Hype has always been one of the more curious accessories to the modern fight game. The athletes and carnival barkers will always be the main players, but it's true that the dance floor always feels a bit dull when missing a certain dash of spice to make things truly feel big. What makes up that spice can be hard to describe or quantify without swiping a line from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's infamous obscenity defense -- "I know it when I see it" -- but for one brief moment in time, Bobby Lashley had more than a few jars of that deliciousness stockpiled inside his kitchen cabinet.
He was the former WWE star, the heavyweight with a comic book physique who followed Brock Lesnar into the exploding kingdom of mixed martial arts. He smashed Bob Sapp right before smashing Bob Sapp became a punch line, then parlayed his momentum into a starring role in Strikeforce.
Sure, it all ended up ultimately being too much, too soon. We know that now, and even back then there were signs Lashley wouldn't be another Lesnar. But nearly four years from the day that Chad Griggs slammed the hype train off the rails, the now 38-year-old Lashley quietly reappeared on the MMA big stage, dusting off Josh Burns in a round and change with a workmanlike Bellator debut.
It wasn't the most exciting performance, nor was it a headlining spot, but even with a UFC event airing simultaneously across the highway, Bellator's ratings hit their crescendo that night as nearly one-million viewers gathered to watch the TNA heavyweight champ return to the limelight.
The hype to watch Lashley fight still lingered, even after four years away. And the experience solidified a fact Lashley already knew to be true.
"Bellator's heavyweight division is wide open," he told MMAFighting.com ahead of his sophomore effort at Bellator 130 this Friday. "I think the heavyweight division across the board is wide open. There's a lot of room for people to step up and do something, and I think right now I could be one of those people that step up. That's what I'd like to happen, to really step up and take that position, whether it's holding a title or just beating the top guys."
The snarkier observers among us may tilt an eyebrow at Lashley's goal to transition into a relevant heavyweight this late in the game, and it's true that to see him blossom into an actual deliverer of divisional change would be nothing short of remarkable. Yet those years spent dominating and developing on the regional circuit were not done without purpose, Lashley says, and ultimately the experience may prove to be invaluable.
Now six years into his professional fighting career, Lashley says he's never felt as comfortable inside the cage as he did once that Bellator door swung shut against Burns. He admits that the feeling was "shocking," in a way, and that the feeling is what convinced Lashley to jump back into the fray less just seven weeks later against undefeated Englishman Karl Etherington.
"It was more (a feeling of) normalcy. I think my maturity has grown as a fighter," Lashley said. "When I went out there I just felt totally relaxed. I wasn't breathing hard, I wasn't doing anything, I just felt relaxed. You don't really know how you're going to feel. It was just a happy surprise to know that I was feeling comfortable and I was ready for it. So I was excited, that's why I jumped right back into it."
While dialogue between Lashley and Etherington has been sparse in the fight's lead-up, Lashley is more than a little familiar with Etherington's general sentiment, because it's the same one that always arises when there's a target perennially glued to your back.
Quite simply, the burly Lancashire-product has vowed to "spoil the party," derailing the Lashley hype once more. And Lashley has heard it all before.
"They always do. They always underestimate me too, because of my background," he said. "At the beginning (of my career), when guys would say stuff like that, it'd always upset me. But now I've just got to understand that, when they get asked a question, they can't just sit there and say, ‘oh s**t, I'm scared because Bobby is going to go out there and crush me.' They've got to come with some kind of confidence and just say, ‘hey, look, this guy has a lot of hype behind him, I'm going to stop him, I'm going to show people what's up.' I mean, that's just the answer to the question about Bobby 101.
"[Etherington] doesn't believe any of that stuff. He doesn't believe that I'm hype. He knows that I have ability, and if not he wouldn't be training for it. I think he knows he has an opportunity, because the other bums who have a win against me, they rode that as far as they could go, they celebrated, they ran off. They had a win because of whatever circumstances happened, and this guy is the same way. He's thinking, ‘if I can get this victory, then things are going to be moving up for me.' So he going to fight a little bit harder, he's going to want it a little bit more, but my job is to make that not happen."
Ultimately, Lashley accepts that this run, however long it lasts, will be his last in mixed martial arts. He's always considered himself to be an athlete who would walk away before his time was done, rather than stick around and suffer the same ugly final chapter that has befallen so many of his peers.
But considering the demanding and unique dual professional life he's led to this point, Lashley's case is rather curious. With pro wrestling now on the backburner, he considers this to be the only real run he's ever given himself, and however far he can take it will attest to whether the past six years have been a success.
"When I was in college I was rocking and rolling, but right now I think I'm in my kinda counter-prime," Lashley said. "I'm a different fighter. I'm still in great shape, I still have all my athleticism, and I just think that I'm more intelligent that I was before. So as far as prime, I think I'm close to, if not in it.
"Right now, like I said, the heavyweight division is kind of wide open, and it's looking for somebody to step up. I think that I've been training really well, I think that I've got great partners to train with, and I think that I have the ability to do it this time. My body is holding up, and with the right victories in these next few fights, I think I'm going be next in line to be that man to go for that title."