Upon the announced retirement of former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, the MMA world immediately begin to consider the impact the former professional wrestler and NCAA Division I national champion wrestler had on the world's newest combative sport. Both as a force in the heavyweight division and as a promotional powerhouse, Lesnar's inclusion in the sport had immediate effect. But what will his legacy be now that's he gone?
In this two-part interview with Dave Meltzer, Yahoo! Sports writer and the proprietor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, we discuss to what extent UFC 141 was a commercial success, whether Alistair Overeem can be a mixed martial arts star, what impact the diverticulitis had on Lesnar's career, why Lesnar looked so feeble at UFC 141, why the Shane Carwin fight at UFC 116 was a turning point for Lesnar's MMA career and much more.
Luke Thomas: Dave, I want to talk first about UFC 141 and then more specifically about Brock Lesnar. UFC 141, a lot of changes. They moved back to the 10 p.m. timeframe for east coast starts on pay-per-view. It was pushed to Friday. I know you had initially expressed concerns and I can tell you on my end, it's never a one-one-connection but I'm an online traffic junkie and the online numbers were through the roof. How do you believe this will ultimately turn out in terms of pay-per-view buys?
Dave Meltzer: It's really hard to tell. The time change I don't think makes any difference whatsoever. It's a little more inconvenient for a lot of people but I guess it's more convenient for some people as well but Friday I think is gonna hurt them. I think the show probably did fairly well just because it was a Brock Lesnar show and there hadn't been one in 14 months and there hasn't been that many big shows this year so people are kind of starved for what they perceive as a "big show" even though there have been a lot of great shows but they haven't been big shows to the public. I think it did reasonably well, it would have done exceptionally well if they had been on Saturday but they had reasons. They couldn't have run it in Las Vegas on a Saturday. I was there and all the stuff Dana White said, it's definitely true. You couldn't get in on Saturday night to the strip, they shut the whole place down at 6 p.m. so it would have really been impossible to run there. I mean, I suppose they could have run a different city and the actual original plan was to run New Year's Eve from Abu Dhabi and it fell through so that's where Las Vegas came in and they did the best they could. I'm sure they number will be good but it probably would have been better on Saturday.
Luke Thomas: 750k or what?
Dave Meltzer: It could be. It could be. It wouldn't shock me. It's really hard to tell. I was thinking in that range, maybe a little lower but it could be. It could be even better.
Luke Thomas: What did you think of the live gate and the audience? There was an article today on ESPN.com and I actually challenged the author of it. She had noted that the gate did 3.1 million and I think after a little papering, the turnout was just north of 12,000. That 12,000 wasn't the greatest number but 3.1 million, even with the casinos, it's one of the more respectable gates of this year. She called it a dud. Do you agree 141 at the gate was a dud?
Dave Meltzer: Here's the thing, no, because they've run Las Vegas so many times and there's so much money you can draw in that same city over and over again going back to the well so I would never consider a 3.1 million dollar gate for a show without a championship match a dud. The last one was like 3.9 million but that was a GSP show with higher ticket prices, even though GSP wasn't on the show, all of those tickets were sold for GSP because they sold all the tickets the first weekend. There were tickets available until the end. I wasn't shocked. Brock Lesnar has never been a sellout guy in Vegas. Yeah, for UFC 100 he sold out and I think there may have been another one, but a lot of ones he's done, the Carwin fight didn't sell out even though it was a huge pay-per-view fight. The first Mir fight didn't draw all that exceptionally well.
I remember that because I remember thinking, "Wow, we all thought Brock was gonna do this huge, great number," and he did great numbers on pay-per-view but he didn't sell out Vegas at least without papering. And I think they were probably papering at the end but I expected they would just because of so many shows on the market and again, Lesnar's not a sellout guy in Vegas and that's just how it's been. Even the Couture fight, the Couture fight did a big, big gate and it was a HUGE fight at the time, they were papering that one as well and the Couture fight I thought was gonna go clean in a minute and it didn't. Brock's audience is professional wrestling fans and professional wrestling fans are not used to flying in and paying big ticket prices for shows. They are very used to watching pay-per-view. That's why I always thought that Brock was a much bigger pay-per-view draw than a live arena draw.
