The one thing that surprised many in MMA was Brock Lesnar’s retirement after a brutal loss to Alistair Overem. After a brutal loss to Cain Velasquez a year ago, Lesnar ends his career as a man who’s endured a lot. Stepping away from the WWF to try out for the NFL, and then become a fighter, Lesnar adapted quickly to the sport and leap-frogged most of the heavyweight division by getting a title shot early in his career. Deserved or not he stopped one of the greatest fighters in UFC history in Randy Couture, stopped two former champions while defending the title and lost to two tremendous fighters in his short career. And while he may have split the MMA world because of the rapid rise and fall of his fighting career, one thing can’t be disputed.
He’s MMA’s first big superstar and is one of the few fighters that can singlehandedly be credited with the rapid rise of the sport.
For as much as diehard MMA fans disliked him, the one thing Lesnar did better than any fighter before him was get eyeballs onto the sport en masse. Lesnar headlined most of the biggest grossing PPV cards of all time and got coverage and fans to look at the sport that perhaps never would’ve before. And while his prime may have been cut short for two years because of a horrible disease that nearly killed him, and perhaps sapped part of the athletic ability that allowed him to rise to the top so quickly, Lesnar’s impact on the sport will forever be felt.
Without Lesnar MMA doesn’t expand as quickly as it does to a fan base looking for something new in the combat sports arena. While the sport would’ve grown regardless, Lesnar’s presence can best be described as pouring gasoline onto an already raging fire. While the sport would’ve grown to its current spot, including the deal with Fox, Lesnar pushed the UFC in particular and MMA in general much further along than it would’ve been without him.
That’s what Lesnar’s legacy will most likely become. With a remarkably tough list of opponents, all but Min-Soo Kim being of some note, Lesnar was dropped into the deep end of the pool right from the get go and managed to become one of the best in his division right away. Considering all but Heath Herring and Overeem have held some form of the UFC heavyweight title, that is a fairly substantial list of opponents. With Herring being one of the sports toughest competitors in the heavyweight division, and Overeem the only Strikeforce champion in that division as well as the last K-1 World Grand Prix heavyweight kickboxing champion, Lesnar’s strength of schedule is remarkable.
When you think about it what he did in his career as a fighter is something legends are made of. With less than a year of training he was in the cage with Frank Mir, a UFC champion and decorated veteran of the sport. With no amateur career to speak of, and one fight outside the Octagon, Lesnar was baptized by fire early and often. Coming out with a winning record in the UFC at 4-3 against that level of competition is remarkable.
But what makes it even more ridiculous is that he came in with more eyeballs on him than any new fighter in UFC history. Lesnar was already a name and someone with high expectations coming in. He wasn’t able to debut on an undercard and work his way up, under the radar. Lesnar came into the UFC with a bull’s eye on his back from the very beginning; he was already remarkably famous from his days as a professional wrestler. The fact that he succeeded to this level, overcoming a disease that has killed many people to come back to the cage twice, is the stuff of legends.
When all is said and done, Brock Lesnar won’t be known as the best fighter or the best heavyweight. Far from it. But he’s the UFC’s first superstar, the one who pushed the needle in a way no one had done before. With Lesnar gone, and GSP out with an injury, 2012 looks to be a down year for the UFC because it’s first real superstar has walked away.