Five years ago today represented the end of The Brock Lesnar era, one of the most profitable periods in the organization’s history, as Lesnar was dethroned as UFC Heavyweight Champion by Cain Velasquez at UFC 121.
Casual MMA fans who were drawn to the sport due to Lesnar’s celebrity believed that he would successfully defend his title, while the MMA media and hardcore fans were certain that Velasquez was going to become the champion and hold the belt for a long time. True, Velasquez didn’t possess the freakish athletic ability and size combination possessed by Lesnar, but Velasquez was hardly lacking in physical talents himself. He had been honing his craft under the watchful eye of respected Javier Vazquez at the American Kickboxing Academy since his entry into the sport, and seemed at the time to be the heir apparent.
Despite seeming to represent two different parties of fans, there were a number of similarities between the two. Both entered the UFC around the same time (Lesnar at UFC 81, Velasquez at UFC 83) with high expectations despite neither having much prior experience (Lesnar had one professional bout before his UFC debut, Velasquez had two). Both were decorated collegiate wrestlers (Lesnar was NCAA heavyweight champion, Velasquez was two-time All-American). It was these similarities that helped to sell the story of the competitors.
The other question that many had was whether or not Lesnar would be healthy. Lesnar had a space of one year’s time in between his title defenses between UFC 100 and UFC 116 thanks to diverticulitis, an intestinal disorder that had greatly weakened him in between bouts. Lesnar was now trying to control the issue through his diet after a life-threatening incident nearly ended his career. Though he had emerged victorious in his last title defense against Shane Carwin, he took a vicious beating in the first round of the fight, only emerging with the win thanks to Carwin’s shallow gas tank.
Perhaps more telling than Lesnar’s performance in the cage against Carwin was his attitude. Gone was the brash, loud-mouthed, braggadocio who stole the scene at UFC 100 by insulting UFC sponsors and talking about mounting his wife once he got home. Lesnar was much more humble heading into the Carwin bout and was the same coming out, declaring so himself in his post-fight interview. Lesnar said all the right things heading into the fight with Velasquez, but the same spirit that attracted so many to his fights was missing. Was it maturity or was it a knowledge of his condition that he didn’t want to share with the public?
Though it could easily be said that it was both, retrospect points solidly to him being far from 100%. Lesnar looked like his impressive self upon entrance to the ring, sporting a beard. Velasquez looked as he always did; calm and stoic. Once the bell rang, Lesnar came out like a bull, clinching up, landing knees, and scoring a takedown within the first 30 seconds. Velazquez wouldn’t stay down for long, and the fight would go to the fence with Lesnar putting his weight upon the smaller Velasquez. Lesnar began to tire, likely due to his training being limited by the diverticulitis, and quickly lost his advantage. Velasquez began to open up with punches with Lesnar sprawling across the cage looking to avoid the punishment. Velasquez was right there the whole way, refusing to let up with his assault as he opened up a huge cut right underneath Lesnar’s left eye. With Lesnar on the ground without any intelligent defense, referee Herb Dean had no choice other than to step in and call the fight. Cain Velasquez was the new champion.
There have been numerous discussions about what type of fighter Lesnar could have been had the diverticulitis never surfaced, as there hasn’t been a fighter with his physical package before or since. The other part that is easily lost is that Lesnar was thrown into the fire from the start and responded very well (Velasquez was brought along fairly quickly as well, but not compared to Lesnar). After losing his UFC debut to Frank Mir, he reeled off four straight victories over some very good competition in Heath Herring, Randy Couture, Mir, and Carwin, all of whom either fought for or owned a UFC or Pride title at some point in their careers. Those were his third, fourth, fifth, and sixth professional fights. Not UFC fights, overall fights. Had Lesnar been afforded more development time in his career to refine his holes, one can only imagine what he would have been capable of.
