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Calling a bout between two super heavyweights fight-of-the-year material used to be the setup to a punch line. Being big and athletic meant heading for the NFL; never moving past varsity football and lacking self-preservation meant a stint in Japan or in one of the minor leagues, where promoters expected a solid 30 seconds of action before your lungs shut down. If they got 40, maybe you'd get a bonus.
In terms of an overall MMA game, no one is going to confuse Brock Lesnar or Shane Carwin for B.J. Penn. But part of fighting is tailoring your abilities to what your body does best. For Carwin, it was smashing; for Lesnar, it's being a Division I wrestler with a gas tank, tremendous power and a mean streak.
Was their meeting Saturday a 101 in the game? No. But Lesnar's unbelievable attrition and the emotional element -- so many people are invested in Lesnar's results -- made it the most compelling fight of the year.
It was an education. Lesnar, always the hammer, could be the nail without giving up: He doesn't suffer from demoralization after adversity, which is rare in an athlete who usually enjoys the advantage. He's developing a submission game that's tailored to the positional control he forces. And it may take a baseball bat soaked in concrete to knock him out.
Carwin's scorecard was less flattering. Despite constant claims from his camp that he could go five hard rounds with no problem, he was the walking dead going into Round 2. (Carwin might be hitting 15 rounds in training, but it's irrelevant: Nothing prepares you for the emotional vacuum of a live fight.) He was unable to conserve either his attack on Lesnar or his energy. He came within seconds of stopping him, but it's Lesnar who will get the credit for surviving. "Came close" isn't a notation on a fight record.
Lesnar's comeback was a fitting end to a night that seemed to be all about will and heart over technique and playing for points. Stephan Bonnar, in danger of dropping four straight, had a palpable desperation he used to finish off Krzysztof Soszynski; Chris Leben, only two weeks removed from a big win, took out a guy above his pay grade in Yoshihiro Akiyama. Everyone bled, and everyone was smiling. If that doesn't sum up the sport of mixed martial arts, I don't know what would.
The winners were all pleased, obviously -- but it was Lesnar who seemed downright content. Much has been made of his seemingly short attention span, how he jumped from pro wrestling to pro football tryouts to fighting, and whether he'll soon get bored with his latest interest. But you've never seen a man more at peace with getting beaten up.
"If it was legal and I wouldn't get in trouble, I'd pick a fight on every street," he told ESPN.com in 2004, three years before his debut. "If I wouldn't lose any money or nothing, I would fight. I'd fight every day."
It's legal, he's not losing any money, and he's getting into it every day in the gym. No wonder the guy is smiling.
Next for Lesnar: Cain Velasquez, who is going to bring more technical hands than Carwin's with the cardio to back them up.
Next for Carwin: Todd Duffee, with an under/over of 30 seconds.
Next for Leben: An earned shot against one of the upper-tier middleweights.
Next for Akiyama: Patrick Cote.
The avoiding good taste award: Seth Petruzelli, for plotting to appear at both the weigh-ins and the fight sporting a little person in his entourage. In addition to being lame in a way only Larry the Cable Guy could imagine, it's a foot too far into circus territory. Whoever killed the idea should get a bonus.
The Bas Rutten award: Leben, for landing more from the bottom than Akiyama did from the top during their guard play.
The Mark Coleman award: Akiyama, for attempting a can-opener submission on Leben, a move that has only worked when you're a 240-pound wrestler who can bench a Honda fighting a kickboxer.
The "wait, what?" award: Lesnar, "submission of the night" recipient.
Q: How big can Lesnar get?
A: Good fighters are not necessarily good draws, and good draws aren't necessarily good fighters. When you find an athlete who can manage both, it's the next best thing to a winning lotto ticket.
Lesnar invited record business from the start, but his stellar comeback performance at UFC 116 -- rebounding from a violent beating in Round 1 to squeeze the fight out of Shane Carwin in Round 2 -- is the kind of footage that sells seats, DVDs and protein powder. Lesnar has moved beyond a novelty act: Instead of drumming attention for being an ornery celebrity, he's establishing a shot at a real heavyweight legacy, which is the kind of sports story that captures attention beyond the norm. Bud Light sponsored Carwin as a jab; a year from now, they might be casting Lesnar.
Q: Is Carwin going to rebound?
A: Carwin might be the second-toughest man in the division, but he'll have to prove it in a return bid. With Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos (or, less likely, Roy Nelson) on tap for Lesnar, Carwin will have to win at least two bouts to get back into contention. In the pro column: Lesnar might be the only fighter with the skull density to handle his attack. The con: if opponents can figure out a way to survive, they know Carwin becomes a coin flip after the five-minute mark. If both men continue to win, Lesnar-Carwin II has a shot at being the biggest fight in the sport to date -- providing Carwin gets over his doctor-with-bad-news disposition in front of cameras.
Q: Is there any question Lesnar is the No. 1 heavyweight?
A: This one's rhetorical. There isn't.
Lesnar, only 5-1 to date, doesn't have the years of ring experience of the longstanding names in the division. But rankings, frequently frustrating to compile and debate, depend largely on your results in a contemporary setting: Lesnar has battered two ex-champions and erased the undefeated streak of a third in just over two years. While Fedor Emelianenko still has the more accomplished career, his recent victories -- over fading punchers Andrei Arlovski, Tim Sylvia and Brett Rogers -- don't stack up to Randy Couture, Frank Mir and Carwin. Lesnar's all-time place is still unfolding, but as of July 2010, he's on top.
Q: Should the Nevada commission have hosted Leben?
A: Lost in the shuffle of Leben's impressive two-week stretch of competition: a fighter who absorbed 56 strikes (according to Compustrike) against Aaron Simpson might not be the best candidate to fight again only 14 days later.
Sequential fighting was a staple of 1990s MMA, which had some athletes fighting four times in an evening. Fortunately for them, prelim bouts were frequently shark/fish matches, and some elite fighters weren't as dangerous as today's. A few will find fault with Leben's quick turnaround; no one would find fault in letting him rest.
Not that it makes much difference for an athlete earning seven figures, but Lesnar took home an additional $75,000 for "submission of the night" over Carwin on Saturday. There was some talk that the bonus should have gone to Chris Lytle, but Lesnar's opening up his game was the bigger shock. Leben, Akiyama, Krzysztof Soszynski and Stephan Bonnar got the same check cut for "fights of the night."
• Carwin told MMAJunkie.com that he "felt" Lesnar go out "a few times" during his drill-press pounding in the first round. Unless rigor mortis set in to keep his arms up, that seems unlikely.
• UFC president Dana White said George Sotiropoulos has propelled himself into the title hunt with a win over Kurt Pellegrino. Sotiropoulos hasn't lost in four years: If B.J. Penn recaptures his title in August, he's going to need Sotiropoulos to keep it up. There's no one left for Penn to fight.
• Spike, the basic-cable home of the UFC, has put a series titled "Knockout World" in heavy rotation featuring cheap fight footage. Forrest Griffin's getting KOed by Jeremy Horn from years back might not fit the UFC's promotional plans. Someone's phone is ringing.