Brrrrock Lesnar! Suplex City Returns To The Ocatagon. That's Not A Good Thing.
Some mornings you can wake up feeling as if the ground shifted has underneath you. UFC 199 saw the shifting of the tectonic plates on which the sport lies and the Richter scale hit an 11 (scientifically inaccurate, yes, but a Spinal Tap cross-reference whenever possible is always the best course of action).
UFC 199 was monumental night in MMA. It felt like everything happened. It was everything. Michael Bisping usurping the throne on which many observers felt Luke Rockhold would sit comfortably for a couple of years. Dominick Cruz effortlessly subdued Urijah Faber, Max Holloway’s completed his quiet climb to the top of the featherweight contender pole, and, course, the news-making Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz signed on to a rematch at UFC 202. Oh yea, and the most renowned journalist in the sport, Ariel Helwani, was banned from covering UFC for life...for a day (a travesty on the surface but a scenario that should be explored in greater detail another day).
Undoubtedly though, the biggest news of the weekend was the announcement that 'The Beast Incarnate' Brock Lesnar would return to MMA for UFC 200. Social media erupted. Mainstream sports outlets were falling over themselves. Cats and dogs began coexisting. Oddly, Paul Heyman was nowhere to be seen.
***Here’s a fun tie-in to the Helwani story. The UFC reportedly revoked his credentials because he was breaking stories before the UFC got to announce them (again, his job and the role of journalists in our society). But qualitatively, it was because he stole their thunder. In PR, information is the coin of the realm. Being first is very, very valuable. Being first with a huge story is mint. Lesnar’s announcement was only truly significant because it was unlikely. That’s why it was a surprise. Before the announcement, if you asked someone, ‘Hey, do you think Brock Lesnar should come back?’ They would probably tell you, ‘I don’t know if he could hack it.’ Or a bevvy of other, legitimate reasons. But because the announcement was well-timed (during the fever-pitch of UFC 199) and for a prestige event – the UFC’s bicentennial card, UFC 200 – it felt significant even if it wasn’t. Perspective and context is a powerful force of change. Helwani, in a manner, usurped that perspective and context by reporting the news for the UFC. If it had come from the horses’ mouth, as they say, without an inkling of anticipation, the world would have erupted. It would have been that moment where Obi-Wan started having heart palpitations on the Millennium Falcon because it was, ‘As if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced’ Instead, imagine obnoxious young Luke doing what he did best in A New Hope and preempting Obi-Wan, ‘Hey, Ben! I think I just heard something…!”*
Undeniably, this was compelling news. Objectively, there's no way to put 'Brock Lesnar' in a sentence followed by an activity for major brand name and not make compelling news. (Try it. It's fun. 'Brock Lesnar goes running on the beach with a Coca Cola.' 'Brock Lesnar teaches children to dismantle a Chevrolet.' 'Brock Lesnar clutches death for Death Clutch.' See?) For all that hysteria, I’m here to say I don't feel that way. In fact, I think it smells.
Give me a chance, I really do have some compelling reasons.
Let’s start with the most simple aspect of all of this, the window which frames all that is Brock Lesnar: his reputation is built on pro wrestling. I know, I know, this was argued ad-nauseam when he made his debut in the sport. He largely dispelled that notion in the cage. But only so much.
For Lesnar, his MMA career wasn't one of establishing greatness. It was about dispelling a facade. If Lesnar had started his career as an MMA fighter, his accomplishments would be a bit more pedestrian and not as noteworthy. Instead, he came into the game with a level of curiosity unparalleled in the sports history because of pro wrestling. For Lesnar, wins didn’t translate to progress – they translated to confirmation. Every fight he won added exponentially more to his authenticity than his credibility. Lesnar capitalized on a myth established by a pro wrestling career by using his authentic athletic abilities to briefly convince (rightfully) the world he was legitimate. Most athletes do it the other way.
There ain’t nothing wrong with that. A man’s got to make a living. A man’s got to leverage what he’s got. Except that last word, that's the crux of it. Just what is 'legitmate' about Lesnar's MMA career? It's a bit shakier than I think many might want to believe.
