As Brock Lesnar throws punches and scrambles through various moves in his “ground game” as a rapidly progressing professional in the mixed martial arts, you almost can’t help but flash back to what Clubber Lang said in his close-up moment in “Rocky III.” Lang, Sylvester Stallone’s ferocious opponent played by the oft-imitated, never-duplicated Mr. T, was asked his prediction for their fight. After a dramatic pause and a glare into the camera, he gives it: “Pain.”
Pain is what you think of as Lesnar sweats and strikes, and this is only practice. He is working out at the Minnesota Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Brooklyn Center, sparring recently in advance of his featured bout in “UFC 87: Search and Destroy” Saturday night at Minneapolis’ Target Center.
If the preparation hurts this much, you think, the serious combat in competition has to be excruciating. At that, Lesnar — a formidable 6-foot-3, 286 pounds, shrugs.
“I would have to say that this is probably at the top end of things not to do to your body,” he said, laughing. “It’s very demanding on the body. Every day, you come in and … some days you don’t want to be in here. You have to push yourself through those days.”
Lesnar has spent most of his adult life pushing his body through trials that would bring most of us to tears. The 2000 NCAA wrestling champion for the University of Minnesota, Lesnar turned to the hokum of professional wrestling as a way to make a lucrative living. Within four years, the WWE’s “The Next Big Thing” had been crowned a champion again and featured as the main event at “Wrestlemania.” Also, he reportedly was earning in excess of $1 million annually — a paycheck that dropped significantly when Lesnar tried to transform himself into a Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman in the summer of 2004. His freakish physical gifts weren’t enough to compensate for his lack of football experience and a past motorcycle injury, so after thanking the Vikings, Lesnar went searching for another door back into competition.
He found it in MMA, the brutal, seemingly no-holds-barred (actually, some are) fighting that has thrust itself into mainstream American sports. Nearly extinct in the mid-1990s in its original form — the ugly “Tough Man” mayhem without rules, the blood flowing mostly in grainy videos on obscure channels from minor venues — MMA got bought, revived and spruced up by Dana White and his business partners in 2001. White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) circuit, added weight classes, time limits and restrictions to the sport — no groin-punching or hair-pulling, for instance — and has ridden it to unimagined popularity and financial success, with heavy TV exposure on CBS and the Spike network, hungry pay-per-view audiences and assorted video-game mania.
Diving in — head first
Lesnar and the other UFC fighters want to ride along, for as long as they can. No pain, er, no gain.
“That’s the only way I know how to do it. Dive in head first and let’s see what happens!” Lesnar said. “I’ve got to do the right things and capitalize business-wise, too. Every second that goes by, I’m not getting any younger.
At 31, Lesnar feels like he has a limited number of years in which to make his MMA mark. A bigger question, though, is whether the clock will run out on his latest sport before it runs out on him. Will a “Legends of the UFC” video end up plucking highlights from the briefest time frame, like pulling together a greatest hits CD from Toni Basil, Mister Mister or Iron Butterfly? Or will Lesnar and his peers be viewed by future generations the way Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey are now? We know MMA has fists, knuckles, elbows, feet and knees. But does it have legs?
“I think it does,” said Brian Stegeman, Lesnar’s manager since he left the U. “This sport will spell the demise of boxing. It already has eclipsed it in pay-per-view, in viewership. The young people are growing up with this sport. This is what they watch. They’re training in this sport, they’re not training to be boxers. I think the next generation coming up is going to be phenomenal. It’s going to be something that we haven’t seen yet in this sport. The skill level is going to keep getting better and better.”
At $44.95 for the pay-per-view broadcast of UFC 87 Saturday and at $50 to $600 per seat to see the show live at Target Center (a near-capacity crowd of more than 12,000 is expected), promoters and participants are understandably focused on the quick hit, not on where MMA might rank as a viable sports option decades from now. By that time, its most rabid and knowledgeable fans will have moved out of the 18-to-34-year-old demographic coveted by advertising and network executives, either leaving behind the bloody fun or spreading the word to their kids and grandkids.
