“I just feel blessed and honored to be the champion. This is my second chance of reinventing myself. I’m a former amateur wrestler, a former professional wrestler, a wannabe NFL football player. And here I am a UFC heavyweight champion."
While much of the attention of the history-making sort has been centered on Cain Velasquez’ quest to become the first fighter of Mexican descent to win a world heavyweight title in combat sports, the man he will be challenging for the UFC crown in Saturday’s UFC 121 main event, champion Brock Lesnar, is quietly approaching some milestones as well should he defend his title successfully in Anaheim’s Honda Center.
That alone is an amazing feat, considering that the big man from Minnesota’s fighting career consists of just six pro fights. But with a win over Velasquez, Lesnar will tie Tim Sylvia for most successful heavyweight title defenses with three, and set the record for most successful consecutive defenses (again, with three), while a knockout or submission of his unbeaten challenger will put him atop those UFC heavyweight championship leader boards as well.
It’s been an amazing run to say the least for one of only seven men to hold unbeaten records in UFC championship bouts, but for Lesnar, it’s not about accolades or records anymore – if it ever was. Following a 2009 bout with diverticulitis that nearly ended his career, Lesnar is just happy to be here, to be able to fight and to have the belt around his waist.
“I just feel blessed and honored to be the champion,” he said during a recent media teleconference. “This is my second chance of reinventing myself. I’m a former amateur wrestler, a former professional wrestler, a wannabe NFL football player. And here I am a UFC heavyweight champion. So do I look at it any differently? No. Do I go to bed holding on to my UFC title every night? No. I go to bed, I tuck my kids into bed every night. I don’t have any added pressure on myself. I’m doing what I love to do.”
And that’s the scary part about the 6-3 ½, 265 pounder. Unlike some professional athletes who are content to simply pick up a check and show up on game night, Lesnar has developed a reputation as one of the hardest workers in the sport, with an all or nothing attitude to go with it. So when he got the call to compete against Velasquez just three months after his battle with Shane Carwin in July, he bit down on his mouthpiece and got back to work.
“This is what I do for a living,” Lesnar told me in August. “I’m a fighter, and I can't wait to get back in the Octagon. I'm still in great condition from the last camp. I took a week off, and I was right back in the gym. You have to be smart and know your limits, but right now I feel great and I'm hungry. No reason to wait around.”
If Lesnar’s plan is to strike while the iron’s hot, there’s no better time for him to do it than now. Sidelined for a year following his UFC 100 win over Frank Mir, Lesnar had tons of question marks circling him before his return against Carwin, a Colorado KO king who was eager to make Lesnar another victim. In terms of easing a fighter back into competition, this wasn’t the guy you wanted, and Carwin made that evident immediately, as he stuffed Lesnar’s early takedown attempts and drilled him with shots to the head that stunned and dropped the champion. Shockingly, Lesnar, dazed and bleeding, survived the onslaught, got up, and after catching his breath between rounds, smiled at Carwin before the start of round two, as if to say, ‘you got yours, now I’m gonna get mine.’
He did, taking Carwin down almost immediately and submitting him with an arm triangle. It was an improbable comeback, both in the fight, and in general, considering what Lesnar had gone through to get back in the Octagon, and if anyone doubted the validity of his claim to be the top heavyweight in the sport, they were drowned out by the cheers that almost lifted the roof off of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Yet the beauty of this sport is that there is little time to bask in past glories. Unlike boxing, where tough challenges are followed by mandatory mismatches or ‘keep busy’ fights, Lesnar is back in the Octagon against an opponent who may be even more formidable than Carwin, Mir, or the man he beat for the title, Randy Couture. So while Lesnar does have the advantage of coming into this fight sharp and in shape after his July bout, he will need to be firing on all cylinders against Velasquez, and to amp things up even more, he’s added fighters like Pat Barry to a camp that already includes standouts Cole Konrad, Chris Tuchscherer, and Jon Madsen.
“Everything’s in line,” he said. “I feel I’m right on and I’m as lean as I’ve ever been. Guys say they’ve had good camps and I can go back and say every camp has been my best camp, but I really think so. I’ve gotten better and better and better and I really don’t think I’m still the best that I can be, but on October 23rd, on that night I’ll be the best.”
It’s a champion’s confidence, but part of what keeps a champion at the top is the idea that you never look past any opponent, while approaching every fight as if you are the challenger. Lesnar has that part down, admitting that Velasquez is unlike anyone he’s faced thus far in his pro career.
“He poses some different challenges,” he said. “He's a smaller, quicker fighter with good hands, and he was never a national champ, but he was a Division I All-American wrestler.”
And to many, the talented and hungry Velasquez is the future of the heavyweight division. That’s okay with Brock Lesnar, as long as he proves on Saturday night that he’s still the present, and as he put it after the Carwin bout, “the toughest SOB around.”