Luke Thomas: He's not the gentleman that I want to spend the majority of time talking about, but Alistair Overeem coming in and, it was one of those moments, I don't know what kind of Brock we saw, but even a star-making debut, he certainly looked good against Brock Lesnar. To what extent does this launch him into a position to be a star in 2012? I don't mean right away, but sort of groomed for stardom. Does this fight really serve as a catalyst for potential stardom for Alistair Overeem?
Dave Meltzer: Absolutely. Alistair Overeem always had the chance to be a star, he just didn't have the exposure in this country. The rating he did with the show in Dallas with Werdum, that rating wasn't through-the-roof good but it was a good rating for Showtime for an MMA show and anytime a Showtime show can beat a 1.5, that's telling you someone has potential to be a draw. Diaz did and Overeem did there. Of course Fedor did, but he's Fedor. He's always been a star. That told me Overeem could be a star and also I've noticed that Overeem is very popular in Canada already and Canada is usually ahead of The United States when it comes to these things, when it comes to who the stars are gonna be. Granted, you've still gotta win, but I'm saying the potential to be a crossover or top-tier guy, Overeem was already getting there in Canada and he's got the potential to be there in the US. He's got the look and he talks very well and all of those things. He's a big heavyweight who knocks people out and that's always a good thing so yeah, Overeem has the chance to be, and a lot of people watched this fight because of Lesnar and a lot of people saw it and they were impressed by Overeem. It was a great debut for him and I think him and dos Santos is a very intriguing fight and I think if he beats dos Santos, he'll be a gigantic star. If he doesn't, based on the nature of how he would lose, it depends. If he loses a war, he'll still be a gigantic star. If he gets knocked out in one minute, people will go, "Oh well, golly gee, Brock Lesnar must suck," or whatever.
Luke Thomas: Do you have any sense of how they want to leverage that dos Santos - Overeem fight? I know they gave away that heavyweight fight between Velasquez and dos Santos but to me, that was a bit of a red herring. They were saying, "Well, we can do 800k with this pay-per-view," but even if you put it on that card with UFC 139, I think even that was debatable much less that actual UFC on FOX card they went with. Do you have any idea, will they put dos Santos versus Overeem on pay-per-view? Is it that a big draw or would they be better served getting new eyeballs on a potentially blockbuster event, even one that may currently lack popular appeal?
Dave Meltzer: My feeling is that if Lesnar had lost in a better way and was sticking around, then I could see them putting this one on free TV because Lesnar could still draw like a Lesnar - Velasquez fight would be viable and that would do very well on pay-per-view and then "this one" we could put on TV to springboard the winner in front of the most eyes possible for future pay-per-view. But because with Lesnar out and St. Pierre out, that means the number of big pay-per-view buys they have this year diminishes and so my gut is they will make it a pay-per-view and not a FOX show but I don't know. I haven't talked to anyone about that but that's how I would look at it. If it was different, I actually would consider it because a lot of eyeballs would be seeing Overeem and whoever wins is the rightful, finally, you've got a guy who rightfully will say probably deserves to be number one without question. There's other guys in some other matches coming up but the point is that for this year, everyone has kind of been eliminated. I guess you could say Barnett if he gets by Cormier. I guess you could make an argument somehow since he won that tournament if he does win that tournament.
Luke Thomas: That might be a stretch, Dave.
Dave Meltzer: Well, I'm just saying as far as eliminating all top contenders who haven't lost. Barnett hasn't lost in a very long time, that's why I say you could make a case for him but Overeem has destroyed everyone in his path except for Werdum and the way Werdum fought that fight, it made it hard to make him look good anyways. The argument's there for Overeem and the argument is certainly there for dos Santos. He hasn't lost in the UFC and has been knocking people out. Those are the two guys where, if you make the argument for who's number one, it's as close to as an undisputed number one ranking match that we've had in the heavyweight division in a long time, maybe ever.
