Few, if any, fighters on the UFC roster have a better insight on the return of Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 this weekend than light heavyweight veteran Tom Lawlor. But not in the way you might assume.
Yes, he fought on the same card as the former UFC heavyweight champion at UFC 100 and UFC 121, and was a cornerman for another fighter on the same UFC 116 card when Lesnar battled Shane Carwin, but “Filthy” Tom admits that there wasn’t much interaction between them.
“He was pretty secluded, from what I remember, and I assume it's going to be very similar this go-round,” Lawlor said.
Instead, Lawlor has an insider’s knowledge of all things Brock not just as a fighter, but as a pro wrestling aficionado, radio analyst for the Wrestling Observer, and even as a participant, as the former Ring of Honor manager has been learning the finer points of sports entertainment on a weekly basis as he waits for his next call to the Octagon.
So is Lesnar’s return as big a deal as everyone is saying it is?
“He hasn't fought in over four years,” Lawlor said. “There are very few people that they could bring back that would cause such a buzz. There's him, GSP (Georges St-Pierre), and that's about it.”
Consider that a “Yes.” And while UFC fans are excited about seeing the big man attempt to reclaim past glory as he steps into the Octagon for the first time since 2011 to face Mark Hunt on Saturday, pro wrestling fans are just as excited to see Lesnar back in the Octagon again. It’s been a love affair between fans and “The Beast” for a long time now, and it shows no signs of letting up.
“If we go back to the beginning of Brock Lesnar's career in the WWE, he was brought in as somebody with an unparalleled hype machine behind him,” Lawlor explains. “They brought him in as "The Next Big Thing," which was his moniker. So from the beginning, he was a guy who was being pushed to the moon right off the bat, and he had a legitimate wrestling background as well.”
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So legitimate that when he was signed by the WWE, he was coming off his win at the 2000 NCAA Division I national championships for the University of Minnesota. He went on to star in the WWE for four years before attempting to win a roster spot on the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. This, after not even playing football in college.
“There's not very many guys who can not play football and then get offered a position on the practice squad in the NFL and a chance to play in NFL Europe, which he declined,” Lawlor said. “It takes a very special kind of athlete to be even able to do that.”
After some more pro wrestling, Lesnar turned to MMA, and after one win in 2007 over Min-Soo Kim, he was signed by the UFC. He was the next big thing again.
“I think the biggest help to Brock was that he was at the right place at the right time in two different worlds,” Lawlor said. “As the UFC was gaining steam and popularity, he was on the outs with the WWE, and his switch over to mixed martial arts was met with not only a lot of questions, but a lot of anticipation. It wasn't as if we're taking a professional wrestler who was strictly trained in professional wrestling, but someone who could do all that and back it up in legitimate environment. You also have to take a look at the fact that the guy's just a freak. If he was in any sporting endeavor, he would stand out.”
Lesnar did, winning four of seven UFC bouts, a stint that included a stoppage of Randy Couture for the heavyweight title and a UFC 100 headlining gig against Frank Mir. Two bouts with Diverticulitis shortened his stay in MMA, and he returned to the WWE, where he may have gotten bigger than ever as one of the organization’s top superstars. According to Lawlor, a lot of that has to do with the fact that Lesnar isn’t working on the road 300 days a year like many of his peers, making his appearances ones to mark on the calendar.
That goes for Saturday night as well, when Mr. Lesnar is back in the Octagon and ready to tackle the UFC’s best once more.
“The fact that he's not on the road all year makes him a lot more of a special attraction and a bigger draw,” he said. “He's also out of the public eye for much of his time, so there's a certain unknown aura about him that no one's been able to crack, and I don't think anybody ever will. That's just his personality. But people are drawn to it.”