Bobby Lashley juggling more than last-minute MMA fights and pro wrestling matches

Esther Lin, Showtime

Former WrestleMania headliner Bobby Lashley was blessed with a great physique that got him into pro wrestling, and a big name before he got into fighting. But both advantages in opening the door, may have in the long-run hurt his career success.

With it being a few weeks before his 37th birthday, Bobby Lashley, who once looked to be on the verge of superstardom in pro wrestling and later a top attraction in MMA, is someone whose greatest advantages turned out in hindsight to be his biggest handicap.

At first, Lashley’s freaky physique was his calling card, which led to him being rushed to the top of the pro wrestling world. Then, when he left pro wrestling for MMA. Because of his pro wrestling fame, amateur background and the way he looked, promoters wanted to immediately cash in on his name recognition as a World Wrestling Entertainment star, when he was really just a novice fighter.

Four-and-a-half years later, Lashley (8-2) faces Matthew Larson (2-2) on this weekend’s only MMA pay-per-view event, a Saturday night show called Global Warrior Challenge from the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

He just agreed to the fight on Sunday, and got his opponent a few days later. Of late, he’s continued to dabble in both pro wrestling and MMA, along with being a full-time father, helping troubled kids in his area, and running his gym.
Right now, he’s looking at a goal to remake himself as a 205-pound fighter, even though he admits he’ll probably be coming in at closer to 245 pounds for his fight this weekend.

"Right now I’m trying to do some soul searching," Lashley said. "My passion has always been wrestling. But fighting is paying the bills. I want to feel comfortable in the ring like I do in the gym. I think the best thing to do is go to 205 pounds. I can make it down there. I’ll be quicker, faster and I’ll have more energy down there."

Lashley was an Olympic hopeful in Greco-Roman wrestling for the 2004 Olympics. After suffering a knee injury in dropping to the ground while he was at a bank that was being robbed, the injury eliminated any chance to make the team.

At the time, he wrestled at 211.5 pounds, and thus, has experience in weight-cutting, feeling if he eat healthier and did more cardio, he can get down to 230. At that weight, he feels he can cut to 205 and fight back at 230.

Lashley captured the NAIA wrestling championship in 1996, 1997 and 1998 at Missouri Valley College. His athletic ability, combined with his crazy genetics, gigantic biceps, shoulders and just about everything else made him a great prospect as a pro wrestler.

Even in the world of steroid freaks that pro wrestling sometimes was, nobody had ever seen anyone who looked quite that muscular carrying that kind of size, who was actually athletic as well. Brock Lesnar, who Lashley was often compared to in pro wrestling, was even larger, but couldn’t come close to Lashley’s Hercules comic-book look.
That all sounds great, and it opened doors that he otherwise could have never gotten in.

But the problem was, he had never done pro wrestling. He was starting from ground zero in late 2004 in Louisville, ironically the same camp where current Bellator fighter "King" Mo Lawal has been trains. Those running Ohio Valley Wrestling figured Lashley was an almost guaranteed superstar, but feared World Wrestling Entertainment head honcho Vince McMahon would see him too soon, and it would be the worst thing possible.

McMahon, in love with physiques, would immediately want Lashley on the main roster and try to make him into one of his biggest stars. The feeling was that if McMahon saw him, he’d be on television before he was ready, not be good enough or experienced enough, and because first impressions are so important, perhaps never come close to his potential.

That was somewhat prophetic. Only a few months after he started, people were so high on his potential that he was brought to television and McMahon saw him.

Less than a year after he started, he was a full-timer being groomed for stardom on national television. Even Lesnar, who was also rushed onto national television before he was ready, took two full years of training before starting his rise to stardom. For most, the time frame is five years or more.

By 2007, he was a participant in the biggest drawing pay-per-view match in wrestling history. He was managed by Donald Trump as part of the Trump vs. McMahon angle where the losing manager in the Lashley vs. Umaga match, in this case McMahon, got his head shaved before a sold out 74,687 fans at Ford Field in Detroit. The show did 1.25 million pay-per-view buys, the largest number in pro wrestling history. It wasn’t Lashley who drew it, even though he won the match, but the "Battle of the Billionaires" with their hair at stake.

