16 years ago.
This year's SummerSlam will showcase Lesnar with a pared-down offense against Seth Rollins. Recent history says his bout will be an exhibition of F-5s that won't last as long as it takes to boil pasta.
To see the old beast, one has to search WWE Network's archives.
The Next Big Thing
Lesnar's in-ring debut (subscription required) was more of a dismantling than a match.
The big man overwhelmed and abused Jeff Hardy at Backlash 2002. Lesnar flung Hardy around, kneed him in the ribs and dragged him by his neon green hair. A trio of powerbombs served as the final three notes of this savage symphony.
Through much of this beatdown, announcer Jim Ross marveled at Lesnar's power.
"I've never seen anybody this strong impose his will on another human being in my career," Ross said.
It was clear that WWE wanted to paint Lesnar as special.
Announcers made frequent mentions of his NCAA accolades and raved about his athletic gifts. He ran through the competition, a bloodthirsty alpha male making former champions look outmatched.
He was wrestling's Ivan Drago, a superathlete intent on destruction rather than simple victory.
WWE fans saw plenty of this incarnation of Lesnar. From the get-go, the spotlight shone down on his massive shoulders and didn't point away. The Next Big Thing won the 2002 King of the Ring tournament, snatched the WWE title from The Rock and headlined PPV after PPV.
The company leaned on its new star.
Per CageMatch.net, Lesnar wrestled 141 matches in 2002. The next year, he competed in 137. That averages out to double-digit matches every month.
The toll of that schedule went beyond the impact of taking suplexes and clotheslines.
The travel was brutal. In October 2003, for example, Lesnar worked a house show on a Monday in Trenton, New Jersey, and then battled on SmackDown in Connecticut the next night. Then it was off to Finland, to Germany, to the UK and back to the Midwest.
That kind of odyssey has worn down many a WWE Superstar, causing shoulders to strain, knees to tear. For anyone, this would be arduous. For someone as famously reclusive as Lesnar, it was impossible to maintain.
Toward the end of his first WWE run, his family commitments made it even harder.
As Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden wrote in Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, the powerhouse trekked back and forth to be with his family.
"Friends say Lesnar also spent countless hours making the long road trip from the Twin Cities to pick up his daughter," Snowden noted.
With an NFL dream buzzing around in his heart, Lesnar left that vagabond life behind.
The wrestler said goodbye to WWE in the spring of 2004. The Minnesota Vikings gave him a shot despite his lack of experience and signed him that July. That exit changed Lesnar's story forever, adding chapters of failure and fame, before his eventual return.
The Power of an Excursion
Lesnar's NFL stint ended before the regular season began. The Vikings moved on from him, but not before he brought a taste of WWE to training camp when someone cheap-shotted quarterback Dante Culpepper.
"The next play he went and suplexed the guy," former Vikings wide receiver Nate Burelson recalled on NFL Network in 2016. "... He picked up a grown man after the play. It was a Royal Rumble."
Lesnar would soon do his suplexing elsewhere after the Vikings cut him. He stormed into the MMA world, an outsider proving he belonged right away.
In his first professional fight, the powerhouse pummeled fellow heavyweight Min Soo Kim with punches until he tapped out. The 2007 bout ended at one minute and nine seconds. After the bell, Kim stayed prone, staring up at the ceiling, stunned.
"He squashed Min Soo Kim like it was the opening match at a Nassau Coliseum house show," David Shoemaker wrote for The Ringer.
More wins, more swagger, more dominance followed. After losing to Frank Mir in his UFC debut in 2008, Lesnar won four straight fights, including a TKO against Randy Couture to capture the UFC heavyweight crown that November. He sat atop the UFC heavyweight division just 17 months after his pro debut.
Lesnar was doing more than punching Mir into oblivion or choking the breath from Shane Carwin; he was growing his legend.
He had gone from NCAA wrestling champ to WWE headliner to now a moneymaking attraction for the UFC. Three of the events he main-evented surpassed the million mark for buys, per the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (via MMAPayout.com):
- UFC 91: Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Couture (1,010,000 buys)
- UFC 100: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir (1,600,000)
- UFC 116: Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin (1,060,000)
When Lesnar re-entered the WWE fray in 2012, it didn't matter that he had lost two UFC matches badly. He had upped his value in a major way since he was there last.
His resume now included a UFC heavyweight championship reign. A wider audience had seen him smash people with his fists. He had the kind of crossover appeal WWE so often pines for.
WWE regularly plays up its wrestlers' sports backgrounds, but that usually means mentioning a run with an NFL practice squad or some mild success as a wrestler in college. With Lesnar, WWE could brag about far more impressive feats.
His asking price had changed, as did his power.
The Beast was in a unique position once he re-signed. Lesnar was no cog in WWE's machine who would have to follow whatever storylines the company cooked up. He was a rock star who could demand just about anything.
The Numbers Now
Seven years into Lesnar's second WWE tenure, it feels as though he and the company are playing games with the audience.
Lesnar's schedule, even when he is the company's top champion, is scant. When he does step between the ropes to do harm to another human being, it's nearly always jarringly brief. The build-up to many a show has centered around Lesnar only to have him make more of a cameo than a major role.
Imagine an action movie advertised as starring The Rock where he didn't appear until the last four minutes.
