Thursday, October 28, 2010

Velasquez takes Brock's title but he can't take his place

By John McMullen

There are winners and losers in most fights.

Cain Velasquez was the obvious winner last weekend in Anaheim when he blitzed Brock Lesnar to win the UFC heavyweight championship. There were a couple of losers, however, Lesnar and the promotion itself.

I first came across the biggest drawing card in mixed martial arts history in 2004 when I was covering the Minnesota Vikings. Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota, was a rookie trying to make it as a defensive tackle with the Vikings but he was no ordinary "street free agent."

Lesnar was already a worldwide phenomenon thanks to his days battling Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Mark "The Undertaker" Callaway during his highly-successful World Wrestling Entertainment career.

The Vikings had Pro Bowl talent like Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss and Antoine Winfield at the time but there was little question as to who the most popular player was in Mankato. Dozens of fans would show up every day, looking for Lesnar to sign their professional wrestling paraphernalia.

He wasn't happy about it. It's not that Lesnar was embarrassed about his WWE career. In fact, he was quite proud of the stardom he achieved and the millions he made in a rather short period of time in the hybrid world of sports entertainment. But, he also tired of the ungodly travel schedule that crisscrossed the globe and the beating he took on a daily basis. Yep, talk to anyone that has done both and they will tell you "fake" pro wrestlers take much more punishment than either football players or mixed martial artists.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Lesnar wanted to be taken seriously during his pro football sojourn. The Vikings then-head coach, Mike Tice, would rave about Lesnar's pure athletic ability but always tempered any expectations by pointing out how raw he was.

The South Dakota native had no football experience at with the Golden Gophers and hadn't been on the gridiron since his days at Webster High School in the Mount Rushmore State. He also was still recovering from a rather serious motorcycle accident in which he injured his groin, limiting his mobility.

That didn't stop Lesnar from knocking Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard out of a scrimmage at Blakeslee Stadium when he through the line, whacked the signal caller and sent him to the sidelines as the crowd cheered in WWE fashion.

Lesnar wasn't quite ready to play in the NFL but the Vikings weren't ready to give up on him either, and extended an invitation to play as a representative of the team in NFL Europa. Lesnar declined for the same reason he left WWE, he wanted to be closer to his Minnesota home with his family.

When MMA started taking off around the world, Lesnar finally found his calling and on April of 2006 he appeared inside the ring after the final match of K-1 Hero's Las Vegas show and announced his intent to join the promotion.

He began training with the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy under Greg Nelson, and one of his former wrestling coaches at Minnesota, Marty Morgan. His rise in the sport was meteoric, needing only one professional bout before UFC president Dana White inked him to a deal that guaranteed Lesnar $250,000 per fight plus pay-per-view  bonuses, making him one of the highest paid mixed martial artists in the world.

"I don't think there are any other pro wrestlers that can make the transition to  MMA, except for Brock Lesnar," White said at the time after inking Lesnar. "And if you look  at his amateur wrestling credentials, his size, and what he's done, this guy can end up being a force in the heavyweight division of the UFC."

White was proven correct when Lesnar needed just two UFC bouts before he took down one of the sport's true legends, Randy Couture, to win the heavyweight crown. His awesome strength, speed and grappling ability made him a tough out for even the most experienced of fighters.

Then real life came calling and Lesnar was stricken with a mysterious illness while hunting in Canada before his scheduled title defense with Shane Carwin. A very private person Lesnar let few people in on the severity of the illness and rumors started to fly.

"He's not well and he's not going to be getting well anytime soon," White said of Lesnar when setting up an interim title match between Carwin and Frank Mir.

Finally it was revealed that Lesnar was suffering from a serious case of diverticulitis, a very painful intestinal disorder. After further diagnosis, Lesnar underwent surgery in November of last year to close a perforation in
his intestine that had been leaking fecal matter into his abdomen. Some even said, the champ was close to death and may never fight again.

By January, Lesnar had made a miraculous comeback and was to unify his title with Carwin's interim belt at UFC 116 in Las Vegas. Carwin dominated the opening round, knocking Lesnar down once but then ran out of gas in Round 2 before Lesnar clamped on a triangle choke for the win. Amazed by the comeback
few paid attention that Lesnar was dominated physically for the first time against Carwin.

The illness had taken its toll.

Velasquez didn't make the same mistakes as Carwin last weekend, dominating Lesnar over 4:12 before finishing him for the TKO.

What the illness didn't take, however, was Lesnar's natural charisma and ability to sell a fight, something he learned from his days in WWE. Early trending numbers put the Lenar-Velasquez bout at slightly more than 1 million pay-per-view buys, among the most in UFC history.

Velasquez is currently being marketed by the UFC as the first Mexican to win a world heavyweight championship in combat sports in order to tap into the vast Latino community but the new champion is shy, reserved and not naturally charismatic.

His first title defense against Junior Dos Santos, probably next spring, will struggle to do half the buys of his title win. In fact, Velasquez, no matter how good he becomes, will likely never touch the 1 million buy mark again unless it's for a rematch with Lesnar.

Velasquez is a better fighter than Lesnar, but the former champ is something more, the rarest of all breeds in today's fighting world -- a true drawing card.

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