Brock Lesnar was an NCAA wrestling champion and a WWE refugee and even tried out for the Minnesota Vikings. But the man they called the Next Big Thing really wants to be the baddest mofo in Ultimate Fighting history—that is, if it doesn't kill him first
When the world last saw Brock Lesnar, he was flipping it the middle finger. It was July 2009 in Las Vegas, and Lesnar had just defended his Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title by punching his archrival, Frank Mir, into bloody sausage. As a dazed Mir gasped for breath, the victorious star preened, stalking the chain-link Octagon, and grabbed a microphone. "Frank Mir had a horseshoe up his ass," he growled. "I pulled that son of a bitch out and beat him over the head with it." Then Lesnar threw an elbow at Bud Light, a prominent UFC sponsor. "I'm going to drink a Coors Light. Bud Light won't pay me nothing." And just in case anyone didn't think he was a gentleman, Lesnar made sure to thank his family and friends: "Hell, I might even get on top of my wife tonight." It was the most watched UFC fight in league history.
Still not on board with the fun of Ultimate Fighting? Good luck with that. In 2010, it's like saying you're not sure about that whole Internet thing or hybrid cars. The UFC's brand of mixed martial arts—two men enter an eight-sided cage and use whatever fighting technique they want in an almost-no-holds-barred fight to submission—is an estimated billion-dollar industry now. While other sports struggle against a tide of eroding ratings and shrinking market share, the UFC churns out a smash reality TV show (The Ultimate Fighter) and packed live events that fill stadiums from Portland to Abu Dhabi.
Depending on the fighters' styles, a fight can be brilliantly athletic or a bloody slog on the floor, but over three five-minute rounds the average MMA contest delivers something most sports don't: clarity. If you're tired of overgoverned leagues, pampered athletes, and commercial interruptions, the UFC offers simple, primal conflict. And yet it still lingers in the sub-rosa culture, without a household name like Peyton or Kobe.
Lesnar could change that. In just five MMA fights over two years, the 32-year-old former Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) star and onetime wannabe Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman has become one of the UFC's most compelling, if divisive, personalities—a colorful ex-fake fighter who swooped in and kicked ass for real. Lesnar's 2009 throwdown with Mir attracted 1.6 million pay-per-view subscribers, more than double the number that shelled out to see Manny Pacquiao's latest twirl in the ring.
"It's pure," Lesnar said of the sport that made him famous, when he met GQ at his gym in rural Minnesota. "People like violence. It's in everybody's blood. Everybody fights. It's instinct."
Seeing him up close, you can understand why he'd be terrifying to lock yourself in a cage with. Norman Rockwell would have dug Brock Lesnar's face. It's a face that looks like it wants to order an egg cream. And then smash it over your head. But what makes him a terror in the Octagon—and made him a fearsome heavyweight NCAA wrestling national champion—is not just size but speed and endurance. He once ran a 4.7 forty-yard dash at 290 pounds, and his stamina is extraordinary. "He was ferocious," says Erik Paulson, who coaches him for his UFC fights and saw his potential in WWE. "It was like, 'If that guy could learn how to punch and kick, he's going to tear the heads off people.'"
Once Lesnar defeated Mir, he seemed on a course for Tiger Woods-like domination. But a few months later, Lesnar fell mysteriously ill. On a hunting trip to Canada, he checked himself into a hospital. His November 2009 fight was suddenly canceled and rumors began to spread. The raucous Internet message boards that chronicle the UFC were riveted: What was wrong with Brock Lesnar? He didn't know himself. He later learned he'd developed a rupture in his intestine that was leaking, toxifying his body.
"The only way I can describe it is getting shot with a shotgun in the stomach," he says. Surgery was an option, but recovery was long and could jeopardize his UFC career. "I crawled down a hole," he says of his time in the hospital. "I got cuckoo on drugs. I called [UFC president] Dana White and told him to go fuck himself. I fired everybody I could fire. The nurses were afraid to come in the room."
It was the kind of end that might have seemed befitting for a character like Lesnar: alone, unreachable, having rebelled even against the sport that is a refuge for guys with ammunition sponsors and bloodtipped-knife tattoos. Then, during a January examination at the Mayo Clinic, Lesnar says, doctors told him the intestinal rupture was healing itself. Lesnar, who'd been doing little more than eating better, was shocked.
He announced his comeback in early winter, and on July 3 in Las Vegas he will fight Shane Carwin—who, in Lesnar's absence, became the UFC's interim champion. Lesnar, totally unsurprisingly, calls it a "fake belt." White expects the Fourth of July weekend battle to be a blockbuster event, in no small part because the medical drama "humanized" the cantankerous heavyweight. "All the people who hated Brock, who didn't think he belonged here, all had the chance to sit around and go, 'Wow, imagine if Brock Lesnar never fights again,' " White says. "As a human being, you think, 'I hope this guy is okay.' But as a fight fan, you're like, 'Ah, we're getting robbed.'"
But Brock Lesnar isn't ready to feel sentimental about almost losing his job. He may never be. "I was fucking helpless," the once and future headliner of the biggest fighting league in the world says. "There I was, the new champion, and I couldn't fight. I've got people I want to fucking beat up."
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