When Brock Lesnar fought Alistair Overeem at UFC 141 in 2011, what caught the eye almost immediately was the Dutch kickboxing phenom’s vicious attack to Lesnar’s mid section.
Clinch, brutal knee to the body, brief separation. Repeat. Eventually – and it didn’t take long – Lesnar was left folded up on the Octagon mat, covering his head against unanswered strikes from Overeem.
Overeem’s approach was simple: target his opponent’s vulnerable liver. For even in the lead up to the fight, Brock Lesnar had made it public that he had been suffering from a debilitating condition of diverticulitis from 2009, and that he was still very much in the process of recovery.
Publicly addressing his weakness like that turned out to be a grave error of judgment. The strike that brought Lesnar to his knees was a kick aimed straight at the liver. And it put an ironic seal on the first phase of Lesnar’s MMA career too.
He would hang up his gloves and transition back into the WWE, where he first made a name for himself, shortly after.
From 2013 to 2016, he would reign as undisputed top dog in the WWE, holding titles and headlining pay-per-views while also affording his liver time to truly heal, away from the brutal machinations of MMA. But that fire in him that spurred his never-before-witnessed transition from pro wrestling to the pinnacle of MMA, was hardly doused.
“It was really unfair for me. To this day, I don’t know if I’d be a pro wrestler if I hadn’t gotten sick. I may not be here. I’d probably still be banging heads [in MMA]”, he admitted to Stone Cold in an episode of his podcast.
Though both his WWE runs were wildly successful, both from a monetary standpoint and in terms of embellishing his brand, Brock Lesnar’s true calling has always been real athletic competition. And the competitor in him could never really shy away from that, although he was medically forced to.
MMA fighters, and even pro wrestlers in many instances, are some of the toughest people on earth. They willingly put their bodies through the meat grinder as a way of life. But even for a man cut from that cloth, his own description of how it felt to deal with diverticulitis was bone-chilling:
“I have a high threshold for pain, higher than most guys, and I couldn’t deal with it [diverticulitis].
It felt like I had taken a shotgun blast to the stomach, and then someone poured in some salt and Tabasco and stirred it all up with a nasty pitchfork.”
It was very clear that the Brock Lesnar whose meteoric rise in MMA – where he won the UFC Heavyweight Championship in just his fourth professional fight- was mirrored by his abrupt fall from grace for a reason. And the painful defeat to Alistair Overeem gave him the time and space away from the sport to take a good hard look at what it was and address it. He needed to take a step back to reassess if his body would hold up to the rigours of MMA.
“I felt robbed by diverticulitis. I felt robbed by being sick. When I’d get halfway through a training camp [for a MMA fight] and I knew something was wrong, I thought, gosh, there’s something physically wrong with me so I need to figure it out.”
By 2016 though, Lesnar had given himself sufficient time to heal up – so much so that he could afford to yet again scratch the itch to test himself inside the Octagon. This time, standing opposite him, was another decorated striker in Mark Hunt.
But more importantly, this time, it wasn’t the same compromised version of Brock Lesnar that showed up to fight.
He took Mark Hunt down without too much fuss and beat on him throughout the three rounds en route to a dominant victory in his first fight back, but would then fail a drug test that led to the victory being overturned – at least on paper.
Because for Lesnar, a simple ‘W’ or ‘L’ didn’t even begin to signify the enormity of what he had achieved. His larger victory lay in the fact that he was Octagon ready again. Physically and mentally, he was in a place where his own body wouldn’t show him up as a shell of the man his competitive spirit willed him to be.
For an insanely competitive person like Brock Lesnar, that mattered the most.
Sometimes in life, the greatest defeats can be catalysts for the most telling changes. Learning from those defeats – even if the lesson is to stop doing what you dearly want to for a time – often paves the route to success in the future.
Now, he may never again become UFC Heavyweight Champion. But the fact that he feels ready to give it a shot anyway against a generational great like Daniel Cormier, proves that Brock Lesnar is in a much better spot now than he was almost a decade ago when he struggled against his own body. He may get ragdolled in the fight like most of Cormier’s other opponents or he may end up getting knocked out for good measure. But at least he can rest easy knowing the fact that he won’t lose to his own body.
‘We win or we learn’ said John Kavanagh, Conor McGregor’s head coach. Brock Lesnar certainly didn’t win in his fight against Alistair Overeem in 2011.
But he sure as hell learned from it.
(Photo Credits: Sportsnet)