But just being in that position meant McMahon saw him as one of his top guys even though he was still learning. Naturally soft-spoken, he was not yet to be able to do an interview like a headliner. In the ring, while having he athletic ability, he was still learning the game under the microscope of being a main eventer. His shoulder, damaged for months, was getting progressively worse. He asked for time off for surgery.

The reaction was mixed. Wrestlers, often a very jealous breed, were never happy that someone of so little experience was McMahon’s hand-picked favorite. When he was injured, the feeling was that when you’re given a top spot, you don’t take time off. Many resented him opting for surgery. There were also problems with at least one high ranking official, and there was the drama of his girlfriend being in the company and then fired. Lashley asked for his release. Less than three months after being in the biggest drawing pay-per-view match in history, he had wrestled his final WWE match.

Lesnar had already taken a similar path from pro wrestling superstar to being the biggest drawing card in UFC. With his similar amateur wrestling background, Lashley went into MMA. The problem is, Lesnar’s path to stardom, walking in and facing established stars, isn’t advisable for most and was something Lashley tried to avoid.

"Looking back, I would want to do it different, but I don’t think I’d have had the opportunity to do it different," he said. "I have fighters in my gym now that I wouldn’t even want to fight until they get to a certain level. Then they’ll have a few amateur fights. If I was a regular Joe, I’d have done some amateur fights, so I’d learn to feel comfortable at it. Even when I was starting, everyone was doing amateur fights before pro fights. I didn’t have that. My first fight was the main event at the American Airlines Arena (in Miami)."

Lashley’s physique, his calling card, saw him look like a star and had people treat him like a star. He’d only had a few fights before people were talking about him for a fight with Fedor Emelianenko, at the time considered the best heavyweight in the world. It seemed like a freak show match, then, and never happened. In hindsight, it sounds even worse now. While Lashley dominated the first round of every fight he’s had, those giant muscles need loads of oxygen in a 15 minute fight, and in longer fights, he was exhausted. He attributed that as much to getting too excited and adrenaline dumps due to inexperience.

He signed with Strikeforce, but in his second fight on Showtime, he suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Chad Griggs.

"What I need to work on the most is to stay active, just getting rid of the anxiety and stress," he said. "With more fights, that’s what I’ll improve the most on. My opponent is irrelevant. I just need enough fights to be comfortable. I really felt comfortable in my last fight (a win over Kevin Asplund on June 7 in Fort Riley, Kansas, his first fight in 13 months). I want to pick up my pace in this one. I don’t want to have that adrenaline drop. If I feel comfortable, I can fight anyone."

"The time off is because I just wanted to be with my kids," he said.

Lashley is a full-time single father, with an eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. He has a gym in Aurora, Colorado, just down the street from the famed Century 16 in Aurora that had the shootings that killed 12 people last summer.

"The big thing is my gym," he said. "I run my non-profit through my gym. We’re right down the street from the theater shooting in the inner city. I’ve been mentoring a lot of kids. The big thing is keeping them off the streets. That’s where my money, attention and passion has gone. There are some great kids. We have a 20,000 square foot gym, with a little bit of everything. It’s a good environment. The people may not have a lot of money, but we’re keeping them off the streets."

In between all that, Lashley still does pro wrestling all over the world. He goes every month or two to Japan, working for the Inoki Genome Federation (IGF), a promotion that specializes in using legitimate fighters in pro wrestling matches. It’s the same group that Josh Barnett, Lashley’s current fighting mentor and strategist, used to wrestle with until signing with UFC. Lashley and former Pride fighter Kazuyuki Fujita are two of the top stars who at least have pro wrestling experience. A number of others, such as kickboxing and MMA fighters like Tim Sylvia, Jerome LeBanner, Bob Sapp and Peter Aerts, are also headliners, which can make for some very strange matches.

