Lesnar Has Makings for Greatness

By Loretta Hunt Aug 9, 2008
If you want to know how Brock Lesnar (Pictures)’s career could unfold as a mixed martial artist, you need only look towards the likes of Randy Couture (Pictures), Matt Lindland (Pictures), and Mark Coleman (Pictures).

All of these fighters -- success stories in their own right -- were also college wrestlers, a preliminary career worth its weight in gold in the game today.

By the nature of its trade, wrestling demands the utmost discipline, a love for repetition, impenetrable mental fortitude and an unquenchable thirst for competition that compels its exhausted craftsmen to muster the strength to stay out on the mats even after the practice room’s lights have dimmed.

It’s no mystery why so many past wrestlers have excelled in mixed martial arts, and Lesnar is yet another prospect with endless potential and abundant champion-like qualities to take it all the way.

Lesnar won’t be phased Saturday night inside the Target Center in Minneapolis at UFC 87 “Seek and Destroy,” in front of the flashing bulbs and screaming fans of his adopted hometown. He’s been there before on many occasions, having had his hand raised 106 out of 111 times during his four-year wrestling career spent between Bismarck Junior College and the University of Minnesota. In 2000, Lesnar won the NCAA Wrestling Championship in front of raucous audience numbering well into the 20 thousands -- par for the course in the wrestling-rich Midwest where a grappler is revered like a high school quarterback.

The roar of the crowd is not what fuels this athlete though. Since his decision to delve into MMA, Lesnar’s intentions with fighting have been clear.

“From day one coming into this company, it wasn’t my goal to overcome any fans or anything like that,” said Lesnar. “For me, it’s been about wanting to be a fighter and to be a part of this organization and to win, to try and be a heavyweight contender.”

The UFC must have had the same thought in mind. They signed Lesnar to a multi-fight deal shortly following his debut at K-1 Hero’s “Dynamite!! USA” in June 2007.

Originally scheduled to face 7-foot-2, 350-pound giant Hong Man Choi (Pictures), Lesnar was visibly distressed when the awkward Korean was pulled from the card by the California State Athletic Commission a few days before the event. Lesnar wasn’t afraid he’d miss out on his 500 thousand dollar purse, which was guaranteed; he was annoyed that he would take a step down in competition with a late replacement.

Lesnar collided with Korean judo stylist Min Soo Kim (Pictures) (3-6) instead, who lasted only 69 seconds underneath a steady diet of the wrestler’s leather.

Since he first stepped into the Octagon in February 2008, no one can claim Lesnar has gotten an easy shake. Surrounded by all the hoopla of a big-name prize fight and with the fate of the UFC’s pay-per-view hopes pinned on his shoulders, Lesnar muscled former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir (Pictures) to the ground and began to unleash the same raw power Kim had felt eight months before. But earnestness overtook Lesnar, and Mir, an accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, pivoted beneath his aggressor into a flawless kneebar. Lesnar tapped out in 90 seconds, but that was all it took to peak enough curiosity to the tune of a reported 650 thousand pay-per-view buys.

While the UFC laughed all the way to the bank, Lesnar said he learned a priceless lesson in patience.

“I really rushed that fight and made a foolish mistake,” said Lesnar. “I had Frank in a dominant position and I stood up and fed him a foolish, amateur mistake, something that we worked on a million times.”

Back to the gym shortly after the loss, Lesnar resorted to the habits he’s culled all his life -- hard, consistent training.

“[I had] to understand that I’ve got fifteen minutes to win a bout and to be a little more relaxed in there,” said Lesnar. “We’ve been working on that. I think it has to do with putting time in the gym, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing is just trying to polish every aspect of the fight game and trying to better myself every day. It’s looking to find openings and fighting with control and pacing myself and not getting over-excited.”

Lesnar’s third career opponent Saturday, Heath Herring (Pictures), is not a submission specialist, though the seasoned Texan has been around the block more than a few times. A wily veteran of the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships in Japan, Herring earned the mantle of “gatekeeper” for the promotion which once housed many of the world’s greatest heavyweights. In other words, Herring (28-13, 1 NC) is a fighter little shaken by the wide assortment of opponents thrown in front of him.

“You gotta deal with his size, a guy coming in with his NCAA background with a great shot,” said Herring of Lesnar. “I’ve fought bigger guys. I’ve fought [Giant] Silva. He was 7’7”, 530 pounds, so we’ve dealt with some size before.”

Big and tall measurements aside, it’s that persistent shot Herring might be preparing most for. In addition to corralling a few Ohio State All-American wrestlers to Las Vegas to put him through his paces, Herring enlisted the services of four-time Olympic wrestling alternate and five-time UFC champion Randy Couture (Pictures) for a few sessions.