Lesnar was one of the most controversial figures in the sport, and continues to be to this day despite not having fought in almost four years, but the one thing his detractors can’t take away from him is that he was good for business. Thanks to his years in the WWE, Lesnar learned how to work a crowd and sell a fight, and few have been better at it. Though his professional wrestling background is mocked by some, that background also brought many eyes from the WWE to the UFC product. I must state that while the UFC doesn’t release its official pay-per-view numbers, estimates state that there have been eight UFC pay-per-view’s that topped one million buys. Lesnar headlined four of those eight, including the highest selling spot from UFC 100. UFC 121 was the last of his pay-per-views to top one million buys with only one other pay-per-view topping one million buys in the five years since. There is no doubt that the sport misses his influence.
That doesn’t mean that Velasquez was a poor champion. Velasquez has done well to represent himself in the cage, establishing himself as one of the top heavyweights that the sport has seen. But similar to Lesnar, Velasquez’s career has taken a what-might-have-been arc due to his inability to stay healthy. He tore his rotator cuff in the Lesnar fight, and was unable to defend his title until over a year had passed since he won it following surgery. When he finally did defend it, he went into the fight with Junior dos Santos injured, and lost his belt in a short 64 seconds in the UFC’s debut on Fox.
Yes, it is true that Velasquez stormed back to regain his title from dos Santos about a year later, and defended it twice in impressive fashion against Bigfoot Silva and dos Santos; but almost 20 months passed before Velasquez stepped into the UFC following his defense against dos Santos thanks to another shoulder surgery followed by a torn meniscus and sprained MCL, only to lose it again to Fabricio Werdum. Though he is still young for heavyweight at 33, one can’t help but think that Velasquez’s best days are behind him thanks to all the wear and tear his body has experienced. How much more could he have accomplished had his career not been beset with such bad luck? Would we be talking about him in the same breath as Fedor Emelianenko?
UFC 121 was a success beyond Lesnar and Velasquez as well. Jake Shields made his highly anticipated UFC debut, eeking out a split decision victory over Martin Kampmann to set up his title challenge with Georges St-Pierre at UFC 129. Matt Hamill scored the signature win of his career (there is no way I’m counting his DQ win over Jon Jones) as he soundly beat his former TUF coach Tito Ortiz which would springboard him into his only pay-per-view headlining spot opposite Rampage Jackson at UFC 130. And Diego Sanchez turned in a typical fun performance against Paulo Thiago in a back-and-forth affair with Sanchez walking out the victor… deservedly so for once.
Make no mistake, UFC 121 will always be remembered for the end of an era, and to a lesser degree, the crossing of two injury-struck stars in opposite directions of their careers. Seriously, though, what would we be saying about these two had they curried the MMA Gods’ favor and avoided the illnesses and injuries that plagued their careers…?
Other Happenings in MMA History This Week: October 18-24
October 19, 2013: Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos met for the third time for the UFC heavyweight title to put an end to their trilogy at UFC 166 with Velasquez dominating the entirety of the fight, getting a fifth round stoppage. The event is considered one of the best in UFC history, highlighted by the exciting brawl between Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez.
October 20, 2007: Anderson Silva completed his second UFC title defense at UFC 77 by disposing of Rich Franklin for the second time in a manner very similar to the first, effectively eliminating Franklin from ever truly being a title contender ever again.
October 23, 2005: Following a first bout that was short-circuited by a freak shoulder injury to Josh Barnett, Barnett rematched with Mirko Cro Cop at Pride 30 that resulted in a close but unanimous decision in favor of Cro Cop. Also on the card, Kazushi Sakuraba beat fellow MMA legend Ken Shamrock in one of Sakuraba’s final career highlights, felling Shamrock with a flurry of punches.
October 24, 2009: After a spirited 25 minute battle, Lyoto Machida walked out with a victory over Shogun Rua in his first title defense, but not without major controversy at UFC 104. The unanimous decision was so hotly debated that an immediate rematch was scheduled between the two at UFC 113.
[Brock Lesnar art by Grant Gould (c) MMATorch.com]