In advance of his return to MMA at UFC 200, Brock Lesnar is saying all the right things. When he announced he would be fighting Mark Hunt at that event on ESPN, he made it a point to say that he was haunted by his decision to re-sign with World Wrestling Entertainment in March. Lesnar framed his Ultimate Fighting Championship homecoming as something for which he pushed, rather than an opportunity presented to him by the UFC. The narrative is that Lesnar is hungry, motivated and healthier than he has been in a long time.
It’s understandable that Lesnar is taking this tact. Lesnar has smart people on his team, and they know the Hunt fight is much more intriguing if Lesnar comes in with a point to prove. However, just because it makes for a good story doesn’t necessarily make it true. Maybe this fight means more to Lesnar than just a big paycheck, but there’s plenty of reason to doubt his telling of what this is all about. Most of it revolves around timing.
If Lesnar was itching to make an MMA comeback, last year was the best time to do it. Lesnar was younger and his contract with the WWE was up. He did a trial camp and then decided instead to re-sign with the WWE and announce his MMA retirement. Lesnar had plenty of time to consider returning to the UFC between 2011 and 2015; it’s hard to understand why the drive would pop up in the last year.
Theoretically, re-signing with the WWE could have been more about opportunities within that company than about any lack of interest in the UFC. However, there wasn’t a lot tying Lesnar to the WWE at that time. The WWE was timing Lesnar’s storyline trajectory to coincide with his contract running out. Lesnar was world champion and scheduled to lose the title at “WrestleMania” to the WWE’s new hope for a top young star, Roman Reigns. The timing was perfect for him to lose the title to Reigns and then head back to the UFC. There were no loose ends. Re-signing with the WWE seemed a clear choice to forego another serious UFC run.
The other issue of timing has to do with when Lesnar is returning to the UFC. Lesnar is coming in at a time of need for the promotion, a time that is less advantageous for Lesnar’s WWE career. Since Conor McGregor was pulled from UFC 200, the UFC has wanted and been looking for a unique hook for that card. UFC 200 was already a solid lineup, but it lacked the sizzle for what was targeted as potentially the biggest event in Ultimate Fighting Championship history. Lesnar provides that sizzle.
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The timing of the announcement was telling, as well. The UFC announced Lesnar’s return for UFC 200 right at the same time McGregor-Nate Diaz 2 was announced for UFC 202. There was the risk that the McGregor-Diaz fight would overshadow UFC 200, and the Lesnar announcement prevented that possibility. If McGregor-Diaz remained on UFC 200, it seems unlikely the UFC would want Lesnar to also be on that card given the expense involved in getting both those fights signed. Lesnar calling UFC President Dana White to express his interest in returning to fighting at that precise moment of need would be quite the fortuitous development.
This is also bad timing for Lesnar, who is scheduled to be a major part of the WWE’s “SummerSlam” event a month after UFC 200. That plan could go up in smoke if Lesnar is knocked out badly by one of the hardest hitters in the history of the sport. Lesnar has argued that he chose UFC 200 because of the magnitude of the event, but that has much more to do with business considerations than the itch to prove something to one’s self.
There is of course nothing wrong with taking a fight when offered a big paycheck. Lesnar is a smart businessman, and it will be fun to see him back in the Octagon one more time either way. However, it does offer some guidance as to what to expect from Lesnar’s return. MMA is not a sport for those who aren’t invested 100 percent. The risks are too high. The Brock Lesnar that entered the UFC in 2008 was hungry. After leaving the WWE acrimoniously and not making it in the NFL, his future quality of life depended on how he performed in the UFC. The stakes were sky high and Lesnar was all in.
Eight years later, the situation is completely different for Lesnar. Regardless, he needs to tap into that same level of motivation. He needs to have been training longer than just the four weeks that are left to prepare for Hunt. He hasn’t fought in nearly five years and needs to get himself into fighting shape, brush up on his MMA skills and prepare for Hunt as a specific opponent. That’s a tall task, particularly if the fight is primarily just about a big one-night payday.
Beyond the general challenges that come with getting into a cage with a world-class fighter, there are the specific challenges that come with getting into a fistfight with Mark Hunt. The 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix winner is precisely the sort of fighter you don’t want to take on if your heart isn’t in it. Hunt hits like a truck and has a true fighter’s disposition. Hunt will not break mentally and will always be looking to land a devastating shot. The problem is not just that Lesnar could be knocked out quickly. If he doesn’t have a fighter’s disposition anymore, Hunt is the sort of opponent who can expose that in the most glaring manner. That could do a number on Lesnar’s pro wrestling aura, particularly on such a prominent stage.
At this point, only Lesnar knows for sure what place MMA occupies in his head and heart. Come UFC 200, it may become much clearer to the general public, for better or worse. For Lesnar’s sake, hopefully he’s sincere in his explanation of what this fight is about for him. If he isn’t, this could prove to be a very costly paycheck for the Beast Incarnate.