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In 2004 Lesnar left the WWE midway through a contract reportedly worth $45 million over seven years. With a great deal of fanfare he tried out for the Minnesota Vikings as a defensive tackle. He hadn't played a down of football since high school, but through sheer physical freakishness he held his own. At the time he was bench-pressing 475 pounds and squatting 700 pounds, and despite having injured his groin and pelvis in a motorcycle accident two months before the tryout, he clocked 4.75 seconds in the 40-yard dash. (For the record, Lesnar has never failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs.) He made it to the last round of cuts before being asked to surrender his playbook. By sundown on the day of his release Lesnar was on his stand bow-hunting whitetail deer, and he hasn't played football since.
After settling a bitter lawsuit that challenged the noncompete clause in his WWE contract, Lesnar moved on to MMA. Like many former college wrestlers, he found that the new sport fed something inside him. He hired Morgan to help coordinate his training and Twin Cities MMA guru Greg Nelson to help him with striking and jujitsu skills.
Lesnar took well to instruction. "He's stubborn, but he listens," says Morgan. He was singularly well-suited for MMA, Nelson adds. "He has tons of upper-body strength but also has strong hips, which help with takedowns and positioning, and footwork that [enables] him to sprawl and scramble." But Lesnar reckons that his real MMA asset is what he calls "a fighter's instinct." Pressed for a definition, he strokes his chin. "I guess it means not being afraid of competing. I think you either have that or you don't. I knew I could be a champion."
Lesnar's first pro MMA fight was in the summer of 2007, for an organization called K-1. He required less than a round to pummel his opponent, Min Soo Kim, into submission. MMA purists—yes, they exist—were wary of Lesnar's past in pro wrestling. But on that same card, Johnnie Morton, the former NFL receiver, made his own MMA debut. Morton lasted 38 seconds before getting starched by his opponent. He left the canvas on a stretcher. So much for the notion that anyone could be an MMA star.
Lesnar made his UFC debut, the equivalent of a call-up to the big leagues, in February 2008 against Mir. For most of the fight Mir looked like an assault victim, as Lesnar took him down at will and landed concussive punches. But Mir, an experienced fighter known for his jujitsu skills, stealthily caught Lesnar in a knee bar. A few seconds away from having his femur snapped like a carrot, Lesnar "tapped," MMA-speak for surrendered. The fight helped extinguish the notion that an MMA bout is simply a sanctioned street brawl, devoid of tactics.
Lesnar performed well enough—and generated enough pay-per-view buys—to get two more UFC fights in 2008, both of which he won. In November he fought for the heavyweight title against Randy Couture, perhaps the most popular fighter in the UFC's brief history. If Lesnar had to play the heel again, so be it. He ground down Couture in the manner of a man crushing a cigarette butt in an ashtray. Mercifully the ref stepped in and declared a TKO in the second round.
Promotion of the rematch with Mir has followed the WWE playbook, pitting one caricature against another: Mir, 29, is the honorable veteran; Lesnar is the arriviste from the WWE. Mir boldly predicts that he will "expose just how raw this guy is"; Lesnar counters, "Frank Mir is in for a rude awakening."
Growing animated, Lesnar begins to explain why this fight will be different from the last one. Then he stops himself. "You know what I like about this sport?" he says finally. "We can talk all we want, but then the fight comes, and this s--- is for real."