"I’ve been out there with every one of those guys," Lashley said. "The cool thing is they enjoy it. They get excited in with me. It’s kind of hard. I try to talk them through the matches, but sometimes I’m in with people who don’t speak English. It poses a lot of problems."

Lashley was recently voted the most popular foreign wrestler with the promotion. On July 7, he’s wrestling in Monterrey, Mexico. Then he’s going on a cruise followed by another pro wrestling match in Japan. He’s looking at doing another MMA fight on Aug. 9 at the Mohegan Sun Casino as well as a boxing match, perhaps in Kansas City, on the same card as Kimbo Slice. That is tentatively set for September. He also does smaller wrestling shows in the U.S. on weekends.

"The weekend thing with wrestling is great," he said. "If I got a chance to go full-time with a bigger company, I’ d have to weigh my options. Right now, it’s a way to keep the ring rust off as far as the wrestling. I’ll do that until I get a full-time deal."

Before every Lashley fight, he talks about showing the improvement in his hands, but once the fights start, his wrestling instincts take over and he’s usually immediately going for a takedown. He said he wants to try boxing just to put himself in a position where he can’t go for a takedown.

"Nobody’s seen my hand because I take people down, but it’s another element of my game. I might have to handicap myself and just have to box. I’m all for it. A guy asked me last month and I’m all for it."

Saturday’s fight with Larson was put together at literally the last minute. The show, on pay-per-view throughout the U.S., features Lashley and several ex-UFC fighters including former heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez, as well as Kendall Grove, Andre Winner, Oli Thompson and Drew Fickett.

He was first asked on June 20 to face Thompson in the main event. He said he agreed to that, but the promotion then decided to change it, telling him they instead wanted to put Thompson against Kevin Asplund and him against someone, with the idea of building him for a November fight with Thompson. He didn’t agree to the fight until Sunday, having to cancel a pro wrestling booking in Alameda, Calif.

"I hated to do it, but I’ll go back there soon for them," he said.

It wasn’t until early in the week he agreed to face Larson, who he first wasn’t happy about facing.

"Originally, I said, `No,’ Sherdog said he had a 2-2 record so that’s what everyone is going to think," he said. "We checked, and he’s 6-2. In Minnesota, guys take non-sanctioned fights. Josh (Barnett) checked the guy out and came up with a game plan. He told me, `He’ll try to rush you. He doesn’t have any solid skills. He might have been a wrestler. Aside from that, maybe he’s just a tough man competitor."

He said that he didn’t have an opponent as late as the weekend but noted there was a guy (Scott Barrett) who said Lashley was ducking fighting him, on Twitter, and it did annoy Lashley.

"I didn’t even get an opponent on Sunday, but I had a guy hitting me up on Twitter that I didn’t even know," he said. "I’ll fight him. Now I want to fight him."

Lashley said he feels guys challenging him like that is unprofessional. "I don’t do drama on Twitter," he said. "I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t even entertain the stupid stuff. I paid no attention, but I’ll fight that guy. But I could care less."

He also expects that his training with Barnett will make a big difference, in particular using his wrestling to set up submissions on the ground. "The thing about Josh is he’s a genius when it comes to MMA," said Lashley. "He can break down any fighter, any match, any strategy. His preparation is second-to-one. He gets it. He really gets it. I think he’s a great fighter, but as a trainer, he’s even better.

"The first time he cornered me, when I won the Shark Fights heavyweight title, it was the easiest fight I ever had because I had a different frame of mind. He makes it easy. I owe a lot to Josh, and I’m always picking his brain on the ins and outs of fighting. I had a wrestling background and he taught me how to use my wrestling background on the ground, standing, use it for striking. He changed my mentality around. He taught me how to use wrestling to pummel, work for position, to strike, and to take a guy down and beat him. Everything he’s tried to work with me on is to get my wrestling to win matches.

"My wrestling is solid. I’ll put my wrestling up against almost any guy out there. When I start moving, my takedowns are hard to stop. My wrestling is top notch if nothing else."

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