Brock Lesnar: “I Like to Punish People”
At 6’3″ and nearly 300 pounds of turbocharged muscle, UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar is like nothing the sports world has ever seen before. And now he’s facing the biggest test of his career.
Is the middle of nowhere geographically chartable? What are its coordinates? By any chance do the stores there sell artificial vaginas for collecting bull semen? If so, Alexandria, Minnesota (pop. 11,000), halfway between Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota, might very well be it.
On a frigid morning in early March, a man parks his ’89 Dodge pickup in front of a large shed in an industrial section of Alexandria. He wears a huge black parka that—well, on second glance, it turns out to be a hoodie. The illusion of parka-ness comes from the man’s massive bulk. At 6’3″ and nearly 300 pounds, he’s like Sasquatch in sweats. On November 15, 2008, this man, Brock Lesnar—previously an NCAA wrestling national champion, a WWE superstar, and a late cut from the Minnesota Vikings training camp—won the heavyweight title of the Ultimate Fighting Championship by knocking out UFC legend Randy Couture in a devastating display of barely controlled violence. It was just his fourth professional mixed martial arts competition.
Inside the shed is a small room that’s carpeted from wall to wall in thick black corrugated rubber. There are treadmills, shelves of dumbbells in five-pound increments from five pounds to 125 (Lesnar uses the heaviest for shoulder presses, but good luck trying to lift one), and beyond, a spacious, high-ceilinged gym. Within a couple of minutes Lesnar’s coach, Marty Morgan, and training partner, Chris Tuchscherer, arrive, each of them having driven more than 100 miles to get here.
We’re a long way from Vegas, where many UFC fighters live and train. On the other hand, we’re close to gun stores, ice fishing holes, and large edible animals, all of which rank high among the amenities favored by Lesnar. “Everything in here is mine,” he says defiantly, looking around. “It’s a controlled environment. I don’t have to have people in here that I don’t want around.” He ducks into the gym’s tiny dressing room and minutes later emerges naked except for a pair of black training shorts. If I were supposed to fight him, this is the part where I’d forfeit.
For years steroid rumors have dogged Lesnar, and certainly there’s something brazen about a physique like his at this particular moment in sports history. His 56-inch chest looks like it was made to be draped with shackles; it’s the torso of a man who, in another time, might have led a galley slaves’ rebellion. His slit-eyed, crew-cut head is like a boulder you might find lying around Easter Island. He seems simultaneously mythological, like a golem, and cartoonish, like the Thing.
Lesnar tunes in to an all-metal station on the radio, and a P.O.D. track begins churning through the room. A few warmup exercises later, he and Tuchscherer don gloves and begin sparring. “Forward, forward!” Lesnar yells, but Tuchscherer, a beefy, dopey-sweet blond kid who weighs 265, can’t stop retreating. As Lesnar hammers him with fists the size of cinder blocks, Tuchscherer covers his face. Behind his gloves you can see him wincing in fear—a strange sight in a man so large. He inches tentatively toward Lesnar; all he’s doing, it seems, is trying not to be a pussy. Finally, the inevitable: Lesnar lands a huge, crunching shot to the side of Tuchscherer’s head—and then turns away, suddenly bored. It’s not easy for the baddest man in sports to find a worthy foe.
Meanwhile a Tuchscherer leans against the wall, blinking and working his jaw and facial muscles. “I was so dizzy I would have fallen over if I didn’t grab the wall,” he says later. “I had to gather my brain up again.” On that morning, I’m later told, Lesnar was sparring at just 70 percent of his full strength.
* * * *
“I like to punish people,” Lesnar says mildly. His workout is done, and beating the tar out of Tuchscherer appears to have put him into a state of blissful relaxation. From a bench at the far end of the gym, he gestures toward the mats. “It’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else, really. If I did it to somebody on the street, I’d get sued or arrested.”