“I worked with Heath on his sprawl and brawl,” said Couture. “We worked a little from the clinch and on the wrestling perspective.”

While Herring zoned in on wrestling and its defensive counters, Lesnar has had to play a game of catch-up in every area outside of it.

Former University of Minnesota wrestling team member Greg Nelson has been entrusted to fill in Lesnar’s empty canvas. Though nearly half his student’s size, Nelson is a practitioner in a handful of martial arts from wrestling to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. At Nelson’s Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, Lesnar has found a sense of camaraderie akin to what he experienced in college wrestling. Nelson also hasn’t hesitated to bring in reinforcements when needed, including the world-accomplished Erik Paulson (Pictures), a former Pancrase champion who has worked with UFC standouts Josh Barnett (Pictures) and Ken Shamrock (Pictures), among others.

Nelson introduced Paulson to Lesnar, knowing the popular, easygoing California instructor could implement his Shooto boxing style as he guided the wrestler during his transition.

“It’s perfect because it ties the kickboxing and wrestling, kickboxing and grappling together,” said Paulson. “It’s kind of the gray area that a lot of guys don’t have.”

More importantly though, Paulson was considered family.

“Greg and I grew up together. Greg has been training with me in Shooto and CSW [Paulson’s gym] and Thai boxing for years,” said the Minnesota-born Paulson. “He was going to try and go out and bring some other guys in but he just said he wanted to keep it in the family.”

Lesnar’s careful choice of company shows a maturity other fighters have lacked and suffered for later. Lesnar's wisdom might have come from his earlier brushes with fame and fortune. From 2002-2004, the quiet native of Webster, S.D., turned his persona up a few hundred decibels and lived in the spotlight of the WWE as a pro wrestler. Lesnar earned the WWE heavyweight title three times and became its youngest champion ever at the age of 25, but had to sue the organization to eventually free himself of an exclusive contract which ran into 2010.

A life on the road ended back in Minnesota, where Lesnar lives in relative seclusion on a sprawling piece of land with his wife and daughter. Traveling a couple hours each way to train at Pat Miletich (Pictures)’s famed Iowa school was a short-lived stint. Lesnar took up residence at Nelson’s Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in early 2007 to train alongside former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk (Pictures) and recent EliteXC title challenger Nick Thompson (Pictures), a team he’s yet to stray from. Lesnar’s loyalty seems unwavering. Even Paulson wasn’t certain he’d pass muster when he joined the circle.

“He wasn’t quite sure if we were going to get along or not because he thought I was a California boy,” said Paulson. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m from Minnesota. I used to hunt and drink beer.’ We had the same sense of humor, so we got along real good.”

Paulson first trained Lesnar briefly for his bout with Mir, and returned for one week during the Herring camp with King of the Cage veteran Neil Cook in tow. At 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, Cook matched Lesnar physically and had a penchant for power punching that would push the wrestler on his feet.

“We did a lot of wrestling, a lot of jiu-jitsu defense, a lot of leg kick defense,” said Lesnar. “Heath’s got a strong right hand; he’s well rounded with his kicks so we haven’t left any rock unturned for this fight.”

Lesnar’s improvement has been dramatic, according to Paulson.

“[His] striking, how to combine the striking and grappling together [has improved]. He has gotten a lot better at knees and elbows. His hands are a lot crisper and he’s got great jumping knees,” said Paulson.

While a visual of Lesnar’s behemoth body leaping through the air, knee extended toward Herring’s head, would certainly bring the crowds to near-riot, Paulson is more encouraged by Lesnar’s other attributes.

“He’s a sponge. He just wants to learn. He’s an unbelievable athlete, and his aggressiveness is something that I’ve never felt before,” said Paulson. “He’s a professional with everybody. He takes care of his entire camp. He’s definitely a world-class act. He’s for real.”

Paulson believes Lesnar’s future losses, if there are to be any more, will likely only come from inexperience. And a loss Saturday wouldn’t necessarily be a detrimental setback. Herring had a decade of competition under his belt before Lesnar (1-1) even entered the sport, and an athlete with the right attitude can turn a loss into a treasure trove of discovery.

“He’s consistently learning and growing every single day, so it’s just so exciting to see every time I come back [that] he’s just gotten so much better,” said Paulson. “He’s got a big future ahead of him and he’s young. He’s 31.”

With time on his side, it sounds like a focused and committed Lesnar has made every second count since his loss to Mir.

“For me, [I need] to be a little more relaxed in there and a little more polished as a fighter,” said Lesnar. “I’ve had a few months to train. If the Brock Lesnar (Pictures) of now was to fight the Brock Lesnar (Pictures) of then, I would beat him.”
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