Brock Lesnar is, without a doubt, the scariest guy ever in the WWE. Sure, Undertaker could roll his eyes into his head, and Triple H occasionally brought out his scarcely-used sledgehammer, but there’s only one guy who, at a moment’s notice, could whip your arm around your back and force you to tap. Like really, tap, or your arm is gonna snap in half. Lesnar has almost always worked as a heel, because only heels play pretend-fight while still wielding the power to fracture your skull. When John Cena stared at Brock Lesnar this past SummerSlam, he was staring at someone who could make him cry. He was relying on the tapestry of kayfabe to keep himself safe. It’s a constant ransom, and it makes Lesnar’s demands difficult to disobey.
If you watched SummerSlam, you know Lesnar is about to embark on a one-of-a-kind heel run, and we’re all pretty excited to see where His Preeminence will go over the next couple of months. In tribute to that, we’re targeting Brock Lesnar with the first installment of our new series, Career Arc, where we’ll be focusing on a wrestler and highlighting the important matches that have represented the best and worst of their work. Brock’s story is that of an Ohio Valley upstart who got mainlined to the biggest stages before walking away from the company entirely under dubious circumstances. His latest greatness is just another chapter in one of the most unique stories in pro wrestling history.
Vs. Test, Rod Van Dam - King of the Ring 2002
We begin with a fully ponytail’d Paul Heyman banging on a TV backstage, telling silent upstart Brock Lesnar that he’s destined to be “the next big thing.” A few moments later he’s in the ring with Test, who is a wrestler I don’t remember at all outside of thinking his name was pretty dumb. Test is about as big as Lesnar, but equipped with none of the ferocity, like the worst version of the Batista archetype. The funniest thing about this match is that Lesnar almost loses. Seriously. He kicks out at two-and-a-half after a superkick, and only gets the clinching F-5 after some trademark distraction via Paul Heyman. It’s interesting to remember that once upon a time, Brock was playing the role of the spunky rookie, and hearing the announcing team describe him as a wide-eyed, inexperienced new guy is pretty jarring after witnessing his monster 2014 run. The guy who broke the streak was once booked to go over Test dirty.
The victory elevated Lesnar to the King of the Ring title match, against none other than Rob Van Dam. RVD is another guy who’s basically a rose-colored jobber in modern times, and he eats an F-5 for the pin, but not before forcing Heyman to take a bump. It’s another skin-of-his-teeth victory in the nearly-forgotten scrappy-underdog Brock Lesnar era, a perfect springboard to one of his best feuds.
Vs. The Rock – SummerSlam 2002
There’s some pretty good symmetry going on here. Watching this match now, what stands out the most are all the “ROCK YOU SUCK” chants raining down at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. It’s not hard to understand why; Rock was well on his way to his transformation into Dwayne Johnson, which never sits well with a crowd that values loyalty. In fact, Rock had won the belt only a month before, essentially to serve as his transition out of the WWE and to hang the gold on someone greener and hungrier. Lesnar would be in a very similar position to Rock only a couple years later as his UFC and NFL careers began to manifest, but in late 2002, he was the savior.
The match itself stands as perhaps Lesnar’s first great in-ring exhibition. Part of that has to do with Rock’s enduring ability to sell. There’s some really good chained counters, a great back-and-forth on a Rock Bottom, and of course, Paul Heyman getting thrown through an announcer table. Brock’s grappling skills were always apparent, and he certainly had the size, but it’s still profound to remember that at this point in his career, he’d already chewed through The Rock, Hulk Hogan, and Rob Van Dam. That’s some serious push. When he delivered that F-5 to Rock, Brock Lesnar was crowned the youngest WWE champ in history. Great things can happen when the WWE believes you can make them some money.
Vs. Undertaker – No Mercy 2002
Because of that whole 21-1 thing, the general public will probably forget the very good rivalry Lesnar and Undertaker shared in the early 2000s. The feud’s best match came in the second bout at No Mercy, where the kayfabe story was that Lesnar had broken Taker’s hand with a propane tank, and there was concern that he could use his cast as a weapon.
Look, I don’t write these things. But the fight is actually really good! It’s one of the goriest matches Taker has ever wrestled, and honestly, watching the blood drip from his head when he goes for covers is enough to make you physically ill. If your only context for these two is that sluggish, semi-depressing grind at Wrestlemania this year, you really owe it to yourself to revisit No Mercy, when both were at the height of their powers. Remember kids, once upon a time Taker was as big, scary, and mobile as Brock Lesnar.
Vs. Kurt Angle – Wrestlemania XIX
A few months went by. Brock Lesnar was betrayed by Paul Heyman in his title defense against Big Show, but Lesnar won the Royal Rumble which guaranteed him a title shot against Kurt Angle, who had taken the belt off of Show at Armageddon. This is also the first time we see Lesnar working as a face, something he’s scarcely done over the course of his career. It’s a pretty good match if you do your best to forget that the Angle Lock never looks like it hurts, and it’s cool to see Lesnar earn a true moment of wrestling euphoria. He’d end up feuding with Angle through most of the year, but it’s their first match that captured their best moments together.
