Lesnar out, but UFC 131 means as much with replacement Carwin

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WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. -- By the time Shane Carwin showed up for his morning sparring session at the Grudge Training Center last Saturday, the camera crews had already beaten him there.

One crew belonged to UFC sponsor Bud Light, the other to Spike TV's Countdown. Both had big plans for the morning. From the look on Carwin's face as he walked into the gym, he knew it was going to be a long day.

But long days happen when a fighter goes from being the undercard to the main event in one afternoon. After former UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar was forced out of his No. 1 contender fight with Junior dos Santos at UFC 131, Carwin got the offer to step up and take Lesnar's place. Accepting was a no-brainer for the 36-year-old heavyweight, who has had as many surgeries as fights against top 10 opponents in his MMA career.

Carwin hasn't stepped in the cage since July 2010, when he nearly defeated Lesnar in the title fight at UFC 116. He's spent the time since recovering from neck surgery and was supposed to wade back into the heavyweight waters in an undercard bout against newcomer Jon Olav Einemo. But with Lesnar pulling out due to a recurring bout of diverticulitis, Carwin has no choice but to jump right back in against dos Santos and hope he still remembers how to swim.

On paper, at least, Carwin-dos Santos is actually a better fight. Like Lesnar, Carwin is a big, powerful wrestler who will help us find out just how good dos Santos' takedown defense is. Unlike Lesnar, Carwin is also a knockout threat on the feet. While Lesnar shies away from punches, Carwin goes straight through them.

In fact, we've yet to see Carwin get truly outfought in the Octagon. His only career loss came against Lesnar, and he was thoroughly dominating that one before he punched himself out. By the time Round 2 started he could barely get off his stool, making him easy pickings for a Lesnar takedown and quick submission.

A loss is still a loss, and being ready to fight for as long as it takes is part of being a champion, so it's understandable that some still question Carwin's cardio. At the same time, it was hard to come away from that bout feeling Lesnar was truly the better fighter. Carwin beat himself, which is part of what makes his comeback fight against dos Santos so intriguing.

The problem for the UFC is that losing Lesnar is a real revenue killer, particularly after his coaching stint opposite dos Santos on The Ultimate Fighter. The mere mention of Lesnar's name always manages to attract increased media interest, and any card featuring him is sure to be a pay-per-view success.

The main event at UFC 131 is just as meaningful without Lesnar -- the winner will have earned the right to face Cain Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight title -- but the popular interest may have waned. Even though Lesnar hasn't bothered to flash much in the way of personality on this season of TUF, he doesn't really have to. His name alone sells. Carwin's doesn't.

Which brings us back to the cameras. Heading up the Countdown production crew in Wheat Ridge was former pro wrestling personality Paul Heyman -- also a longtime friend of Lesnar's. While the Grudge Training Center crew might not have been initially enthusiastic about seeing its arch rival's bosom buddy show up to a sparring session with video cameras at his disposal, Heyman is the right man for this particular job.

The trick is to convince the average fan of what the hardcores already know, which is that Lesnar's withdrawal from UFC 131 was not such a disaster after all. Not for those who like seeing two big guys try to knock each other's heads into the third row, which is most likely what Carwin and dos Santos will be up to on June 11.

Fortunately, Heyman is a man who knows a thing or two about packaging a pro athlete for mass consumption, so the hype should be there when the UFC needs it. The question is, after nearly a year without a fight, will Carwin's skills and cardio be there as well?

Carwin has only heard the words "Round 2" once in his career, and it didn't end well. Now we get to find out just how much he's changed since then. We also get a better fight for the money, regardless of how many people know it going in.