LAS VEGAS -- The bad guy won on Saturday and that's good news for the UFC.
As Brock Lesnar stood in the center of the Octagon with the UFC heavyweight championship belt strapped around his waist getting showered with boos after defeating fan favorite Randy Couture with a straight right behind Couture's left ear at 3:07 of the second round, the only one with a smile bigger than his was UFC President Dana White.
White couldn't have scripted a better ending to UFC 91 than the one he witnessed from his front row seat at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. While he billed the bout as "the biggest fight in UFC history" and pushed Lesnar's sole UFC win against Heath Herring, an average heavyweight, as if it was the most impressive win he had ever seen, the truth is White didn't know what he had in Lesnar until Saturday night.
He knew he had a marquee name. He knew he had a potential superstar. He knew that he had someone that could attract bigger numbers than the company had ever seen.
He just didn't know if it was too good to be true.
It wasn't until he watched Lesnar land a series of hammerfists to the head of the fallen champion that that he knew.
Lesnar is for real.
It was the ending that White had no doubt hoped for as he publicly praised Couture for coming out of a one year retirement during which he sued the UFC, attempting to get out of his contract in order to fight for a rival promotion. While Couture ended up coming back as most fighters with a problem with the UFC end up doing, the bottom line is Couture is 45 years old and past the twilight of his career. A win over the 31-year-old Lesnar would have been a nice one-night story, but it would have been terrible business-wise for the UFC in the long run.
If this was pro wrestling, this would have been the equivalent of Hulk Hogan dropping the title to the Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI before Hogan went off to enjoy a semi-retirement and film some straight-to-video movie. White, of course, is hoping that Lesnar fairs better with the passed torch than the Warrior did.
There was a motion-picturesque feeling to match before it even began with Lesnar entering the Octagon to Metallica's Enter Sandman as if he was Mariano Rivera stepping to the mound to finish off Couture. The only time the stern-faced Lesnar showed any emotion was when his name was announced to a thunderous jeer from the crowd of 14.272 and he smiled. Couture, on the other hand was cheered wildly and received chants of, "Randy, Randy," throughout the match. If Lesnar trained in Moscow instead of Minnesota, it would have been like a scene out of Rocky IV, with the massive, crew-cutted freak of nature, ready to pulverize the champion coming out of retirement.
Only this time, Drago, er, Lesnar won and that's exactly what the UFC needed to happen. Anyone who doubts that needs only look at the numbers generated from an event promoted largely off the hype of Lesnar. White said that the UFC earned $4.8 million at the gate and likely drew over 1 million pay-per-views, which is no small feat in today's current economy.
While White doesn't normally push fighters who haven't proven themselves, he knew he had a star in Lesnar from the moment he first met him at the MGM before Couture's last UFC fight in August 2007. He knew that if Lesnar could actually back up his freakish physique and unparalleled hype with actual results in the Octagon, he would have potentially the biggest star the UFC had ever seen.
Imagine Kimbo Slice, if Kimbo Slice was young, athletic and could actually fight.
"It drove me crazy when people compared him to Kimbo Slice," said White after the fight. "If I had any hair I would pull it out. This guy is far from a Kimbo Slice. This guy is a real athlete."
Lesnar, who became the first fighter to win the heavyweight title in just his fourth MMA fight, said he had never even heard of Slice, admitting he doesn't have the Internet or read newspapers.
"I don't even know that guy," said a straight-faced Lesnar. "Who is that?"
"You're lucky," said White.
Although Lesnar certainly has a better athletic pedigree than Slice as a former NCAA wrestling champion, even White had to laugh as he introduced Lesnar at Thursday's pre-fight news conference, which was held in the main lobby of the MGM Grand and attracted a crowd of nearly 1,500 spectators. "I never thought I'd say this," said White with a smile. "But fighting for the heavyweight title with a record of 2-1 ..."
Putting Lesnar, who was just 1-1 in his brief UFC career, in the Octagon with Couture for the heavyweight title was certainly a gamble but it paid off bigger than any bet laid down at the sports books, which surprisingly had Lesnar as a slight favorite in the fight despite his inexperience.
Sure, Lesnar was bigger, faster and stronger than Couture but Couture is a masterful tactician in the Octagon and it wouldn't have surprised any of the pundits sitting at ringside if he had surprised Lesnar in the first round and successfully defended his title against the newcomer. At that point it would have been hard for White to push Lesnar, with a 1-2 record in the UFC, as being the next big thing in the sport.
Luckily for him and the UFC, he didn't have to worry about that as he helped put the heavyweight belt on the new champion and ushered in a new era in the UFC.
"After I beat Heath [Herring] I said, 'Can you see me now?'" said Lesnar after the fight. "Well, can you believe me now?"