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Brock Lesnar’s legacy in MMA teeters on the fine line between fact and fiction

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UFC 200 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The first time Brock Lesnar retired from MMA, back in 2011, not everyone was totally shocked. There was the diverticulitis, which sapped him of energy. There was that body kick that Alistair Overeem delivered him, which sapped him of will. There was Canada calling to him like the woods did Henry David Thoreau. And there was the WWE in his back pocket like an uncashed check.

Still, though he told the gathered in Las Vegas at UFC 141, “tonight was the last time you'll see me in the Octagon,” you knew “retirement” was a little bit too permanent for a guy with easy seven-figure earning power in the sport. It was like when David St. Hubbins said that he and longtime collaborator Nigel “shan’t work together again” in Spinal Tap — you got the idea that he may change his mind upon some reflection.

It took Lesnar years to come back around, so many years that MMA had moved on from him completely, but he finally did. Fittingly, it was for UFC 200, the sequel to his famous UFC 100 revenge bout with Frank Mir. Just like with UFC 100 — The Frothing Coors Light Libido Incident — he left a memorable mark. This time it was for streaking through the Octagon like a last-minute savior to a card in need of star power, waving flags just as red as the blood he drew on Mark Hunt’s face the whole way. It was ugly. From the win itself, to the aftermath. In the USADA era of UFC, Lesnar was granted an exemption to wave the mandatory four-month test window, and — on cue — popped hot. He was suspended a year with a slap on the wrist.

Now Hunt is suing the UFC and Lesnar, and that’s how this story ends.

Lesnar informed the UFC that he will retire from the UFC, a move that this time feels permanent. And let’s face it. Lesnar is a shrewd son-of-a-gun. He came in, got an extra paycheck, and got back out without a second glance at the trail of dead. This second stint wasn’t just some unresolved thing in his life that he needed to prove to himself (although it was certainly part of it). It was a mercenary taking a job. Nothing cools Lesnar’s pink cheeks after a hard day’s work quite like a fan of cash.

For his brief second stint, the thing that made him a massive pay-per-view draw — a pro-wrestler crossing over to the literal realm of fighting — was no longer an active novelty. It was more about how he’d fare against Hunt post-diverticulitis, since that was the hidden opponent that cut him down in his moonlighting prime. There was also the more interior idea that for a guy who doesn’t like to get hit, Hunt was the worst kind of match-up.

Didn’t pan out that way. Lesnar dusted off the University of Minnesota singlet, and played smart. He reminded everyone (many times) that he was returning to the UFC for himself, not the fans. As if to prove it, he didn’t divvy up any of his fight night purse or pay-per-view points with them. He snatched the loot and got out. He went back to the WWE, where he’s been finished twice by Goldberg by tremendously anti-climactic spears. It’s been a rough stretch for Lesnar, who in his twilight years is barreling towards his own seclusion, just behind a copse of trees, beyond our sightlines, out there in Manitoba where the crappie practically leap through the ice.

There will always be something about Lesnar that translates to MMA fans, but it’s complicated to put him into any ordinary scope when reviewing his time in the UFC. There weren’t many “genuine” moments. His sworded thorax equally feels like a line dividing fact an fiction, a property line to his heart, and he kept it that way throughout his UFC career. There was the pro wrestler Lesnar, which he defaulted to on occasion. There was the competitor Lesnar, who needed mixed martial arts because to experience something real. There was the company man Lesnar, Dana White’s business buddy. And there was the cold mercenary, the smirking bully who knew his drawing power and couldn’t be reduced to answering basic questions from media.

And then again, it wasn’t like he didn’t perform. Lesnar still holds a share in the UFC record for heavyweight title defenses at two. He was the human embodiment of pummel; what he did to Heath Herring was savage. He was Bluto from Popeye, compressing Randy Couture like an accordion. He removed the horseshoe from Frank Mir’s ass, alright, leaving him as dazed as a man freshly struck by bus at UFC 100. There was something uncanny in watching Lesnar compete. In many ways he outdid the wildest expectations.

But the game has moved on. Back when he came along, Lesnar was a transcendent star in that he compelled other worlds to watch. When he came back five years later, Ronda Rousey had already pushed the sport into mainstream sectors that Lesnar himself couldn’t have ever touched. Conor McGregor has elevated the vanity space of prizefighting to proportions that make Lesnar seem juvenile and small. These were organic pieces that grew up in MMA. Lesnar was an imported Goliath from a manufactured world, and the blurring between those lines — between fact and fiction — compelled us to tune in.

His comeback fight against Hunt was in some ways fitting, from his special handling with the UFC, to the short answers to the many questions, to the unknowable specimen who came in and defeated Mark Hunt, only to have it all tarnished in the end. Can we ever really know Brock Lesnar, the famous pro wrestler-turned-UFC champion? Did we?

The final two words of his career say it all. “No contest.”