The backlash began immediately.
No sooner had Brock Lesnar announced his retirement in the cage following his loss to Alistair Overeem at UFC 141 than the stones started to fly.
At least among the most vocal of the 42,000-plus users who piled into ESPN.com’s live chat on Friday for the final UFC event of the year, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that Lesnar was a joke. A one-dimensional sideshow. A striking-averse sham whose prepackaged fame had bought him some time at the top, but whose four-and-a-half-year experiment in MMA ultimately proved to be a disappointment.
Now he would go back to professional wrestling, they said, where the fighting is fake and the living is easy. A few commenters wanted their money back and a couple questioned how the UFC could put a man as unskilled as Lesnar in the Octagon in the first place.
Despite an oddly humanizing farewell speech, Lensar brought much of this criticism on himself, of course. After acting like a jerk for the duration of his seven-fight career in the UFC, you couldn’t exactly expect fans to cry for him when he suddenly wanted to play Mr. Nice Guy at the end. Even as he crumpled under the weight of an Overeem body kick with a look on his face that said he was just now realizing the extent of his own shortcomings, it was hard to feel bad for him.
Yet, here’s hoping the enmity Lesnar inspired while becoming the sport’s biggest heel doesn’t completely distract us from some larger truths: That his MMA career was in fact a stunning and unlikely success, that he played an important role for the UFC during a handful of crucial years and, even as he walks away under a cloud of cynicism and shattering beatdowns, the sport is in better shape than when he found it.
So while we line up to dissect Lesnar’s many flaws these next few days -- an examination he so rightfully deserves -- it would be a shame if we didn’t also take a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary things he accomplished during his brief run.
Here is a man who, at 30 years old, dived into the thick of the UFC heavyweight division and with almost no prior MMA experience didn’t just survive, but attained its highest prize. We could spend hours breaking down the shallow nature of the 265-pound talent pool or whether or not it says good or bad things about MMA in general that Lesnar was able to do this, but it’s still an unheard of feat at this stage in the sport’s evolution.
Brock carved out success solely on the back of his status as a former NCAA Division I national wrestling champion and his own astonishing athletic gifts. Sure, the UFC fast-tracked him into big fights because he enjoyed a modicum of preexisting notoriety -- the company would have been crazy not to do it -- but that Lesnar was able to go as far as he did is nothing short of amazing.
Simply put, nobody does that. Nobody comes into this sport as a total rookie, fights the best and wins. Not Herschel Walker. Not Satoshi Ishii. Not Bobby Lashley. Not Matt Mitrione. Not James Toney or Kimbo Slice. Not anymore. At least not as quickly and with as much success (however fleeting) as Lensar had.
In the end, yeah, he came up short. Not even a once-in-a-lifetime physical freak like Lesnar could jump into a professional sport so late in his athletic career and compete long-term with guys who’ve been doing it their whole lives. Guys like Overeem, who had the first of his 48 MMA fights in 1999, at age 19.
Not even Lesnar could mature into a complete fighter quickly enough to be better than the best in the world. Especially while refusing the sacrifices most successful fighters make, choosing to train exclusively at home, in his private gym, surrounded by handpicked partners.
Not even Lesnar could soldier on through two bouts with diverticulitis. As if we needed another reason why he shouldn’t have been able to go on being victorious.
Now Lesnar says it’s over, and for once we believe him. We believe him, not only because his MMA career was already so improbable, but because it fits with the pattern of the rest of his life. A life of pit-stops in various high-level athletic arenas where just as soon as he figured out he wasn’t going to be the best, he moved on.
As the UFC’s biggest draw exits, how should we remember him? As a flash in the pan? As more hype than substance? As an overbearing bully?
Yeah, probably all of the above. But also, as a guy who accomplished incredible things. As one of the greatest natural talents MMA has yet seen. As a guy who doubled and tripled website traffic and pay-per-view buyrates on the nights he fought because, like him or not, he was an attraction you just had to watch.
Maybe most importantly, we should remember Lesnar as a man who came in on his own terms, unapologetically became champion, and will now likely never look back, no matter how many stones hit him on the way out the door.
In the end, there’s something admirable about that, even if most of us hate to admit it.