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Looking At Brock Lesnar’s UFC Return

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Earlier this month, a promotional video was aired during the UFC 199 event to advertise next month’s historic UFC 200 event and at the conclusion of the vignette, Brock Lesnar made a brief appearance. Social media and the sports world were a buzz, and questions swirled about how such an occurrence could be possible. It’s well known that he is still under contract to the WWE and has a few years left on his deal so how can he fight for the UFC? Subsequently, it was announced that a deal was reached to allow Brock to fight a one-off bout in mixed martial arts and that he’s also scheduled for a match at SummerSlam.

First, such a cross-promotional event is truly unprecedented and more than anything, it shows the draw that Lesnar has become for both companies. The WWE has tightly controlled any rights to use almost anything they’ve created for years, but similar to his sponsorship deals, Brock Lesnar is the exception to the rule. There was a point when it would be laughable to even consider the prospect of the WWE allowing contracted talent to compete in another sport, but recent years have been unique times in sports entertainment. At the same time, the UFC also tries to keep as much control of their promotional efforts as well and they’ve been involved in more than one lawsuit in an effort to do so. A decade ago, when Kurt Angle negotiated with Dana White, his deal with TNA prevented him from competing in the octagon because the UFC didn’t want to sign the Olympic gold medalist if he was involved in pro wrestling at the same time. Again, Brock Lesnar is the exception to the rule and it speaks volumes to the type of commodity he is in the sports world.

After winning the NCAA championship in amateur wrestling in 2000, Brock Lesnar was recruited into sports entertainment and transitioned to the pro ranks well. He trained in Ohio Valley Wrestling with one of the most successful groups in the history of the business, alongside John Cena, Randy Orton, and others. He trained for a little more than a year before he started working dark matches and debuted on Raw in March of 2002, destroying several opponents during the segment. Within six months, he won the King of the Ring tournament and defeated The Rock to win the Undisputed championship. At the time, the accomplishment made Lesnar the youngest WWE champion in history and he seemed set to have an extended run as a top draw in sports entertainment. However, the grueling WWE schedule and the travel associated with it didn’t suit the Minnesota native after just two years of touring with the company. Brock Lesnar quit the WWE and signed a ten-year no compete to void his contract.

Without any extensive experience, Lesnar did a try out for the Minnesota Vikings, but he was cut from the team. Since football didn’t offer a new career path for him and he left the WWE without an extended run as a main event star, he had to find a way to make a living. In 2005, he made his way to New Japan Pro Wrestling and won the IWGP championship, but since he signed the previously mentioned no compete clause, the WWE filed a lawsuit to prevent him from wrestling in Japan. Eventually, it was settled and he worked sporadic appearances there until he refused to drop the IWGP title, which prompted NJPW to strip him of the belt.

Still searching for another profession, Brock Lesnar made his debut in mixed martial arts, a sport that was just starting to boom at the time, in 2007 for K-1 when he defeated Min Soo Kim via stoppage in the first round. Despite the successful debut, many were still skeptical about his venture in mixed martial arts after he was signed to fight for the UFC in 2008. On par with his experience level, Lesnar made a rookie mistake and was submitted by Frank Mir, but the pay-per-view generated buys, and Lesnar showed enough potential to create a hype for his next bout. When he returned to the octagon that August, he dominated mediocre fighter Heath Herring and somehow earned a title shot at the heavyweight championship with a record of just 2-1. I’ve said it many times, the ONLY reason Lesnar was given the opportunities so early in the UFC was because of his name value from sport entertainment, and I don’t blame Zuffa since it’s a smart business move. Granted, mixed martial arts is about competition, but even the UFC is a business and more than anything, it’s about what people are willing to pay to watch.

Fans were willing to pay to see Lesnar fight for the title and as right as the purists were that it was ridiculous that he got a title shot after one win, drawing money is the priority. Brock Lesnar defeated the legendary Randy Couture, an aging veteran and more of a light heavyweight, to win the UFC Heavyweight championship. At UFC 100, Lesnar helped generate the highest pay-per-view buy rate in the history of the company when he defeated Frank Mir in a rematch from their earlier bout. However, his run as champion was interrupted when he had diverticulitis and it required surgery. When he returned to the cage a year later, he was pummeled by Shane Carwin in the first round, but Carwin ran out of gas and Lesnar won via submission. Just a few months later, he returned to defend his title against Cain Velasquez, arguably the first top-tier challenger of his MMA career, and Lesnar was dominated in the contest, as he lost via TKO in the first round. Essentially, Brock Lesnar doesn’t like to get punched in the face, something that is certainly understandable, but it’s part of the job description for a mixed martial artist. While Lesnar is an unbelievable athlete, the Velasquez bout exposed his lack of fundamental striking skills, an aspect that surfaced again before his original retirement from the sport. Another bout of diverticulitis kept him away from the cage for another year and when he returned, he lost in a contest against Alistair Overeem after a first round stoppage.

Post-fight, Brock Lesnar retired from MMA with a record of 5-3 and along with his reign as UFC heavyweight champion, his PPV cards were among the highest numbers in UFC history. Considering he made major money during his time at Zuffa, most assumed Lesnar would be content to enjoy the rural lifestyle he created at his expansive farm in Canada, and despite rumors at the time, many were surprised when Lesnar returned to the WWE in 2012. For the former WWE champion, it was a win-win situation because he worked a very limited schedule and was still one of the highest paid performers on the roster. Similar to how WWE made Lesnar a star for the UFC to promote, the run in the UFC had made him a bigger star for his return to sports entertainment than he was previously. Some have criticized how Lesnar was booked the past few years and the limited schedule, which is a valid argument, but he undoubtedly adds a boost to any event he’s booked to appear.

As mentioned, this deal to fight while still under WWE contract is very unique and was announced as a “one-off.” Considering his age and the easier money in sports entertainment, I doubt Brock Lesnar would attempt a full-time comeback to MMA. This is only a guess, but it seems like Brock wants the chance to conclude his time in combat sports under better circumstances than the loss to Alistair Overeem in 2011. However, there’s definitely a risk here and simply because of the timing, the UFC could benefit more from this deal than the WWE. Obviously, Lesnar has been in the spotlight in recent years from his WWE work and that guarantees a major draw for the UFC 200 pay-per-view. The risk/reward here is that if Lesnar loses in the octagon, he’s somewhat damaged goods for Summer Slam the following month because if he’s defeated, the hype for the Summer Slam match could fall flat. On the flip side, if Lesnar is victories at UFC 200, it adds even more buzz around him for his return to WWE TV so it’s certainly a gamble.

Brock’s opponent, Mark Hunt, is a veteran that has knocked out his last two opponents. Stylistically, the bout is very simple, if Lesnar can the fight to the ground, he wins, but if Hunt lands a punch, it’s very possible that he could KO him. Anything can happen, but this whole situation certainly creates some very interesting events for the next few months. That being said, regardless of the result, each company is going to make major money so from a business prospective, it’s already a successful deal.

Until next week

-Jim LaMotta

@jimlamotta

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