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The Numbers Game, Part Two - Brock's Turn

Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - In what has been a respectful lead-up to Saturday’s SuperFight between UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar, the only really pointed barbs directed at the challenger have come from fans and media wondering if a fighter entering only his fourth pro fight should be receiving a world title shot.

By Thomas Gerbasi

In what has been a respectful lead-up to Saturday’s SuperFight between UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar, the only really pointed barbs directed at the challenger have come from fans and media wondering if a fighter entering only his fourth pro fight should be receiving a world title shot.

The answer to that is in the UFC history books, where 18 fighters have fought for UFC crowns with less than 10 pro bouts, including fighters such as Couture, BJ Penn, Georges St-Pierre, Tito Ortiz, Mark Coleman, Kenny Florian, Kevin Randleman and Frank Mir. Not too shabby company to keep, first of all, but secondly, consider that the man Lesnar is facing in the UFC 91 main event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Couture, fought and beat Maurice Smith for the heavyweight belt in his fourth pro fight in 1997.

As for Lesnar’s take on the whole situation, he said during a recent media teleconference, “This is a once-in-a-life opportunity for me. And anybody that would be in my position would never have turned this fight down. Dana and Zuffa and the UFC, they put on fights that people want to see. And Brock Lesnar versus Randy Couture for the heavyweight title is a fight that people are going to tune in and want to see. So, you can’t take that away from myself or from Randy or from the company. This company puts on fights that people are interested in watching.”

So why the uproar? Maybe it’s that most fans and media members are still infatuated with the boxing model of the modern era, where boxers generally fight for world titles after 20-25 fights. What they don’t realize though is that most of these boxers have feasted on no-hopers and journeymen for most of those record-building bouts. Mixed martial artists don’t have that luxury, especially at the UFC-level, where you’re tossed into the deep end of the pool from the start.

Let’s look at a couple of current examples.

Rising star Andre Berto, a 2004 Olympian for Haiti and the son of Dieuseul Berto, a UFC 10 veteran, recently won the vacant WBC welterweight title with a 2008 win over Miguel Angel Rodriguez. He entered the bout with a 21-0 record. Look at the record and pick out the world-class opposition on there – Michel Trabant, David Estrada, Cosme Rivera, and if you’re really reaching, Norberto Bravo. Three or four names tops. Contrast this to current lightweight and former welterweight champ BJ Penn, who knocked out world-ranked opposition Din Thomas and Caol Uno in his second and third pro fights, which propelled him into a 2002 title fight against Jens Pulver, which he ultimately lost via a close five round majority decision.

And what about one of boxing’s biggest current stars, future hall of famer Joe Calzaghe, who is coming off one of the biggest wins of his career over Roy Jones? When he entered his first world title bout against Chris Eubank in 1997 at 22-0, the only world-class opposition he faced to that point was Luciano Torres and maybe then-21-0 Mark Delaney. How does that compare to Tito Ortiz, who fought Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger (twice) en route to a 1999 title fight against Frank Shamrock in his sixth pro bout?

The point is, it’s not the quantity of fights, but the quality. Lesnar admittedly opened up his career against the less than stellar Min Soo Kim, but in Kim’s defense, he was an Olympic silver medalist in judo who had previously been in with Semmy Schilt, Ray Sefo, Don Frye, and Bob Sapp before getting obliterated in 69 seconds by Lesnar. Next up for the former NCAA Division I National wrestling champ was Frank Mir, and if you take away a questionable stoppage of the action and point deduction and Lesnar could conceivably be undefeated right now. But it was his third fight, a lopsided three round unanimous decision win over Heath Herring in August that truly opened eyes. In that UFC 87 bout, Lesnar showed amazing power, speed, and athleticism in dominating a fighter who has been in with the best the heavyweight division has had to offer over the last decade. Lesnar’s win over Herring was no fluke, and it marked him as a serious contender to the crown.

So would it look nice to have 25-1 on the fight poster under Lesnar’s name? Sure. But what’s the point of misleading the public into thinking he beat 25 killers to get to the top? I’d rather see Couture’s 16-8 record on the marquee, knowing that his slate was built against real fighters in real fights, not just bouts designed to pad his record.

Now the only question is whether Lesnar’s amateur wrestling background and three pro fights have prepared him sufficiently for what he will face in Couture on Saturday night. Going back into the history books, only three of the 18 fighters who fought for UFC titles with less than 10 fights walked out of the Octagon with the belt (Couture, Coleman, and Mir), but it’s important to note that Penn, Kenny Florian and Gill Castillo all went the championship route of five rounds in competitive fights, and that Ortiz was beating Shamrock before running out of gas in the fourth round and submitting. Plus, when you’re dealing with a fighter with the physical advantages Lesnar brings into his fight with Couture, it’s hard not to see him as a very serious threat to the crown.

But when it comes down to it, if Bruce Buffer announces the words “AND NEW…” in front of Lesnar’s name this weekend, no one will be questioning the Minnesotan’s credentials anymore, and that’s precisely why they fight the fights.

Fighters who have fought for UFC titles with less than 10 pro fights (BOLD means fighter won the fight)

Andre Pederneiras – 2nd fight – vs Pat Miletich
Randy Couture – 4th fight – vs Maurice Smith
BJ Penn – 4th fight – vs Jens Pulver
Kevin Jackson – 4th fight – vs Frank Shamrock
Tito Ortiz – 6th fight – vs Frank Shamrock
Mark Coleman – 6th fight – vs Dan Severn
Gil Castillo – 6th fight – vs Dave Menne
Kenichi Yamamoto – 7th fight – vs Pat Miletich
David Terrell – 7th fight – vs Evan Tanner
Igor Zinoviev – 7th fight – vs Frank Shamrock
Georges St-Pierre – 8th fight – vs Matt Hughes
Kenny Florian – 8th fight – vs Sean Sherk
Gil Castillo – 8th fight – vs Matt Hughes
Matt Lindland – 8th fight – vs Murilo Bustamante
Elvis Sinosic – 9th fight - vs Tito Ortiz
Frank Mir – 9th fight – vs Tim Sylvia
Kevin Randleman - 10th fight - vs Bas Rutten
Nate Quarry – 10th fight – vs Rich Franklin

Tickets for UFC 91: Couture vs Lesnar, are still on sale. To order tickets, click here.