Instead Lesnar, by fusing the showmanship he learned as a professional wrestler with the athletic gifts that won him an NCAA championship, is quickly becoming the greatest pay-per-view star of our time. Last year, his first in the UFC, his fights took three of the top five placesamong bestselling events. Largely because of the 2.2 million buys he generated, the UFC smashed the all-time record, set by the WWE during its glory days in 2001, for pay-per-view revenue by a single organization in a calendar year. And boxing? “Boxing is done. It’s fucking over, man,” says UFC president Dana White, a former boxer himself. “Remember in boxing when you’d want to see the big fight, but they could never make it happen? Well, all our fighters are under contract. We make the fights that the fans want to see right now.”
Today, even as the first generation of UFC stars begin to approach retirement, Lesnar’s box office appeal is expanding the sport’s fan base. He’s been pushed accordingly, earning a shot at the heavyweight title in just his third fight. “If Brock Lesnar was never in the WWE,” says Frank Mir, against whom Lesnar will mount his first title defense on July 11, “he would never have gotten a title shot. And he knows that. But that’s how people get paid. The bottom line is it’s not always about who’s a better fighter.”
Brock Lesnar grew up desperately poor on his family’s dairy farm in Webster, South Dakota, a town so sparsely populated it makes Alexandria look like New York. As a kid, he says, “I was always fascinated by strength. Arnold was an idol of mine.” Lesnar wrestled in high school, but without any overarching sense of purpose. “I thought I was gonna be a farmer,” he says. A discouraging stint with the National Guard led to an epiphany: “I wanted to go to school. I wanted to wrestle. I wanted to be something other than what I was.”
At Bismarck State in 1998, Lesnar won the national junior college title. A year later, and an astounding 50 pounds heavier, he transferred to the University of Minnesota. In his two years there, Lesnar would go 50-2, capture two Big Ten titles, and, as a senior in 2000, win an NCAA heavyweight championship.
He could have pursued Team USA in Sydney that year but didn’t. “After I won the national title, I was pretty exhausted,” Lesnar says, not very convincingly. He also could have tried out for the NFL; the Redskins and Bucs both made offers, even though he hadn’t played football since high school. In all, three avenues opened to him, but only one had Vince McMahon standing at the end of it holding a check for a quarter of a million dollars. In the spring Lesnar announced his decision to switch from real sports to fake, and the WWE dispatched him to Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, Kentucky—the minor leagues. He says the 15 months he spent there were like something out of The Wrestler: “I was setting the ring up and tearing the ring down. I was wrestling in bars and bingo halls and Catholic churches.”
Realizing that it was about to lose the Rock, its biggest star, to Hollywood, the WWE latched on to Lesnar, and just five months after his TV debut made him, at 25, its youngest champ ever. He signed a seven-year contract reportedly worth $45 million.
“When you get money and you’ve never had it before, maybe you want to show it off,” Lesnar acknowledges. “I acted foolishly.” He owned four homes, a private plane, two Hummers, a Mercedes. “Did you put any money away? Could you retire today if you wanted to?” I ask. “That’s private,” he says curtly. “But if Obama keeps spending our money like this, I’ll have to fight till I’m 50.”
The kind of rampant drug and alcohol abuse depicted in The Wrestler—to say nothing of the physical abuse—took its toll. In the Survivor Series in November 2002, Lesnar performed his signature finishing move, the F-5, on the Big Show, a wrestler who stands seven feet tall and weighs 485 pounds. Draping his opponent over his shoulders, Lesnar wobbled a moment, then flung Big Show to the canvas. “I had three broken ribs and a bad knee,” Lesnar recalls. “During that period I would take a couple Vicodin and wash ’em down with a few slugs of vodka. That’s what got me through. The ribs didn’t heal for another eight months, because there’s no off-season in pro wrestling. We were in New Jersey, I believe.” He thinks for a moment. “I can’t even remember where I was, hardly.”
Lesnar knows he owes his fame to his WWE career, but he seems to view the company as insidious, controlling, a kind of cult: “You get so brainwashed. You’re on the road 300 days a year, and that’s why guys get so messed up. This life becomes a part of them. It’s not real, but some guys who are still in the business think it is. You look at Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler—he just couldn’t let it go. You live a double life. I was tired of trying to be who I was in the ring and then coming home for two days to be normal. They didn’t allow you to be. The guys who get out are the smart ones, really and truly.”
