With a few years of perspective, Brock Lesnar's four-year odyssey in the UFC ultimately can be looked at as a series of "What ifs?"
What if Brock Lesnar was actually physically 100 percent during his UFC run, since he was already weakened for some time by the beginnings of the diverticulitis that nearly ended his life in late 2009?
What if Brock Lesnar had come into MMA right out of college, instead of taking years of physical pounding as a pro wrestler and wasn't 30 years old and nearly eight years removed from wrestling when he started out?
What if Brock Lesnar had a few years fighting on smaller shows and developing a well rounded skill set before being put in high-profile UFC fights against some of the best fighters in the world?
We'll never know the answers. But in hindsight, the Lesnar era, from 2008 to 2011, was a high point of UFC's pay-per-view popularity. The man who captured the UFC heavyweight title from Randy Couture in his fourth pro fight was the key reason why.
It's probably no coincidence that UFC is now featuring Lesnar heavily on Fight Pass this week, given that in the line of work that first made Lesnar a celebrity, pro wrestling, he has one of the highest-profile matches of his career on Sunday at WrestleMania XXX at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. A crowd of about 70,000 fans is expected to see him face the iconic pro wrestling figure, The Undertaker, in a match that dates back to a confrontation at UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif.
The idea at the time was that Lesnar would retain his title against Cain Velasquez, leave the cage, exchange words with the pro wrestler after the match, and they would face at WrestleMania. Of course, the idea Lesnar, Undertaker and Vince McMahon had at the time was WrestleMania three years ago. But the UFC wouldn't allow Lesnar to do the match while still under contract.
The Lesnar feature, includes interviews with three key wrestling and entertainment figures, wrestlers-turned movie actors Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Steve Austin, along with former head of talent relations and lead announcer during Lesnar's first run, Jim Ross. All three double as UFC fans, and have been cage side for Lesnar's fights, as well as other UFC events. Austin has been described by those in the UFC as being the celebrity who has the most innate knowledge of their product. Ross was heavily involved in signing Lesnar to pro wrestling out of college.
"We (he and WWE scout Gerald Brisco) saw him in the NCAA tournament his junior year, and we really liked what we saw," said Ross in his interview..
Lesnar's college wrestling coach at the University of Minnesota, J Robinson, happened to be Brisco's roommate in the 60s when both wrestled at Oklahoma State. The company made a deal with Robinson not to make an offer to Lesnar until after his senior year. Lesnar was aware of MMA, and in fact, nearly took a fight a few years earlier during a summer vacation in college until talked out of it by Robinson. But in those days, the money wasn't there.
"He was a freak of nature, 6-foot-3, about 280 pounds, he looked awesome" said Ross. "He looked like our kind of guy. If UFC was as vibrant in 2000 as they are in 2014, Lesnar probably would have had a tough decision to make. I don't know what he would have done. I would have hated to recruit against Dana, but I would have. He was my guy."
Lesnar was not a pro wrestling fan, nor had he played football since high school. But coming out of college, his athletic ability was such that he had an NFL offer, as well as interest from three different wrestling companies, including one in Japan. Ross offered him $250,000 per year, guaranteed for four years, an unprecedented amount for someone who was neither a celebrity nor had any experience at all in being an entertainer.
After learning his craft in developmental, within only a few months of his television debut, he defeated The Rock to become, at the time, the youngest champion in company history. That first contract was quickly torn up and he had signed a new seven-year deal with a $1 million downside, and expected to earn considerably more.
In short order, people were talking of Lesnar as having the chance to be the best 300-pounder pro wrestling had ever seen.
"I thought he had the ability for WWE to become the best that we ever had," said Ross.
But he hated the travel, and quit WWE in early 2004. He then tried out for the Minnesota Vikings, where he was a late cut. His next few years were spent with legal fights with WWE, Japanese pro wrestling, one match with K-1, and in 2008, signed with UFC.
"To give Brock Lesnar a shot (in UFC) with one win under his belt was risky," said Johnson, who was at one point scheduled to do a pro wrestling match with Lesnar at this year's WrestleMania.
Even though he lost his first fight to Frank Mir, his debut was a huge box office success. But he proved he was a real force seconds into his second UFC fight, with Heath Herring.
"He retired Heath Herring," said Johnson. "I remember he hit him so hard he fell backwards, and then did a backwards roll."
"He demolished Heath Herring," said Austin. "I don't think Heath Herring has been hit so hard in his life."
Lesnar won the UFC title in his next fight over Randy Couture, but his toughest fight was still to come, with diverticulitis.
"It damn near killed him," said Ross, who years ago had the same affliction in 2005. "Those who haven't had it can't understand how serious this was. I thought no way he could come back. The fact he did come back was a miracle."
The Lesnar who came back was never quite the same. He eventually lost his title to Cain Velasquez, a far more advanced all-around fighter. Lesnar had a second bout with diverticulitis, and tried to come back. After being battered with shots to his weakened body, he fell victim to Alistair Overeem and then retired at the end of 2011.
Is Lesnar a UFC Hall of Famer? He was a champion and made two successful defenses. But of all the modern champions, he had the least developed skill set, relying almost exclusively on athletic gifts, power, freakish speed for his size, and wrestling. He was the biggest drawing card the company ever had, and almost surely brought more new fans to UFC than any fighter in the organization's history.
Nobody would confuse him with an all-time great. He starred late. He rose quickly. He got sick and his career went down almost as fast as it rose. And when he's talked about, the words in most conversations looking back will start include, "What if?"