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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Brock Lesnar: Moving on to the Next Big Thing?
June 5, 2007 by Will Byard


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March 14th 2004 wasn't a bad day for Brock Lesnar. Sure, he'd been pinned by Bill Goldberg, then jeered out of Madison Square Garden; but on the other hand, he had finished up his run with WWE, and was ready to embark on a new career as a pro-footballer.

Turning the clocks forward four months, things weren't looking quite so peachy. Whilst he had fulfilled a childhood dream in joining his beloved Minnesota Vikings, it seemed he'd overestimated his football prowess. Unable to make the team, and struggling to make the practice squad, competition at the highest level was proving too much for Lesnar. Taking an all or nothing outlook, Lesnar refused to slum it playing in Europe, and quietly left the world of pro-football behind.

Out of work, Brock soon found himself in a position to eventually encounter some financial difficulties. He had plenty of outgoing expenses - a costly divorce, a child to support, a high-maintenance girlfriend in the shape of Rena 'Sable' Mero; and little coming in. If Lesnar was to continue living like a pro-athlete, he was going to have to start earning like one. Luckily for him, he always had pro-wrestling as a fallback plan. After all, any promoter worth their salt would be happy to pay him a six, perhaps seven figure salary because he was such a draw. Here was perhaps the fastest rising star in WWE history, living up to his 'next big thing' billing, headlining Summer Slams, Royal Rumbles and Wrestlemanias within a year of his TV debut. To paraphrase another former NCAA champ, he was Brock freaking Lesnar. Wasn't he?

When Lesnar appeared ringside in early 2005 at a New Japan show, it seemed he had found his new home. However, a spanner was thrown into the works when WWE took legal action to prevent Lesnar from appearing for the group. It was revealed that Lesnar had (as part of the conditions of his release) signed a no-compete clause, barring him from appearing in any non-WWE pro-wrestling or MMA competition until 2010. The significance of Lesnar signing this is twofold - firstly, it illustrates just how much self-belief he had in himself. Brock Lesnar truly believed he was going to make it as a pro-footballer. Secondly, that even with this no-compete clause hanging over him, Lesnar refused to settle for second best. If he had wanted, he could have continued to play football in NFL Europa. This is a man unaccustomed to failure, and for whom mediocrity is not an option.

Following legal wheeling and dealings that lasted the best part of a year, New Japan's recently appointed president Simon Inoki trumpeted that the group had secured the services of Brock Lesnar. During the mid-90s New Japan had been the most profitable wrestling promotion in the world. This decade had been less kind to the group - interest in the group was at an all time low - and due to the departure of many of the group's top stars, live attendance was way down on what it had been just a few years ago. For Inoki, Lesnar was to be his coup de grace, the answer to these problems. On paper success seemed a sure thing - large Americans have been a staple in Japanese wrestling since the 1950s, and so a monster of Brock's pedigree would surely translate into huge box office for the faltering group.

Signed to a mega money, limited date deal Lesnar made his much-hyped debut for New Japan in October at their then-annual October Tokyo Dome extravaganza. He made an immediate impact, smashing Masahiro Chono with an F5 (cheekily renamed 'The Verdict' in reference to his legal run in with WWE) to lift the IWGP Heavyweight Title in a short three-way also involving Kazuyuki Fujita. Whilst his performance here was medicore, New Japan management felt putting the belt on Lesnar was the right move for the company. If he had a five star match, great, but he was being paid his vast salary to put asses in seats. Unfortunately for New Japan, Lesnar did neither. First-time-ever singles matches between himself and the likes of Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi, whilst respectably attended, failed to sell out. Worse still, his in-ring performances were largely poor - an unmotivated Lesnar going through the motions.

By the time 2006 rolled around, interest in Lesnar had largely evaporated. When his March title defense against ex-sumo Akebono (of Wrestlemania 21 fame) drew the lowest attendance to the Tokyo Ryogoku Kokugikan (New Japan's MSG) in memory, it was clear to all concerned that Lesnar's days as IWGP champ were numbered, Lesnar included. He opened negotiations with kickboxing/MMA superpower K-1. New Japan meanwhile, began the build for rising star Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the belt from Lesnar. It wasn't to be, however. On July 15th, one day before the scheduled bout, Lesnar, baulking at the idea of losing his status as the promotions top dog (and still in possession of their world title belt) walked, citing Visa issues. Tanahashi went on to win a hastily cobbled together tournament the following day to lift the now-vacant championship. It certainly wasn't the triumphant coronation he or New Japan had been hoping for. In the days following this debacle, Lesnar announced what most already knew, that he was going into MMA, having agreed to a one-fight deal with K-1.

It's easy to hate Brock Lesnar. He's had more opportunities handed to him (not to mention more cash thrown at him) than 99% of guys in his line of work could even dream of, and twice now undone a group's hard work by bailing on them when the going was getting too tough. By the same token, it's hard not to be impressed by the man's ego, by the scale of his ambitions. How many people would walk away from seven figure salaries to try and make it in a brand new field? How many people would do it twice?

Regardless, the fact remains that since walking out of Madison Square Garden some three years ago, Brock Lesnar has learned the hard way that being Brock Lesnar is not enough to guarantee success. Having failed to make the grade as both a NFL-caliber football player and a wrestling draw, MMA may well be his last chance to prove that he can succeed away from the bright lights of WWE. Perhaps realising this, Lesnar is from all reports taking this fight incredibly seriously, training hard under fellow wrestler-turned-fighter Sean Sherk.

Whether he goes 1-0 or 0-1 though, this is fight is Lesnar's big opportunity to justify himself as a big money player. K-1 is certainly giving him that chance. The group has positioned Brock as the primary focus of arguably their highest profile show of the year, and undoubtedly their biggest US show to date. In other words, they believe that the public will pay to see Brock Lesnar fight. If he can succeed here, his previous failure will be quickly forgotten.

If he fails a third time, Brock had better find a smaller house, or get used to the taste of McMahon-flavoured humble pie.

by Will Byard (View/Submit your feedback here)..




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