“I think fighting is here to stay,” Lesnar said. “Look at boxing, it’s still here to stay and it’s been around for many years. Everything’s got its ups and downs, and right now we’re at the peak. Right now, business is good. For me, obviously, I don’t fight for peanuts and I don’t think anybody wants to. … This is prize fighting.”
Fighting out of love
Easier for Lesnar to say, obviously, with his current six-figure paydays. For hopefuls such as Cole Konrad and Jesse Wallace, however, MMA is going to have to be more than a feisty fad if they’re going to make a decent living at it. The former is a national and Big Ten champion with the Gophers from Freedom, Wis. The latter used to be an offensive tackle at the University of Oregon. Both are sparring partners for Lesnar and both see MMA as their chosen career.
“I wanted to take fighting seriously. To do that, I had to become a wrestler,” said Wallace, a strapping 6-foot-6 heavyweight who moved to the Twin Cities two years ago to work with Lesnar and transform himself. He found a job washing dishes, then got his substitute teacher’s license and worked construction jobs. Now, as a member of Lesnar’s crew and with a 3-0 record of his own, Wallace said he finally is supporting himself through MMA.
“But this is absolutely not just a payday to me,” Wallace said. “If you look at this from the beginnings to where UFC kind of changed, it became really a sport. You see these guys now doing it nearly for free. At the level I compete, it’s out of love. The money isn’t there like in the NFL or in boxing, so guys who do this do it because they love it.”
Same reason, apparently, why viewers tune in and fans attend. Obviously, with these guys, this is singing from the choir. But the trait that draws so much criticism — that MMA appeals to base instincts and the lowest common denominator in a culture already desensitized to violence — also is the trait that exerts a primal pull.
“I think it will be the biggest sport the world has ever seen. I truly believe that,” Wallace said. “This is a return to the gladiator days but on a global level. Some of the best fighters in the world are from Russia and Brazil. They’re bringing all their intensity together. I can see it just blowing up. Because there’s nothing more entertaining — it’s pure competition.”
Konrad, 24, still has a corn-fed, Midwestern, unblemished look about him. He admits that MMA is more the rage with his age group, but sees growth potential. “To an extent it’s generational, but my dad watches it closely, I know,” Konrad said. “I think just the excitement factor that comes with it, it’s so appealing to people. If you watch some of those fights, anything can happen. One guy can be totally dominant — look at Brock’s last fight, he was totally dominant but it didn’t end that way.”
Lesnar overwhelmed savvy veteran Frank Mir from the start in their bout at UFC 81 in Las Vegas, but left himself vulnerable for an instant. The result: An excruciating kneebar that had the brawny Lesnar tapping out in submission.
“That’s what draws so many people in: Anything can happen at any time,” Konrad said.
‘Everybody understands fighting’
Lesnar got fed up with pro wrestling’s entertainment quotient, its heavy doses of storylines and subplots and soap opera and its separation from true athletic intensity. But that showcase, at its most elemental, offers something that MMA duplicates: A quick and easy identification with heroes and villains, in a flurry of real, unscripted fury. It never will get mistaken for A.J. Liebling’s “sweet science” of boxing — or at least, boxing in its golden age — but the appeal, once you get past all those blows to all those faces and the amount of time spent crawling around on the canvas, is considerable.
“Everybody understands fighting. One guy gets hit, that guy goes down. There’s no scoring system. One guy hits, one guy falls,” Lesnar said. “Men, women — you look at some of the people in the stands, the girls show up. Girls have been showing up for boxing forever. There’s women boxing, there’s women wrestling and there’s women fighting.
“So I think it’s something where it’s new and it’s exciting, and people can understand it. I think that’s why pro wrestling got so intriguing to people: One guy is good, one guy is bad. That’s how you walk through life every day. ‘Gosh, I don’t like that guy. I wish I could …’ Everybody has somebody they dislike.”