If you ever needed confirmation beyond the indifferent, cold mathematics of ticket sales and pay-per-view buys that Brock Lesnar was and still is the biggest star the UFC has ever had, a star the likes of which not even Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor can conceive of, just gaze upon the variety of debates and discussions the announcement of his return to the UFC next month at UFC 200 has initiated. A true superstar, in whatever field, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; his presence ripples out in a thousand concentric circles, touching every part of the world he’s conquered, creating issues where there were none before and informing, even distorting, those already there. News of the return of Lesnar has become a Rorshach test for a sport still, on the cusp of what should be its biggest show ever, trying to find its way toward mainstream success.
Just how big, for example, is Brock Lesnar, and what kind of cultural impact does his return to the UFC truly have? Inside our happy little MMA echo chamber it was if a bomb had gone off when it was announced that Lesnar would be taking a break from his time as a “sports entertainer” in the WWE to come back to the entertaining sports arena of the UFC. But it’s still unclear what kind of resonance any kind of MMA news has on the outside world. When Lesnar pointed to his moving back and forth between MMA and pro wrestling as proof that he is a “modern-day Bo Jackson” on ESPN, the former NFL/MLB super-athlete responded by telling TMZ, “I don’t even know who Brock Lesnar is, man.” Score one for Bo, I guess, but it says something that he was even asked the question and that his former football team, the Oakland Raiders, felt the need to remind the world on Twitter that “There’s only one Bo Jackson.”
Then consider the impact the arrival of just one fighter can have on so many others, an impact they can’t possibly have on him in return. Jon “Bones” Jones, for example, arguably the greatest UFC champion of all time, a much, much better fighter than Brock Lesnar could ever hope to be, and the man headlining the UFC card Lesnar is playing second fiddle for, spoke about the “millions that [return] added to my purse,” since Jones gets the bulk of his paycheck from percentages from pay-per-view sales, which Lesnar’s presence will drive up in ways Jones’ virtuosity never could. Neither his virtuosity nor his shared animosity with his opponent, Daniel Cormier, who, like Jones, is a better fighter than Brock Lesnar and a man equally confident in his self-assessment, but who thanked Lesnar for coming back, thereby bringing “Christmas time in the Cormier household.” “My wallet jumped out of my damn pocket,” Cormier said. “I had to pick it up off the ground.”
Even for superstar professional fighters with egos the size of skyscrapers the presence of a man like Brock Lesnar is a lesson in perspective. Numbers, as Conor McGregor might say, don’t lie, and you can’t mess with a force of nature.
Unless, of course, you’re an MMA legend with plans to fight that force soon or dreams of fighting it in the future or fantastical delusions about having fought it back when you were still able. Then a man like Brock Lesnar becomes a litmus test, an unblinking assessment of your place in the world, a way to define yourself, and proof (to yourself, if no one else) of your continued relevance. Lesnar’s opponent at UFC 200, Mark Hunt, the heaviest-hitter in the heavyweight division, has repeatedly pointed to Lesnar’s distaste for getting punched in the face as proof not only that Lesnar is in the wrong sport but that Hunt is the embodiment of the kind of man who is in the right sport. Hunt can define himself as a kind of anti-Brock: a born fighter. Meanwhile, Fedor Emelianenko, who is once again in negotiations to maybe, possibly, at long last sign with the UFC, has pointed to Lesnar’s timely return as possible kismet, as the two heavyweights have been circling each other for years. “Maybe our paths will cross again,” he recently told a Russian newspaper.
Then there’s former UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who has seemed lost since retiring in 2010, telling Hollywood Life that the best way to beat Lesnar (who, Liddell agrees with Hunt, is “afraid to get hit”) is to fight the way Chuck Liddell used to fight: as a heavy puncher using defensive wrestling to keep the fight on the feet. “[W]hen you have a guy that can punch, and if he can stop Brock's takedowns a little bit, then [Brock] is in a lot of trouble,” Liddell said. “I mean, he is tough and has heart because he will still fight and still keep coming and I will give him that. He has heart and he fights hard, but he is very afraid of the punch. So you just have to start punching him!" If only Chuck were still fighting and had a chance to prove himself. If only …
Every aspect of the fighting game is being affected by the return of Brock Lesnar, from the fight media (ask Ariel Helwani about the dangers of breaking news about Lesnar too soon) to the UFC’s new anti-doping partner, the US Anti-Doping Agency, around which the UFC has all but managed to steer their impossible physical specimen, a man who’s spent the last 20 years in the hormonally questionable world of professional wrestler, no less.
But in the end, the biggest impact Lesnar has will be on the UFC itself: on its profits, on its corporate legitimacy, on its much-fretted-over place in the world of mainstream sports. Brock Lesnar represents the one opportunity for UFC 200 to be as big as UFC 100 was and therefore for the promotion to prove they haven’t taken any steps backward. Because in corporate America if you’re not growing you’re dying, so your 200th birthday should be bigger than your 100th. But what it must never be is smaller. Smaller would be unforgiveable, a sin against the free market. A 200th anniversary smaller than a 100th, no matter how large, would appear to the people who count receipts and care about these things, to be a failure, perception being everything in the corporate world. The MMA world rests on Brock’s bizarrely large shoulders now.
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