Luke Thomas: So let's talk about Brock Lesnar. He now retires. I guess I'll just ask you up front It was weird going into the fight and I could tell you as an editor, I was dealing with this. We were getting articles like, "Lesnar with this win could get a title shot," and at the same time they were juxtaposed with articles saying, "Lesnar could retire if he loses," and if you think about that, title shot or retirement, you almost never see a guy in that position. Were you surprised by his retirement?
Dave Meltzer: Well, since I heard rumors all week, I wasn't, and even more than just the week. No, I wasn't surprised. The way he lost, when that fight was over, I expected him to retire at that moment. When he grabbed the mic and started talking, I go, "He's gonna retire."
Luke Thomas: Because he looked so terrible?
Dave Meltzer: Yeah, I think in my mind, Lesnar has made a lot of money and this time he saved his money. He doesn't live high and he's got a life that he wants to lead and he's got the money to lead it for the rest of his life and I always thought that Lesnar wasn't gonna stick around and be a Chuck Liddell or a Wanderlei Silva or a Mirko Cro Cop or all these guys who keep fighting because they're fighters and they just convinced themselves that they can still get it. They say, "Physically, I'm diminished, but I'm a smarter fighter." I think a lot of older fighters think that. You are smarter but it cannot overcome your physical diminishment as you get older. Very, very few can do that.
I think with Brock, he didn't fool himself. I think that Brock saw that athletically, he wasn't what he once was and that's all he had going for him. He was a very good athlete who's athletic ability transferred very well to fighting. He was not a great all-around fighter and he was too old to become that. If he was 27 and he goes, "I can shore up these weaknesses," he's 34 and got a lot of mileage. Those four years of pro wrestling took a lot out of his body. There's injuries everywhere and I think that illness devastated him and I think you could see the difference.
He didn't have the confidence going in and the key is, it's a lot like Fedor. You lose a little bit of that speed in the heavyweight division and all of a sudden, you're not the same. I don't think Brock's nearly as quick as he was a couple years ago and that's the difference. I'm sure he can lift the same weights, he's huge but he was never that great all-around fighter. When you lose that speed, there are exceptions but you don't see a lot of freestyle wrestlers in the heavyweight division at 34 competing for Olympic gold. Karelin was done at 32, he was a Greco guy but he was done at 32 so he was even younger than Brock and Kerelin was the biggest physical freak of all physical freaks. Far more than Brock ever was. That's kind of like your prototype. Guys like that, when their bodies break down and they lose that thing, they're done at that level and like most of them, I think that when both of them in their minds thought they were done, they got out. You didn't see Kerelin coming back at 36 trying to win that gold medal. As soon as he got that silver and he knew that he was not what he once was knowing that the old Kerelin would have destroyed Rulon Gardner no problem, he got out and Brock's the same way.
Luke Thomas: I want to actually talk about the diverticulitis. He didn't just have one bout but two bouts with it and as you mentioned, in the words of Muhammed Lawal, it kind of snatched his soul a little bit. I don't know what kind of challenges he faced athletically in his life but it seemed that disease shook him in a way to his core where he finally had to accept his own fragility and mortality and this is only conjecture, but what could he have done without the disease, without the time off, with the ability to at least in some capacity stay in camp, stay training and find a niche forward. How good could he have been?
Dave Meltzer: Well, the thing is if he had come out college at that point if the sport were as big as it is now and he would have gone right into this, he wouldn't have done pro wrestling. I think he probably could have been the greatest heavyweight we've ever seen because he did have those athletic gifts and he would have been, at 22, I don't think physically just looking at him he would have been a great striker, but he had such power that I think he could have been a knockout guy and a decent enough striker to set up his wrestling and he'd have been the best wrestler if he'd kept his wrestling up.
You've got to remember, he took eight years off wrestling and then he came back in the sport. You don't see a lot of guys take eight years off wrestling and come back and be what they once were as wrestlers so that Brock Lesnar, yeah, I think he could have been an all-time great. This one coming in at that age, he had a lot going against him but if he didn't have the diverticulitis and he would have been in camp year-round and he would have been learning the submissions because he probably could have been pretty good at the submission game because that comes from wrestling and I think he probably would have done pretty well with that because he is a great student and he's not a stranger to training hard. Striking, he probably never would have been great at, but I think he would have been a lot better.
