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EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of Brock Lesnar’s WWE Universal Championship title defense at SummerSlam this week, we’ve re-released our entire April 2013 cover story with “The Beast.” Enjoy!
A few years ago, it seemed like Brock Lesnar could accomplish anything except being humble. In 2000, he was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion. At 25, he became the youngest WWE champion in the company’s history. Then, after only four mixed martial arts fights, he was crowned UFC heavyweight champion. Even a subsequent bout with diverticulitis couldn’t slow him down. But two crushing knockout losses and a rematch with the intestinal disorder that resulted in the removal of 12 inches of his colon drove Lesnar out of the UFC and stripped him of bragging rights as the “baddest man on the planet.” Now that he’s making a pro wrestling comeback, he has two questions to answer: How does a guy who’s fought for real go back to doing it for entertainment? And does that mean he’s any safer?
“Life is all about timing,” says Lesnar. “The first time I was with the WWE [Lesnar debuted in 2002], I was restless. I wanted to continue my career athletically and spread my wings a little bit.” The 6’3″, 290-pounder made an impact on sports entertainment from the beginning, winning the company’s top prize and having memorable feuds with “The Rock” and John Cena. But his pedigree in real wrestling left him with a competitive hunger he couldn’t satisfy in a world where contest outcomes were predetermined. Lesnar left the company to fulfill a childhood dream of playing pro football. He joined the Minnesota Vikings but was cut in the pre-season. Lesnar then wrestled in Japan for two years, winning a heavyweight championship.
In 2007, Lesnar turned up in mixed martial arts, applying his collegiate-wrestling prowess to win an easy ground-and-pound victory over Min Soo Kim in a K-1 event. He then entered the UFC, and by November 2008 had bested the legendary Randy Couture for the heavyweight belt. The following summer, Lesnar went ballistic in celebration of his first title defense against Frank Mir. After beating the former champ bloody, Lesnar flipped the crowd the bird and announced he’d be drinking Coors Light that night because UFC sponsor Bud Light “won’t pay me nothin’.” By the fall of 2009, hubris, perhaps, intervened, and Lesnar was struck down by diverticulitis, an intestinal disease where the inner lining of the intestine becomes inflamed or infected. The tough S.O.B. had been living with it a year already.
While Lesnar recuperated, his belt went up for grabs. In the summer of 2010, he returned to action, suffering a terrible first-round thumping by heavyweight Shane Carwin, but ultimately weathering the storm and choking out the interim champ in round two. In October, he faced heavy-handed challenger Cain Velasquez and was TKO’d. The next year of his life was an even worse beat-down. Lesnar’s diverticulitis returned, and he had to undergo surgery to remove part of his colon.
“I stepped back into the Octagon six months later,” Lesnar says—older, wiser, and humbler. “When I lost to Alistair [Overeem, his next challenge at the end of 2011], I didn’t lose because of diverticulitis. I lost because of a kick to the liver.” Lesnar makes no excuses for the defeat, swearing he had been given a clean bill of health by his doctors and had no fear that body shots would disrupt his mending innards. Nevertheless, “Brocknar,” as fans often affectionately refer to him, admits he wasn’t the same man.
“I was fighting for my life against diverticulitis, and that took a lot of the fight out of me in the Octagon. When you have a serious health issue, it f—ks with your head. I think I lost a lot of confidence.” Lesnar officially retired in the Octagon after the fight. “It was time for me to step away from that arena and be more concerned with my family and my health. But I’m healthy now, and life is grand.”
Lesnar returned to the WWE in the summer of 2012, but made only sporadic TV appearances. Now he’s back full time, reigniting feuds he left behind with superstars Triple H, John Cena, and chairman Vince McMahon. “I want to legitimize myself in the WWE again,” says Lesnar. “My whole career has been about being the best at what I do in the time I’m doing it.”
The ex-champ offers that legitimacy with a repertoire of new moves he’s picked up from the various martial arts disciplines he needed for MMA competition. Lesnar can now be seen defeating opponents with chokes and arm locks, techniques that crossover fans recognize as real and dangerous. That said, it doesn’t mean Lesnar has abandoned his bull-in-a-china-shop style for pure finesse. “The Next Big Thing,” as he was originally called during his first WWE run, is as strong and explosive as ever.
“I can train heavier now than when I was preparing for UFC fights,” says Lesnar, “and I enjoy training more. I train smarter now. My workouts are more exciting and there’s less pressure.” Note that this doesn’t translate to “easier.” Lesnar can perform military presses with 275lbs for reps and deadlifts with up to 550lbs.
But does this mean he’s about to get back in the ring with other muscle-bound monsters 300 days of the year, getting hit with chairs and logging miles traveling the world for matches and appearances? Lesnar doesn’t deny that life in the ring can be even more physically grueling than life in the Octagon, and chalks up most of his athletic injuries to time spent in the squared circle. But Lesnar’s mind is made up, and no amount of pain or hardship can change it until he’s accomplished his goal.
The goal now, of course, is to win the WWE title again. And even if that’s an honor that’s decided in a board meeting rather than a sports contest, you can’t convince Lesnar not to fight his heart out. “I’ve always approached pro wrestling as if it were real,” he says. “I compete with the utmost intensity. If you were to ask John Cena or Triple H who’s the most physical guy they’ve ever been in the ring with, I bet my name would get brought up. I’m there to make an impact, and if heads roll, that’s not my problem.”