Brock Lesnar retired after eight professional MMA bouts. | Photo: AP Photo/Eric Jamison
A little less than two and a half years ago, Brock Lesnar was king of the hill.
As the centerpiece of the UFC 100 extravaganza, Lesnar dominated his rematch with Frank Mir in spectacular fashion, and the bout itself was just the beginning. Afterward, he taunted and flexed, spewing saliva toward the cameras that were fixed on the spectacle that this mountainous man had become. He dissed one prominent sponsor before informing the world of his post-fight plans with his wife.
The heel script seemed as though it came straight from the desk of World Wrestling Entertainment head Vince McMahon, and it elicited a strong reaction from those who resented the notion that a sports entertainment star could go from choreographed tough guy to legitimate champion in such a short time. Here was a monster, who, while weighing in the vicinity of 290 pounds on fight night, could redefine the heavyweight division with his frightening blend of size and athleticism. “He’s just too big” seemed a worthy explanation when forecasting Lesnar’s dominance for years to come.
It was polarizing. It was entertaining. It was fleeting.
On Friday, after succumbing to Alistair Overeem -- who is nearly his physical equal -- at UFC 141 in Las Vegas, Lesnar called it career. There would be no sound bites, no theatrics, no hoopla, just a man at peace with his decision.
“I’ve had a really difficult couple of years with my disease,” Lesnar said, referring to the diverticulitis that claimed nearly a foot of his colon. “I’m going to say that tonight is the last night you will see me in the Octagon. Brock Lesnar is officially retired. I promised my wife and kids if I won this fight that I would get a title shot and that would be my last one, but if I lost tonight ... everyone, you’ve been great.”
Ardent followers of the sport are not typically fond of Lesnar, but they, too, always watched. Lesnar is responsible for three of the 10 highest-grossing MMA gates in Nevada, and his victory over Mir at UFC 100 is surpassed only by the second meeting between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz in 2006.
While it is likely that Lesnar would have remained marketable in 2012, even on a two-fight losing streak, the former NCAA national wrestling champion picked the right time to leave. He never quite looked as imposing as he did that night against Mir in 2009. The diverticulitis threatened his life outside of the cage, and punches from Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez shattered the aura of invincibility inside it.
When Lesnar stepped into the Octagon to face Overeem, he barely resembled the cocky villain that defended the heavyweight title against Mir. Knees from the K-1 veteran gradually weakened Lesnar's resolve, and a well-placed kick to the body sealed his fate. It remains unclear how much 24 months of health issues sapped Lesnar’s physical abilities, but those alone cannot account for the fact that he never got comfortable with being hit. Lesnar’s Achilles’ heel was painfully evident against a striker with Overeem’s considerable tools.
Sheer size is a nice asset to have, but it does not rule all in the heavyweight division like some expected it would when Lesnar first captured the championship. The current titleholder, Junior dos Santos, is a sleek 240 pounds. Velasquez, who had Lesnar in a world of panic at UFC 121, is no behemoth, either. Overeem, while similar in stature to Lesnar, is feared more for his standup technique.
In reality, Lesnar is probably closer to the humble fighter who announced his retirement than the brash former professional wrestler who inspired so much hate upon his arrival to the UFC. He is more recluse than showman, comfortable with the anonymity that his Minnesota ranch provides. If he craved the limelight, Lesnar could have made a big production of the days leading up to his potential farewell fight. Instead, he kept his thoughts private.
“I had no idea he was going to do that,” UFC President Dana White said during the post-fight press conference. “Am I surprised? No. Brock Lesnar’s made a lot of money in his career, and he’s achieved a lot of things. Brock Lesnar came to me one night at the MGM, pulled me aside and said, ‘I want to fight in the UFC.’ I laughed. He was 1-0, came from the WWE and he brought a lot of excitement to the heavyweight division. What that man accomplished in a short amount of time -- with one fight -- is amazing.”
As a high-profile crossover from the sports entertainment business, Lesnar proved to be more than a Johnny-come-lately hoping to capitalize on his celebrity to make a quick buck. Instead of being spoon-fed opponents to help build hype, Lesnar was given Mir in his Octagon debut. His least accomplished foe in the UFC -- relatively speaking -- was Heath Herring, a Pride Fighting Championships veteran with more than 40 professional bouts.
Lesnar became a star, not by way of promotional smoke and mirrors but by virtue of his own talent. And while not a pioneer, he certainly helped grow the UFC brand, giving the company a bankable star that could drive pay-per-view buys. The eyes Lesnar brought to the Octagon could very well be some of the same ones that decided it was a worthwhile venture to bring the UFC to Fox.
For that, Lesnar would be welcomed with open arms if he chose to make a comeback someday. It will not happen. The publicity that an encore run would generate matters little to Lesnar. When he told White he wanted to fight in the UFC several years ago, he meant it. Now Lesnar says he is done. It only makes sense to take him at his word.