What was gonna hurt him was when the speed was gone because the speed made him more than the power. Power's great, it is, but this is a speed sport. You look at all of these guys, when they lose a bit of that speed, that's when they fall from the top. It's not when they lose the power. At some point, a guy of his size, 35-36, it still would be tough I would think. I think the diverticulitis, it had to take a lot out of him. I was stunned when this match was announced because it was too soon and in hindsight, when I look at what happened in this match, I think he was looking for a way out. That's not the right wording. He was looking at life after fighting after the Carwin fight. I can tell you that for sure. If you remember when I was telling people, I used that term and people go, "Oh, he's gonna quit for pro wrestling," I'd be stunned if he ever goes back to pro wrestling as a regular pro wrestler. Now will he do like one Wrestlemania match? I think he will. He'll do one match or two matches or a four appearances per year type of thing. Sure, I could see him doing that but going back to pro wrestling as a profession? There's no way he'll ever do that. He would rather fight than do that but I think that when what happened in the Carwin fight happened, I think in his mind, there's a reason he got out of pro wrestling.
There's a bunch of reasons but one of the reasons he got out of pro wrestling was, he was in the locker room one day and he saw all these guys 40 years old with their fake tans and gobbling those pain pills and hurting real, real bad and he was like, "When I'm 40, I want to be able to do everything that I can do. I don't want to be a crippled up guy," and that's why he got out of a business that he was making a ton of money in. The same thing is gonna happen in this business. He's got money and when the time comes about getting beat up, he's not gonna want to get beat up. He's gonna get out when he feels that he's getting beat up and the Carwin fight, he got beat up but he had the confidence that he survived it. I think he also had a thing of, "don't stay too long," and this is what happened. A lot of guys would want to come back but if he had the confidence in his athletic ability, where he used to be and he could still be a top guy, he'd still go. But he's not getting beat up to be a guy who's no longer a main eventer or a guy who fights Roy Nelson or Cheick Kongo, people like that. I never thought that he would stay for that.
Luke Thomas: Let's talk about his MMA legacy, such that one exists. Not his larger athletic career but just in MMA and even that's kind of hard to compartmentalize because he had such an anomalous entry and experience but talking about him as an MMA competitor, looking back at him and assuming that the Overeem fight is his final fight, how would you characterize his performance and experience in professional MMA?
Dave Meltzer: What he did, given his experience, was phenomenal. At the same time, I don't think that people will look back at him. I think there's gonna be this thing, he was given this championship fight early because of his marketability but the fact is, he still had to win that fight. A lot of people want to rip on, "Oh, Randy Couture was this and this and this and old and all this," he was still way, way more experienced and also Randy Couture was a technically better wrestler than Brock. Brock was able to outwrestle him in the fight because of superior weight and size and strength to a degree but he couldn't physically dominate him because Randy was that good of a wrestler and he knew that game. The beating of Randy Couture to me was impressive considering the experience both guys had. The Mir fight, he looked really impressive there and I think that people will downgrade him, "Randy's old," well Randy was old since day one and he had a great career.
When he came back from the diverticulitis, he was clearly not the same guy. The Cain fight, I don't know if he would have ever beaten Cain. If they fought 10 times, he may have won one or two, but even Brock at his best without the diverticulitis, I think Cain was just a much better all-around fighter and could deal with the wrestling and he also had a stamina edge which was a big thing. I think that would have been a tough fight for Lesnar under those circumstances. Overeem, it's really hard to say. I would have loved to have seen a Brock with his confidence in his wrestling and with his old speed go against Overeem just to see if he could get a wrestling game going because in a stand-up fight, no matter what, in a stand-up fight, any form of Brock Lesnar at his best, in a stand-up fight, it was gonna be this exact same result with Overeem. There's no question, it's a huge difference in stand-up ability.
In part two of this interview, Meltzer makes the case for why there will never be another Brock Lesnar in MMA.