Lesnar's bout against Braun Strowman at the Crown Jewel PPV in Saudi Arabia last November is a prime example. The two behemoths clashed over the vacant Universal Championship. Lesnar hit five F-5s and nothing else in a match that ended after three minutes and 15 seconds of action.
Shawn Michaels, who came out of retirement for this show, and the 53-year-old Undertaker spent more time in the ring than the new champ.
This was no fluke. This was part of the pattern.
In the last year-and-a-half, Lesnar has had five PPV matches go less than 10 minutes:
- vs. Roman Reigns at the Greatest Royal Rumble (9:14)
- vs. Roman Reigns at SummerSlam 2018 (6:08)
- vs. Braun Strowman at Crown Jewel (3:15)
- vs. Finn Balor at Royal Rumble 2019 (8:40)
- vs. Seth Rollins at WrestleMania 35 (2:30)
At this year's Money in the Bank, Lesnar stomped his way into a wild ladder match amid its climax. Ricochet, Ali, Andrade and others leaped off ladders, smashed through tables and took the kind of bumps one has to feel for weeks. Lesnar, meanwhile, essentially climbed a ladder and unhooked a briefcase.
Compare that to 2003, where he battled The Undertaker at No Mercy for over 24 minutes, twice went over the 20-minute mark against Angle on PPV and collided with John Cena for nearly five times as long as he did with Strowman in Saudi Arabia.
It isn't as though Lesnar is worn out, either. He has wrestled four total matches in 2019, including his 16-second Money in the Bank cash-in at Extreme Rules.
In his first full year with WWE, he appeared in 35 bouts on TV and PPV. He had a total of 34 matches between 2012 and 2018. Zero matches of those were on Raw or SmackDown.
The Beast Incarnate went from being a SmackDown staple to a special attraction.
Lesnar is 42 now, but this discrepancy in production isn't simply a side effect of getting older. That's not over-the-hill age in wrestling. AJ Styles is 42 and consistently one of WWE's best and most reliable talents. Sheamus (41) is kicking butt in a ring over 140 times a year, per CageMatch.net.
And it's not that Lesnar is some broken down bruiser incapable of wrestling for long stretches. You can see he's still a scary good athlete when he pounces on the ring apron or lifts human beings above his head as if they were light dumbells.
It's a matter of a change in presentation.
What comprises The Lesnar Show is different. Lesnar is all highlights and no filler now. He works with a tool belt that has but three slots.
You forget how varied Lesnar's arsenal was until you revisit a match like his SummerSlam 2003 tilt against Angle. He intertwined mat wrestling with blow-you-away power moves. He cranked Angle's arm in a hammerlock, threw him over the rope with a press slam and dizzied him with a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker. These are moves you don't see from him anymore.
A present-day Lesnar match is a stripped-down affair.
German suplex. German suplex. F-5. F-5. F-5. It's like someone just learned to play Street Fighter and spammed the only two moves they memorized.
The repetitiveness has become part of his persona. Lesnar's longtime advocate Paul Heyman has chanted a mantra on Raw that celebrates the simplicity of the bruiser's method of destruction: "Suplex. Repeat. Suplex. Repeat."
This is no case of WWE protecting an older star, either.
Lesnar can still go. His bangers against Daniel Bryan and Styles at the last two Survivor Series PPVs are proof of that. But either Lesnar doesn't often want to put the work in for that kind of performance or WWE is content with him putting on the pro wrestling equivalent of flash fiction.
The former scenario is backed up by stories like the one Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose) spun about their WrestleMania 32 match.
In June, Ambrose told Wade Keller of PWTorch (contains brief NSFW language) about his frustrations with Lesnar's interest level in their big clash.
"We could have easily stolen the show," he said. "All he had to do was put in a little effort."
WWE Creative bears much of the blame for the staleness of today's Lesnar, too, though.
His non-wrestling appearances regularly follow the same formula. Heyman preaches about Lesnar's legend and predatory ways. Lesnar nods knowingly at his side. As masterful of a talker as Heyman is, this starts to drag eventually.
Aside from his brief dancing-with-his-MITB-briefcase period a few months back, WWE hasn't mixed things up with The Beast enough.
With as much star power as he boasts, it makes sense to save him a bit, to not overexpose him. Lesnar has earned the right to work a lighter schedule and be less cruel on his body. That's all logical.
That doesn't make his act any less dry, though.
Lesnar is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. He's a phenomenal performer when he isn't being limited to five minutes of finishers. WWE has not taken full advantage of that, and he gets paid enough not to care.
That will evidence once more en route to Lesnar vs. Rollins for the Universal Championship at SummerSlam on August 11.
The Kingslayer will have to go it alone on many a night in promoting this match, talking trash without Lesnar to receive it in person. There will be no tag matches featuring both men to hype the bout. Heyman will appear on TV more than his client. And when Lesnar does show ahead of SummerSlam, it will be for a brief, violent stretch, as has been the routine in the past few years.
WWE, as we have seen in recent Lesnar feuds, will have to work around one of the characters in this play being off stage quite often.
The barriers to a more interesting, maximized Lesnar are plentiful: the limits of his schedule, the power he wields due to his stardom stature, WWE leaning on the familiar. None of these are going away.
We aren't going to see the old Lesnar return. Not at SummerSlam, not ever. WWE and Lesnar both seem content with the current situation even as fans bristle.
The universal champion has long molted out of his old skin, and there's no way to reverse evolution.
Match times courtesy of CageMatch.net.