After a four-night tour of South Africa in early 2003, Lesnar bailed on his contract, and announced he would next try out for the NFL. “He’s a project with a capital P,” said one scout, though nobody could gainsay the outrageous power and speed of the wannabe D-lineman who could bench 475 pounds, squat 700, and run the 40 in 4.65 seconds. The Vikings signed him, but from day one of training camp it was clear that the dude was raw; out of frustration he provoked a couple of fights in exhibition games. “If I can’t outplay you in football, I’m gonna fight ya,” he says fiercely. He was cut at the end of camp. Two months later he announced he was reinventing himself yet again, as a mixed martial artist. He won his first fight, for the Japanese league K-1 Hero, in 69 seconds.
* * * *
Lesnar’s been notoriously touchy when reporters ask him about steroids. Last August he sat down with an ESPN camera crew. “My interview was over,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, ‘Oh, wait, we’ve got a few more questions.’” He shakes his head. “Then they ask me about steroids.” He’s indignant on this most delicate of subjects. “I’ve never in my life tested positive for steroids. What do you want me to say?” He got up, thanked the crew for their time, and walked out.
“Doing that raised more questions than it answered,” I note.
He talks quickly and emphatically. “I bet you I’ve taken over 60 steroid tests. In college I had 15 random drug tests in two years. I’ve taken drug tests for the NFL, the WWE, the UFC. I must be pretty good at masking steroids. God gave me this body: Are you jealous of it or what? Give me a break. I got the genetics of—not to get into racism or anything—but I’m built like a black man. Would you say so?”
“There’s a difference between saying, ‘I’ve never tested positive,’ and saying, ‘I’ve never taken steroids,’” I point out.
“How isn’t it the same thing?” he says. “It’s all genetics. I wouldn’t say we’re all created equal. That’s just to make the other guys feel good who don’t have what you’ve got.”
* * * *
In 2007 Lesnar showed up at a UFC event and buttonholed White, the UFC president. “He said, ‘I want to fight in the UFC,’” White recalls. “I said, ‘We’d love to have you here someday.’ ‘Nah, nah, I want to fight in the UFC now.’”
Lesnar’s sales pitch was compelling. “There’s not another fighter in the UFC that looks like me,” he declares, recounting his conversation with White, “that has the star power that I’ve got. I’m known all over the world because I was a pro wrestler. I’ve been to 30 different countries that know my name. I put asses in the seats, and I sell pay-per-views.”
In his much-hyped debut at UFC 81 in February of 2008, Lesnar met Frank Mir, then 28. The fight was an instant classic. At the opening bell Lesnar rushed at Mir, whom he outweighs by 15 pounds, taking him to the canvas like a Doberman bowling over a terrier. He was mashing Mir’s face into gazpacho, seemingly just seconds away from scoring a TKO, when the referee controversially assessed him a penalty. A time-out was called. Moments later Lesnar brought down Mir a second time. The beating went on and on, but the ref still didn’t stop the fight. Finally a bloodied Mir wriggled free, caught Lesnar in a knee-bar, and forced him to tap out. Total time of match: one minute, 30 seconds. Afterward Mir, the victor, looked like he’d been hit with a baseball bat. Lesnar’s face was completely unmarked, unless a dark shadow of rage counts.
On July 11, in his first title defense, Lesnar will meet Mir again in UFC 100, expected to be the biggest, most lucrative fight in the history of the sport. But he’s still fuming about their last match. “Frank knows deep down that he lost that fight,” Lesnar growls. “He got a Christmas present.” White himself, who claims he never criticizes UFC refs, concurs: “That referee has no business being in this business.”
Mir, a former strip-club bouncer, doesn’t hide his contempt for the show biz guy who made his fortune fighting pretend fights. “Through the grapevine we found out that Brock hired lawyers to look over the officiating rules, but they couldn’t find nothing wrong with any of it. I look at it as a great victory. He couldn’t put me away with his power. Brock was trying to win the fight real quickly by landing a couple shots and not doing damage. That’s not really an honorable way to try to win.”
