March 27, 2015

Brock Lesnar will keep his heavyweight championship defenses on the WWE Network.

Up next for the wrestler known as ''The Beast Incarnate,'' a date in the main event of WrestleMania 31.

His UFC career isn't just on hold - it's over.

Lesnar decided this week to spurn an MMA return where he ruled for years as the heavyweight champion of both the cage and pay-per-view buy rates. He signed a multi-year extension with WWE.

''I've been a barbarian my whole life,'' he told the AP. ''I'm just a smarter barbarian now. Evolution, you know?''

Lesnar's decision was a boon for Vince McMahon's WWE in the days leading into Sunday's card at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. With rumors swirling that Lesnar was ready to bolt after the card and head back to UFC, the main event conclusion seemed liked a (body) slam dunk with a lame duck champ. Lesnar announced his deal live on ESPN with the hope that WWE can keep the fans guessing who will walk out of the ring the champ.

Lesnar defends the WWE world heavyweight championship against Roman Reigns in the main event of WWE's signature weekend. The other big bouts include: John Cena vs. Rusev, Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt vs. The Undertaker.

But for wrestling fans, all eyes are on the WWE debut of Sting when he wrestles Triple H. Sting is the last of the all-time great stars of the WrestleMania era to never compete for the company. He spent 15 years headlining for the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling - which battled WWE for wrestling supremacy for most of the late 1990s - and close to 10 years main eventing matches for TNA Wrestling.

The 56-year-old Sting (Steve Borden) - who paints his face and brings a baseball bat into the ring - made his debut late last year, interfering in matches in the name of justice and playing mind games with Triple H, the crooked leader of ''The Authority.''

Sting is glad he made the jump.

''It was now or never, that was really it,'' he said. ''With hindsight, after rubbing shoulders with the WWE and all the different departments, it's like, `Wow, man, I should have done this a long time ago.'''

Sting had pushed a match with The Undertaker, calling it his ''big dream match.''

But instead he gets Triple H, a real-life top WWE executive, who served for years as one of the faces of the company in the ring and boardroom. Sting could still get that marquee match against ''The Deadman'' next year. All legendary hands will be on deck when the WWE will try and cram 100,000 fans into AT&T Stadium in Dallas. There's no guarantee Sting will stick around, though. He could call it a career after a final match Sunday.

''I'm feeling like this is probably going to be my last one,'' Sting said. ''We'll see how everyone reacts. If I'm asked to do one more at Survivor Series or maybe even WrestleMania next year, at this point, I would consider it. But realistically, this is going to be my last one.''

For a company that long emphasized the ''Entertainment'' in WWE - Liberace, Kim Kardashian and Joan Rivers have all appeared on the WrestleMania stage - the world's largest wrestling promotion now runs more like a pro sports enterprise than a buffed-up circus.

Over the last several years, the WWE has made serious advancements in its wellness program and its handling of concussions. The home of Hulk Hogan, The Rock and Daniel Bryan packaged all their greatest hits on a dedicated 24/7 network that boasts more than a million subscribers at $9.99 per month.

The WWE also launched a true farm system called NXT in Florida that grooms the next generation of superstars and has a weekly show on the network.

Monday nights are no longer enough to handle all the action.

But fans still flock to the USA Network like they have for more than 20 years, with an average of 4.187 million viewers tuning in for last Monday's show. The highest-rated NCAA Tournament game on cable through March 26 was a Notre Dame-Butler contest that averaged 3.907 million viewers.

The loyal fan base is one reason why the WWE started its own network early last year and made all monthly pay-per-views available in the price. WrestleMania is still available on traditional PPV Sunday, but at $69.99 it's about seven times the cost of one monthly subscription.

Sure beats spending up to $10,000 a ticket on Stubhub - the going rate as of Friday morning - for field seats to the show.

The WWE will also air its Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night on the Network. Randy Savage, who died in 2011, Kevin ''Diesel'' Nash and celebrity honoree Arnold Schwarzenegger headline this year's class.

Sting made his name on WrestleMania Sunday back in 1988 when he wrestled Ric Flair in a 45-minute draw when the old NWA went head-to-head with a live event against WWE. Sting, who hasn't wrestled since January 2014, spent the week in California getting a taste of the pomp of the WrestleMania ride.

''Maybe I was wrong all those years ago,'' Sting said. ''But it's been a great experience for me and I'm glad I'm here.''

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