January 03, 2012

Last Friday morning I was having breakfast in my sleepy town in western Massachusetts, and between spoonfuls of cereal, opened our little daily newspaper to its four-page sports section. I almost choked on my Great Grains when I saw what was atop the front page, above a couple of high school basketball stories: a photo of Brock Lesnar along with a write-up touting that evening's UFC 141 main event.

What? Mixed martial arts in the local paper? This is a sport that, despite its runaway growth over the past decade, still has a difficult time getting even a nod of acknowledgment from the old-school editors who run big metropolitan dailies, papers that purport to be sources for all of the sports news that matters. But there was Lesnar, staring off the page both menacingly and invitingly at me and few thousand others in the Connecticut River Valley who have the local paper delivered to their doorsteps.

Later in the day I was on press row at a college basketball game when one of the other reporters covering the game leaned over and, out of nowhere, asked, "What's Lesnar go, around 280?" For a moment I found myself scanning the two teams' rosters looking for a name that sounds like "Lesnar." But no, he was talking about the UFC fighter.

If pressed, your typical sportswriter at a mainstream publication might recall that an MMA guy had a part in Sly Stallone's latest film and that some mohawked dude made a cameo appearance on Entourage, but please don't ask for names. There's just one UFC name recognizable to the great many sports fans who barely pay the slightest attention to MMA. And as unfathomable as it may be for diehards, that name is not Couture or Liddell.

This is what the UFC lost Friday night, when, after being demolished by Alistair "Demolition Man" Overeem in a bout to determine the No. 1 challenger for the heavyweight belt, Lesnar announced his retirement. Dana White's organization said goodbye to an attraction whose hulking physique and outsized persona were dwarfed by his colossal celebrity. Lesnar is one of those rare athletes who transcends his sport. And, ironically enough, he built his renown outside of sports.

(Of course, referring to Lesnar's years in the WWE as time spent "outside of sports" is going to get me in trouble with the true believers. After I mentioned in my UFC 141 account that Lesnar had "used his fame as a fake wrestler to catapult himself into the world's leading organization of real fighting," I was deluged with e-mails from outraged fans of the Vince McMahon Actors Studio. "Wrestling may be predetermined," one correspondent huffed, "but it is not fake." Um, OK.)

Anyway, none of this is to diminish Lesnar the athlete. Long before he earned his millions of dollars and millions of fans by dancing with The Undertaker and The Rock and Killer Kowalski and Gorgeous George, he was a 2000 NCAA Division I champion ... in wrestling that is not predetermined. And years later, after he quit his starring role on the rasslin' stage, he tried out for the Minnesota Vikings, and despite having not played football since high school, nearly made the roster. Then he shifted his attention to MMA, where in just his fourth bout he was crowned UFC heavyweight champion.

Lesnar was an old-school fighter, built for the days of Royce and Tank and The Beast, when guys utilized their expertise in a single martial discipline against other similarly one-dimensional fighters. Brock mostly relied on high-level wrestling moves fueled by an extraordinary combination of power and quickness. Yes, I said "mostly." As every grappler in the MMA business understands, fights start with the fighters on their feet. And Lesnar, as awkward as he always looked as a striker, could deliver a punch with dizzying power. An enduring image of Lesnar is of the stiff right hand that wobbled Randy Couture, leading to Lesnar capturing the UFC belt.

Lesnar captured more than shiny brass and leather during his time in the Dana White Fight Club. He captivated fans of the sport and brought recognition to the sport like no one else. Anderson Silva, George St-Pierre and Jon Jones may be the pound-for-pound kings in their chosen game, but in the big picture of the sports world they're small potatoes. "The Spider" is a national hero in Brazil, GSP drew 55,000 to a stadium in Toronto and "Bones" has had face time on the late-night TV talk show circuit. But go to the Sugar Bowl or an NFL playoff or NBA game and ask fans about any of those guys, and you'll likely get a blank stare. Ask about Lesnar, and there will be at least some degree of recognition.

Even within the UFC's fan base, Lesnar was a star. When he defended his title in the main event of UFC 100 against Frank Mir, who had taken a beating from Lesnar in the big guy's UFC debut before catching the unsuspecting neophyte in a knee bar, the July 2009 card attracted 1.6 million pay-per-view buys. That's a UFC record. By far. The next-biggest PPV was UFC 116, which had 1.16 million buys. That July 2010 card's main event: Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin. Brock fought seven bouts in the UFC, and four of them were among the top six PPVs in UFC history. Simply put, he was a cash cow.

So imagine what went on in the minds of the bean counters at the UFC the other night when, after Lesnar crumbled in pain from an Overeem kick and was TKO'd at 2 minutes, 26 seconds of the first round, they saw their star step to the microphone and say: "Tonight was the last time you'll see me in the octagon." Lesnar's pained expression must have been nothing compared to what the UFC brass was feeling, right?

To his credit, White didn't flinch when asked if he was disappointed at his company's loss of Lesnar. "When a guy decides he wants to retire, that's his thing, man," he said at the post-fight news conference. "This isn't a game where you, you know, 'Maybe I'll play two more, three years of this, you know, go hit a ball with stick' and all that [expletive]. This is the real deal, man. You don't half-ass this stuff. When you know it's over, it's over."

It clearly was over for Lesnar. He really didn't need to make an announcement Friday night, as the fight itself had spoken volumes. Setting foot in the octagon for the first time in 14 months, Lesnar was not the same fighter he'd been before undergoing surgery to remove a foot of his colon. His first bout with diverticulitis, back in the fall of '09, had forced the postponement of his title defense against Shane Carwin, and when they finally fought in July of '10, Brock took a beating before mounting a comeback for a second-round submission victory. Was it the illness that made the night so difficult for the champ? Was it his rudimentary standup game?

It's impossible to know whether a healthy Lesnar would have unleashed a fury on Carwin that night or whether he would have been able to keep Cain Velasquez blanketed on the mat in his next fight, in October of '10, when the title changed hands. And how would a Lesnar not depleted by illness and inactivity have fared against Overeem? Would those feeble, futile takedown attempts become ferocious double-leg blasts that put the kickboxer on his back, where kickboxing skills are useless? We'll never know for sure.

But it's sort of beside the point. The legacy of Brock Lesnar amounts to much more than wins and losses. He was a spotlight attraction -- at least while inside the octagon. When he wasn't fighting, he guarded his private life. When he stepped into the cage, however, he was not about to be upstaged by anyone. The UFC loved that about him, because the attention Lesnar drew spilled over into promotion as well. Once illness got the better of him, though, it was time to douse the theater lights and go home. The fans weren't going to continue to fork over PPV dollars to watch a shell of the fighter Lesnar once was, and more important, Brock owed it to himself and his family to walk away while he still could do so in relatively good health.

The UFC will move on. The organization didn't have Lesnar for all of '11, and White still called it "the biggest year in history for us." And now there's a Fox network TV deal in place and new venues around the world opening up to the UFC. That is why White addressed the press on Friday night looking forward, not backward. "If you look at all the hard work that we've done over the last 10 years," he said, "it's nothing compared to what we've got coming up these next couple of years." That's true, perhaps, but the UFC surely would have benefited by having the man mountain from the northern Midwest along for the ride.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.

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