The PR deck against Brock Lesnar in Mixed Martial Arts

Beyond collegiate wrestling, Brock Lesnar has always been something of a square peg in a round hole; way too physical for WWE pro wrestling but less than stellar for Mixed Martial Arts pugilism. His hyper-physicality in pro-wrestling was scary and always on the edge of bruising realism. Watch some of the clips spliced into this ESPN interview and you will see how dangerous some of his moves, pro-training or not, were.  Had he stayed in pro wrestling, chances are  he could have seriously hurt or killed somebody. Says a perceptive poster in the hornet’s nest that is Youtube:

“Lesnar was a liability in the wrestling ring. He injured people on basic moves. He was too green to the pro wrestling circuit. Yes, he had a good amateur background, but pro wrestling is different …  He was a modern version of the ultimate warrior, period. He had potential but……” Moparfan16201 (Youtube)

So Lesnar’s decision to join MMA, where the fighting is honest-to-goodness and almost bare-knuckle  made a lot of sense, even though characterizes it in his ESPN interview as writing his  story backwards from entertainment to serious fighting instead of the other way around. The belief that he could cut it in the octagon was therefore not without foundation.

But once Lesnar made that decision, the first thing he should have done was hire an image consultant and an MMA guru to rid him of that WWE patina and shepherd his career up the slippery slope.  Why? Because in the cultish underground that is still MMA, professional wrestling is a four-letter word and as far from Mixed Martial Arts as the earth is from Mars. MMA fans are reflexively repulsed by the the booger-flicking shenanigans of pro wrestling stars. With very few exceptions, they even scoff at boxing as a corrupt and over-regulated sham of a show.

The Brock: Always a commanding physical presence, pre UFC 87.

The Brock: Always a commanding physical presence, before his rope-a-dope tussle with Heath Herring in UFC 87. Will he ever be the poster boy for Dana White's flagship?

Lesnar had everything going for him, including an all-American rags to riches story.  Brought up in Webster, South Dakota a small town near Minnesota of less than 2000 people, Lesnar  had the ready-made All-American tale of a boy who grew up on a struggling prairie farm in foreclosure on the edge of the West. His upbringing was pretty typical until he began to distinguish himself in high school football and wrestling  which paved the way to division one NCAA championships before Vince McMahon of WWE fame came calling with wads of cash. The fame and fortune of the WWE proved was offset by certain unpalatable aspects of life on the road.   A failed trial stint with the Minnesota Vikings 2004 eventually led Lesnar to Dana White and UFC’s door in 2007. After about three fights later with the pounding of Heath Herring in UFC 87 and Randy Couture in UFC 91, Lesnar was officially in, the controversies about how he got his  shot at the heavyweight title notwithstanding.

Mission one for Brock Lesnar at that point would have been to keep his mouth shut like the dumb half of Penn & Teller. He did not do that as it wasn’t quite his nature. He was mildly booed at one of the fights. Mission two would have been to keep a low, self-deprecating profile. He did not quite pull that one off either. Doing what is antithetical to his  WWE genes and touchy disposition,  would have placed him in great PR position in addition to creating catnip for the press. Yes, there are a lot of blow-hards in MMA like Tito Ortiz, but they do have insider creds earned in the blood and grit of the octagon. (Now come to think of it, Tito would be the perfect replacement for Lesnar in the WWE wrestling, wouldn’t he? ;))

Brock Lesnar’s yellow brick road to heavyweight gold: The question of how Lesnar got a shot at the heavyweight title belt after beating a couple of nobody’s has never been satisfactorily answered. It thus continues to taint his championship as much as his WWE pedigree has done. No matter how many “towel baths” he takes, the vestigial funk remains beneath the splashed on fragrance. Forget about his collegiate wrestling genes, because they did little to mold his ring persona in the WWE. And if all that was just acting, why is his octagonal persona turning out to be a villainous version of the thug he was in WWE? MMA fans are not making him do it because Lesnar is an adult on a stage that does not require WWE theatrics. The truth of the matter is that his collegiate wrestling genes have done nothing to keep him  grounded in the UFC. Could the truth be that there was always a little thug (also know as a “heel”) inside Brock even through those collegiate years? Well, the truth of the matter is that Lesnar has never made any secret of the kick he gets out of manhandling others and his touchiness and the scraps he got into during his brief stint with the Vikings are not classified information.

The octagon is the last place one would  look for character or character quirks. Be that as it may, the way in which fighters present themselves  is definitely a legitimate subject for discussion.  There is certainly a point at which playing “the heel” persona reaches a point of diminishing returns, if and when things don’t careen out of control before that. UFC 100 was one such event. The Q.E.D. is in the post-fight apology given by Brock Lesnar for his reprehensible conduct.