In hindsight, Lesnar’s MMA career is built on context. He made Min Soo Kim to submit via strikes n his MMA debut (you tell me the last time you saw someone submit to strikes...don't worry I'll wait). His UFC debut is the famous knee bar tap to Frank Mir, which has become as remembered for Lesnar’s public vitriol for referee Steve Mazzagatti’s late stoppage (remember that time Lesnar knocked a door off its hinges after re-watching that fight?). Lesnar than took a dull unanimous decision over a past-it Heath Herring.
Then he got a title shot. He whaaaaaaa? A 2-1 record earned him a shot at a 44-year-old, undersized Randy Couture who still managed to neutralize Lesnar’s feared wrestling for the better part of two rounds until Lesnar won via knockout. The decision to give him the title shot at all is still curious to this day, even if the ends justify the means.
Then we go into the stretch of Lesnar’s career whereby the public became convinced he was as good as we had hoped. He smashed Mir in a rematch at UFC 100, which was a pure beatdown. That fight is Lesnar's only dominant performance. He followed that up with a back-and-forth tilt against fellow yoked-up banger, Shane Carwin, a fight he nearly lost. Why? Because of the next and most important point.
Lesnar never liked to get hit. As much as he bragged about what a bad man he was (relatively-speaking. Among MMA fighters he was more like a big bully than a bad man) he was awfully easy to turn into a flinchy, spastic ball of muscle with even a whiff of a hard shot. Remember what he looked like against Velasquez? Remember what he looked like against Alistair Overeem? When he was caught by those two, he became incredibly restrained and cowered at the mention of a punch.
With the context firmly in mind, let’s try to look at Lesnar’s recent career move from this angle: Brock Lesnar, 5-3 in the UFC, returns from a four-and-a-half year hiatus at the age of 38 to a sport that has drastically evolved since his last fight - which was his second consecutive TKO loss - to face a former K-1 kickboxer who has knocked out a who’s-who of top competition during the same time frame Lesnar has been play-fighting on a reduced schedule.
That opponent is Mark Hunt. The Super Samoan not only has a long history of evaporating other men into the ether with his hands, the last time Mark Hunt went to a decision was three months before Lesnar’s most recent fight. Hunt then rattled off nine fights with five finishes. Oh yea, and he's bullish against takedowns.
This fight matters not at all. Some will argue it gives Hunt a rub, a legit scalp for his belt. I argued above that Lesnar ceased to be a scalp worth collecting after his two losses – which has only decreased his value with each passing year. The argument that Hunt is going to get paid 'so good for him' is nice and well-meaning, but it doesn't make the fight matter. That's about as valuable as the paper the contract is written on.
This is reputation booking, pure and simple. It’s not driven by a vague unproven hype, by which Lesnar’s early career was and by which the same standard his career would cease to matter at this point. It’s driven by name value. Lesnar said he’s Bo Jackson. He couldn’t be more wrong. Bo Jackson was hype that built itself. Jackson played two real, competitive sports and dominated both.
Lesnar has more in common with Mickey Rourke. Look it up. Rourke was an amateur boxer throughout his teen years and was pretty good. He went 27-3. Then he took up acting and became known to the world. At the peak of his fame, he went back to boxing and did pretty well. But in a sport that had decades of time to evolve, Rourke was over the hill and never going to threaten the best. Twenty years outside of the sport will do that. Lesnar was a great amateur wrestler who then became a pro wrestler. He became the biggest star in an international company. When Lesnar left (in a now under-mentioned bid to become an NFL player – which failed), he took up MMA around the time of his athletic peak at 28 years old.
Like eachother, their best vocation was the one that made them famous. Lesnar played more to his strengths as an athlete in his vocation while Rourke played more to his strengths as an actor in his. When Rourke returned to acting, he was celebrated. When Lesnar returned to the WWE, he was, too. Then Rourke returned to boxing again and it was a joke. Lesnar is taking the same next step.
Come July 9, we can all raise a glass to the UFC for giving us a fight that we think we want. Me, I’ll be raising a glass to the UFC for a different reason: they know that what we want isn’t what’s best for us when we want it anyways.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.