But who are we kidding? This match is most notable for the moment Brock almost killed himself. You see, the match is supposed to end with a Shooting Star Press, an ambitious top-rope move that’s pretty rare for a guy his size. He climbs the turnbuckle, the announcers get ready to put over the “WE HAVEN’T SEEN THIS FROM BROCK BEFORE!!!” story peg, he leaps, and he lands really ugly and hard on the top of his head. Yeah, this was quite close to being the most tragic Wrestlemania of all time. Luckily he escaped with a concussion, and managed to recover into a much more standard F-5 finish. If you ever wonder why you never see Lesnar go top rope, well, it’s because once upon a time in 2003 he saw his life flash before his eyes.
Vs. Eddie Guerrero – No Way Out 2004
This is the best Brock Lesnar match of all time. Which is weird, because he loses the championship at a middling pay-per-view in a feud that seemingly only existed to put over the Lesnar/Goldberg rivalry that would culminate at Wrestlemania later that year, (more on that, uhm, “match” later.) But really, this is a 30 minute barn burner, and the crowd is so thoroughly behind Guerrero the whole time it takes Lesnar’s bullying to unprecedented heights. Brock dwarfs pretty much everyone physically, but when paired up with a guy like Guerrero, who does wavering fighter’s spirit better than anyone in the universe, you really start to hate Lesnar for his inherent jockiness. Add in some great F-5 counters, a triumphant frog splash, and some stiff-as-hell tackles, and you’ve got a Wrestlemania-quality match locked away in a pay-per-view frequented by only the most compulsive of wrestling nerds.
Vs. Goldberg – Wrestlemania XX
This is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest wrestling matches ever. Some context: in the run up to Wrestlemania XX, crowds started to turn on Brock Lesnar in a real, non-kayfabe way. It was pretty much confirmed that Lesnar would be leaving the WWE to take his talents to the NFL, where he’d eventually wash out as a failed defensive tackle. Remember what I said about The Rock, about wrestling fans valuing loyalty? When you’re skyrocketed to the top of the company and you feel comfortable walking out the door with all that newfound fame and prospects without saying goodbye, it’s going to feel a little cheap. So naturally, Brock’s entrance at Wrestlemania was viciously attacked with a chorus of boos, “you sold outs,” and the requisite, inevitable, “NAH NAH NAH NAH, NAH NAH NAH NAH, HEY HEY HEY, GOODBYE.”
But that doesn’t even get to the match, which is literally about 20 minutes of these two guys staring at each other. Seriously, go watch it. Lesnar stares at Goldberg. Goldberg stares at Lesnar. They engage in a quick arms-length tangle, disengage, and start staring at each other again. It’s one of the strangest things you’ll ever see, and actually seems designed to egg on the malcontents in the audience. We get justice with a Stone Cold Stunner delivered to both of them (the guest referee was Steve Austin,) which seemed like Vince McMahon’s way of saying “yeah you’re right! Screw these guys!” Someday we’ll find out what really went down on that fateful night, but until then, it will stand as one of the most inexplicable bookings of all time.
Vs. John Cena – Extreme Rules, 2012
Nothing last forever in wrestling. Seriously, everybody will be forgiven and welcomed back into the company someday (even CM Punk). Lesnar’s latest return into the fold has made him one of the scariest, most dominant heels ever, which is something that started back at Extreme Rules in 2012.
This would’ve been a lot like the SummerSlam beatdown we just witnessed, if WWE brass had the balls to go all the way. Instead, we just get an absurd destruction of Cena in one of the most one-sided matches of all time, until Cena goes ham and scores a chain to Lesnar’s face and an Attitude Adjustment onto the steel steps. To me, this was the John Cena Overcoming The Odds jump-the-shark moment, but as of last week, that’s been retconned and everything is good in the world. Hey, it’s still a great match, just saddled with one of the most disappointing endings ever.
Vs. The Undertaker – Wrestlemania XXX
All right. So you may have screwed up the whole BROCK LESNAR KILLS EVERYTHING HE SEES angle with that Cena victory, but there’s still room to readjust. How are you going to make your new bogeyman look like the eater of worlds? How about having him conquer the most cherished tradition in sports entertainment? You know, like book Brock Lesnar to beat The Undertaker at Wrestlemania.
I don’t need to spend too much time on this, because the WWE and Paul Heyman have done an excellent job of reminding us what happened every week on RAW for the last four months. But can we just take a moment to admire how surreal of a decision that must’ve been to make? How did The Undertaker feel the night before, knowing full well that he was going to go out to the ring, and lose? He would shock millions, break kids’ hearts, invoke some of the deepest wrestling rage known to mankind, and he would be alone. Books could be written about that moment. It’s the closest wrestling comes to poetry.
Vs. John Cena – SummerSlam 2014
And that brings us full circle. Brock Lesnar tossed a lifeless John Cena over his head sixteen times, securing the easiest pinfall the main event has ever seen. John Cena has never looked so helpless; Brock Lesnar has never looked so terrifying. It’s the start of a legendary title run, mostly considering the WWE roster has nobody credible enough to face off with a man who just did that to the most indestructible human in the company. This is uncharted territory, and you ought to be excited.