The other point of Lesnar’s P.R. hurdle is that no matter how big Lesnar gets, there will always be some asterisk next to how he captured the heavyweight title  in the first place when there was a long list of more deserving fighters (who could have fought Couture in UFC 91.) This speaks to the integrity of the process and how money-driven decisions are. At some point there is an inverse relationship between the business and what passes for “sport”, and to say that it doesn’t matter is as dumb as saying that sports is all that matters.

The Other Pachyderm In The Room: But having said all of that let us look at the other side of the coin with a non-jaundiced eye. The Lesnar controversy may very well be  MMA fans refusing to take their coffee enema. In that connection here is some food for thought: When a WWE star comes into the UFC under current rules and grabs the so-called undisputed heavyweight title within the short space of 4 fights, what does that say about  MMA and its hallowed fighters? … Or the WWE and its sun-tanned “showboats”?

You sleep on that and call us in the morning. But lest you develop a headache, the key to the dilemma caused by the Lesnar situation lies in splitting the heavyweight division with guys like Lesnar falling into the super heavyweight division. (The 45lb difference in the case of Lesnar vs Couture, was, all things almost being equal, unconscionable. And the 20lb difference in the case of Lesnar vs Mir falls into a gray area that ought to be vigorously debated.)

Brock Lesnar: The William’s sisters effect – The surface irony in all of this is that Brock Lesnar will do to the UFC heavyweight division what the Williams sisters did to women’s professional tennis by merging size and physical prowess with skill. After the Williams sisters, women’s tennis was never the same. After Brock Lesnar, the UFC’s heavyweight division will never be the same.

The most perceptive article following the Lesnar/Couture fight was written by Franklin McNeil of the Star-Ledger in Newark. Couture’s quoted comments in that article were succinct and to the point:

“[The division] is getting stronger and stronger,” Couture said. “Brock is a great indication of where the division is going. “Guys aren’t just big anymore, they’re very good athletes. … There are a lot of good guys in the division now.”

UFC 100 which brings Lesnar back  into the octagon against Frank Mir, the only man to hand him a defeat in MMA, will be eagerly anticipated but the out-come will be foregone unless Mir comes out in serious shape multiplied by an exponent of two. Guys like Mir represent the best of MMA’s roots, but unless the divisions are further split up by weight, the day will always belong to fast moving ground-and-pound hulks like Lesnar.

The  Tell-Tale Tale of Body Language: An interesting aside as you watch Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir is the ESPN post victory interview following the Lesnar/Couture fight: Watch the verbal-cum-body language exchanges between Lesnar and Mir carefully. You will  see that beyond Mir’s neutral role as co-interviewer, he is really conceding a lot of  physical and symbolic space to Lesnar like the marginal player he is in danger of becoming.  Lesnar, on his part, is hogging it and giving little or nothing back. This has to do with what the two say, how the say it and the extent to which they turn to acknowledge the other.  For someone who had tusseled mano-a-mano with Lesnar, Mir didn’t have to defer to Lesnar that much. Even though this was not a weigh-in or a pre-fight stare down, Mir could have still projected himself  as an equal, if not more deserving holder of the heavy weight title. But we could possibly  be mis-reading Frank Mir’s unassuming Mr. Nice Guy persona here. But we seriously doubt it.

That said, there is an undeniable Brock Lesnar effect that every heavyweight contender now has to deal with. In that sense the upcoming Brock Lesnar vs Frank Mir will shape itself up as another David vs Goliath tussle, with Goliath pummeling little David into the ground in zero time. Unless Lesnar decides to pace himself, unlike  in UFC 81 where he made a “fatal” mistake, the fight is gonna be another 60 seconds of ground and pound that won’t add much to MMA lore. And it is gonna be this way until a SKILLED fighter of  greater or equal physical stature  finds the many chinks in Lesnar’s armor.  Remember Chuck “the Iceman” Liddel who dominated the octagon in a brief shining moment between UFC 47 in 2004 and UFC 66 in 2006? Well, he had a chink in his armor and Randy Couture, Rampage Jackson, “Sugar” Rashad Evans and  Mauricio “Shogun” Rua found it. In Chuck Liddel’s case it was a combination of being a one trick pony (heavy striker with no chin and unorthodox hands down stance) with a rumored knack for partying that some said would catch up with him sooner than later. Injuries of the MCL and a middle finger in UFC 66 with Tito Ortiz further etched the writing on the wall for the Iceman.

The chink in Brock Lesnar’s armor is simply this: If you take away his size, weight,  freakish strength and  speed, you don’t have much left. The only attribute that approximates skill in that line up is speed, and that alone, doth not a superior fighter make.

copyright© 2009


Brock Lesnar Should Not Be The UFC Heavyweight Champ (Tim Scribe, The Bleacher Report)

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