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Watching Brock Lesnar engage in no-contact sparring is like watching a polar bear perform an interpretive dance. At the Minnesota Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Brooklyn Center, his hulking, six-foot-three, 265-pound frame contorts and contracts as he lightly grapples with his sparring partner. Muscles ripple and flare through his gi, as if they're calling out, demanding to be put to more visceral use. He barely breaks a sweat, save for a few beads clinging to his ample brow.
There's no pummeling, tackling, or suplexes for Lesnar today. He's training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—"the gentle art." The fighting style, popularized in America by Royce Gracie, who used it to beat much larger opponents in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, eschews brute power in favor of technique and physical dexterity. The goal is not to knock out your opponent, but to force him to tap out and quit.
"I'm focusing on my submission game," says Lesnar. "And learning how to defend against arm locks and leg locks."
It's early December and the 30-year-old is deep into his training for his February 2 debut at UFC 81: Breaking Point. When Lesnar announced his entrance into the world of Mixed Martial Arts in August 2006, fans and industry insiders wondered: Could a former professional wrestler tough it out in the unchoreographed fury of the Octagon?
"We're talking about a former NCAA champion here," says Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "Athletically, there's never been anything like him in the UFC. He could be a real superstar heavyweight."
Lesnar's career has followed a winding and turbulent path since his days as a dominating wrestler at the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation, the Webster, South Dakota, native signed with the World Wrestling Federation (later known as World Wrestling Entertainment). WWE chairman Vince McMahon fast-tracked the physically gifted Lesnar to superstardom, billing him as "The Next Big Thing." At 25, Lesnar became the youngest man ever to win the WWE heavyweight championship belt.
But Lesnar soon grew disenchanted with the gig and quit in March 2004. "I really disliked the travel," he says. "And I wanted to compete."
To that end, he signed on with the Minnesota Vikings the following season as a defensive lineman. But his lack of experience—he hadn't played football in nine years—coupled with a groin injury sustained in an April motorcycle accident, put a quick end to his NFL dreams. The Vikings cut Lesnar that November.
After a brief return to pro wrestling, this time abroad with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Lesnar turned his attention to the budding sport of Mixed Martial Arts. He began training with Marty Morgan, his assistant coach at the U of M.
"He transferred his wrestling skills into the martial arts realm extremely well," says Morgan, who put in 20 to 30 hours a week with Lesnar in preparation for the fight. "He came in with a really open mind and picks up everything very quick."
Looking to test his mettle from the outset, the UFC pitted Lesnar against Frank Mir, a six-foot-one, 240-pound submission artist best known for breaking brawny former UFC champion Tim Sylvia's forearm. Himself a former UFC champion, Mir was looking to revive his career after breaking his leg in a 2004 motorcycle accident.
While Lesnar looked strong in his MMA debut—he defeated Korean Min Soo Kim by submission in just one minute and nine seconds—the Mir fight promised to be a tougher challenge.
"Stylistically, I don't know if it's the right opponent: a new guy versus experienced former world champion," says Meltzer. "He's gotta watch out for Mir's submission game. I think [UFC president Dana White's] hope is that he goes in there and destroys Mir and turns out to be a heavyweight monster. There's great marketing potential for him if things go right."
THE LIGHTS DIM in the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, and a grimacing Lesnar emerges from the tunnel. Mötley Crüe's "Shout at the Devil" blasts from the PA system, but it can't drown out the chorus of boos that greets the interloper. Mir awaits in the Octagon, looking relaxed to the point of smugness.
At the opening bell, Lesnar wastes no time, shooting immediately for a takedown. He lands on top of Mir and starts dropping elbows and hammer fists. Mir looks like the victim of a mugging, struggling to defend himself.
But then referee Steve Mazzagatti steps in and calls a timeout. "You can't hit him in the back of the head," Mazzagatti admonishes Lesnar, docking him a point.
The fight resumes with Mir throwing a right body kick that leaves him off balance. Lesnar seizes the opportunity and rocks Mir with a right cross, sending him tumbling backward. Lesnar pounces on top of him, pummeling Mir with a meaty right fist.
Lesnar stands up and looms over Mir, looking for an opening, but the supine opponent isn't as helpless as he appears. Noticing Lesnar's exposed right leg, Mir grabs hold. Lesnar tries to leap away, but Mir has latched onto a death grip. He torques Lesnar's ankle and maneuvers into a knee bar.