A camera captured Lesnar in the locker room postfight, conferring with White. “It ain’t over,” he insisted. Then he added, less certainly, “I hope it ain’t.” At 31 years old, Lesnar had already tried and abandoned every lucrative avenue of employment available to him. If ultimate fighting didn’t work out, what was he going to do, squeeze himself behind a desk like Mr. Incredible? The expression on his face as he looked at Dana White said it plainly: I have no plan B.
He didn’t have to worry. White pitted him next against Heath Herring, a.k.a. the Texas Crazy Horse, a.k.a. cannon fodder. Lesnar’s first punch broke Herring’s orbital bone. “There was no way I was going to lose,” he says. For approximately 12 of the next 15 minutes, Lesnar was like a cobra devouring a mouse—patient, grim, inescapable. “Can you see me now?” he shouted to the crowd after winning by decision. It was, he says, a message “to all the critics that didn’t think I could produce in the Octagon.”
Despite Lesnar’s unimpressive 1-1 record, White promptly steered him into a title fight against a UFC icon, Randy Couture. “Yeah, he’s a great wrestler, but he was outweighed and he’s past his prime,” says Lesnar. In the second round Lesnar landed a right to Couture’s temple, sending him to the canvas. Lesnar pounced and, straddling him, began bashing his head. Moments later the ref called the fight. For only the third time in his storied career, Couture had been knocked out. Lesnar was the new champ.
Does Frank Mir stand a chance in UFC 100? Did he get lucky in his first fight against Lesnar? Isn’t a more experienced Lesnar, who was already bigger and stronger, unstoppable? “I’m gonna murder him,” Lesnar says. “I count the days and the nights before I get to do that.”
“All I remember from last time,” says Mir, who once snapped an opponent’s forearm with a submission, “is him whimpering and wincing as I was tapping him.” Mir has studied Lesnar’s career, going all the way back to his NCAA days. “If you watched when he wrestled in college,” he observes, “his abilities were not very technical. He used his size and his power. He won matches by one and two points, drew the pace down, got real boring.” He says Lesnar fundamentally remains that kind of fighter and that Lesnar’s strategy will play directly into his own legendary submission skills. White calls Mir “one of the two greatest heavyweight submission guys ever.” “There’s no way anybody can roll with me for 25 minutes and not get tapped,” Mir says. “It’s just impossible.”
* * * *
An assistant is oiling Lesnar’s body. Gleaming, he looks unreal, Photoshopped; I’m reminded of the strange sense you have when he fights that you’re watching something computer-generated, some kind of CGI monster in a movie, because of his combination of unnatural hugeness and unnatural lightness on his feet.
On the surface, Lesnar would seem to be a natural for Hollywood, following in the footsteps of his idols, like Schwarzenegger, and his former rivals, like the Rock. After all, even without special effects, he looks more Hulk-like than any of the movie versions. But Lesnar maintains he is simply an athlete. “I ain’t gonna walk over to Hollywood and say I’m the next Rock,” he says. “It may not look like I’ve got a brain sometimes, but I do. I’m not a movie star. Just because I had a stint in wrestling doesn’t mean that I can act. You watch some of these other guys that moved on to the movies, like John Cena or Stone Cold Steve Austin, and it just doesn’t look that good to me.”
That’s not to say he’s uncomfortable in front of the camera. Approaching him, I’m hit by the cloying scent of the oil smeared all over his torso. We’re talking about Frank Mir when I interrupt to joke, “You smell delicious, by the way.” I do know what I was thinking: There’s something comical about an enormous man who’s basically wearing perfume. But as soon as I utter those words, I realize I’ve fucked up massively. Galactically. You do not make sexually ambiguous quips to a man who grapples intimately with other men for a living.
Lesnar’s eyes narrow. His lips tighten. “What?” he asks. His tone is equal parts malevolence and disgust.
“What is that smell?” I stammer, trying to sound offhand about it.
He’s watching me closely. “Oil,” he sneers.
I brace myself for the most tooth-jarring, eardrum-popping bitch-slap ever administered, but it never comes. When he beats you up, as he did Chris Tuchscherer, or backs you down, as he’s just done me, you cease to exist for Brock Lesnar. He turns toward a photographer. “You want me to look at the camera?” he asks. “Or should I look through it?”