By Josh Gross
July 02, 2010

For the first time since 2001, an American mixed martial artist is poised to rule the heavyweight class.

Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin won't compete for the division's linear title Saturday night in Las Vegas (that belongs to Fabricio Werdum after his upset of "He Who Must Not Be Named"), but with a victory at UFC 116, one of the two mammoth heavyweights will, by all rights, earn the No. 1 title last held by Mark Coleman. That certainty adds, one week after Fedor Emelianenko went down to stunning defeat, yet another dimension to a fight drenched in everything that makes combat sports compelling to watch.

There is, for instance, the personal triumph story of a brick wall of a man who is a half-year removed from 13 straight days of intravenous feedings while he struggled with an intestinal disorder that very nearly left him guarding a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. There is his subsequent comeback with the ending yet to be written. There is also the tale of an unbeaten giant, Carwin. He's someone who has never needed more than four minutes to dispose of any opponent in front of him, yet he'll understand for the first time what it's like to be undersized in a cage.

Then there is the recognition that Lesnar, 32, has become MMA's top draw in just his sixth fight. And the prospect that two bulls will meet for as primal a contest as MMA can deliver. Finally, there is the UFC belt, the notion of being the best, and the acceptance that he who has his hand raised inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena will be the living embodiment of the so-called baddest man on the planet.

If you're not yet convinced that Lesnar-Carwin (UFC pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET) is the most interesting combat sports event outside of Mayweather-Pacquiao, just remember that these are heavyweights. Big men. Bigger than big. It's the kind of match that should cause MMA fans to rejoice. At a time when boxing is searching in the rubble for it's next great heavyweight, MMA is teeming with them.

"There was a while there where it seemed pretty shallow," said three-time UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture. "There wasn't a lot of guys kicking around in the heavyweight division that were very impressive. Now it seems like we're deep, there's a ton of guys. Look at Alistair Overeem. Fedor. Now Werdum has certainly made a mark. Cain Velasquez. Carwin. Lesnar. There's a lot of big, strong pretty interesting heavyweights walking around. I still think the Lesnar-Carwin fight this weekend will determine the No. 1 ranked heavyweight right now, but there's a lot of guys that on any given night can be that guy."

The pertinent question then: who will be the man after Saturday?

Lesnar (4-1) is a physical freak at 6-foot-3, 280-pounds. There are more elegant descriptions, perhaps, though none are more accurate. At 6-foot-2, 265, Carwin, 35, is small by comparison. Lesnar's double-door refrigerator frame, which includes a shoulder-to-shoulder expanse that may as well feature major motion pictures projected upon them, is hardly his most impressive natural attribute. Yes, size matters. But it's size coupled with speed and agility that spurred Lesnar to an NCAA wrestling championship for the University of Minnesota in 2000 and, later, stardom in the WWE. And, not surprisingly, it's that combination that propelled him to the UFC title with a stoppage of Couture in 2008.

Those gifts and Lesnar's way of life -- a simple existence secluded from the world on a Minnesota farm -- were threatened late last year when diverticulitis nearly changed him forever.

Having been broken down and built back up, a bit like Lee Majors but without $6 million in hardware, Lesnar was required to analyze his choices in life -- he's a hunter and enjoys eating the things he kills -- and whether they are in accord with his "pursuit to greatness in this sport." They weren't. For six months, Lesnar, who has always done things the way he wanted to when he wanted to, focused on rebuilding his body and retooling his game.

Big on loyalty and secrecy (he had Couture sign a non-disclosure agreement for the period the two trained together leading up to Saturday's fight), Lesnar replaced veteran trainer Greg Nelson with boxing guru Peter Welch after becoming upset with the way Nelson spoke out of turn to the press about his illness. Lesnar also cleaned up his diet, cutting out a good chunk of it that previously had a pulse. It was back to the basics, in life and in the gym.

"When I got the green light that I was going to be able to do this again, I refer it to as a little steam locomotive," said the UFC heavyweight champion. "Threw a little coal in the fire, got things going. Next week, a little more coal. And now we're here."

"I don't think the diverticulitis has probably taken anything away from him," Carwin said. "It's probably allowed him some time to recoup. Honestly, when I look at his situation, that year that I had off, I became a much better fighter. I think that will be the same case with Brock. I think he'll be a much-improved fighter."

Carwin's year away (March 2009-2010) came as a result of injuries, the UFC changing plans on him, and Lesnar bowing out of their previously scheduled fight. During his hiatus, the former D-II NCAA champion wrestler at Western State College, who also appeared on NFL draft boards for his play at linebacker at the small Colorado school, worked extensively on his skills, which have produced a 12-0 record with seven knockouts and five submissions.

"I don't think he's worried about Carwin," Couture said of Lesnar, who rakes in $400,000 in guaranteed money on Saturday compared to $40,000 for his challenger. "He's focusing solely on what he can control, what he's bringing into the fight, how he's going to approach the fight."

That means wrestling, because if Lesnar cannot put the power puncher on his back, his chances of winning will significantly decrease.

"We'll see whether or not he has the edge in wrestling," said Carwin, who had to listen to Lesnar diminish his mat credentials leading up to UFC 116. "I think that will probably be his game plan. I don't think we'll see him stand with me too long."

"If this thing is going to stop, I want it to be on my terms," Lesnar said. "I just don't see Shane Carwin being the guy that's going to stop this freight train."

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