"Can he fight?"
The question was emblazoned all over the promotional material for UFC 81, the event at which former WWE superstar Brock Lesnar made his Octagon debut.
Ninety seconds into his bout with Frank Mir, he proved that while he could, he had yet to really get a firm grasp on mixed martial arts (MMA). That same evaluation of his skills would remain throughout the rest of his career, which came to an end last night at UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem.
Following a first round technical knockout (TKO) at the hands of Alistair Overeem, the former heavyweight champion announced his retirement from MMA. In doing so, he ends one of the most controversial and talked about careers in the sport's young life.
MMA had never seen anyone quite like Lesnar in the past and will unlikely see someone similar in the future. He walked into the sport after making a name for himself in the WWE as a "fake fighter" and 4.5 years later, he steps away -- on his own terms -- as its biggest star.
Love him or hate him, Lesnar has left an indelible mark on MMA.
Despite getting his leg snatched up by Mir and tapping out, Lesnar managed to impress even his most ardent detractors with his performance. He opened up the fight by catching one of Mir's kicks and taking the Las Vegas native down before hammering down a gaggle of punches onto his opponent's skull. A temporary referee stoppage proved to be a blessing in disguise for Mir who used the time to recover from the onslaught. Seconds later, he was yanking on Lesnar's leg and causing the goliath to tap the canvas.
It wasn't exactly the debut that the former WWE Superstar had in mind but it wasn't a complete disaster either. When he stepped into the Octagon for the second time six months later -- this time in his homestate of Minnesota -- he knocked Pride Fighting Championships veteran Heath Herring from pillar to pillar for 15 minutes. The most infamous image from the fight -- aside from Lesnar riding his opponent like a multi-colored pony -- was Herring getting doubled over and tumbling backwards, the victim of a perfectly placed Lesnar punch. The win was his first inside the Octagon but it wouldn't be his last.
In a move that fudged the line between sport and entertainment, Lesnar was booked in a heavyweight title match against Randy Couture who had spent the previous few months on the outs with UFC management. When they met at UFC 91, popular opinion held the combination of Couture's experience and excellent gameplanning would be Lesnar's undoing. Instead, it was the latter's ability to learn quickly during training camps and his superhuman-like strength that would prove to be the deciding factor.
Midway through the second round, a wrecking ball of a fist crashed into Couture's skull and dropped the seemingly ageless champion. A series of Donkey Kong-like hammerfists later and Lesnar was heavyweight champion of the world in only the fourth fight of his career. It was an honor many felt he hadn't earned. If those people weren't convinced then, the champ seemed dead set to sway them with his next two bouts. A month after he captured his title from Couture, Mir became the first man to stop Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and earned an interim title in the process. The rematch was set but for when else but UFC 100.
The second bout between the two champions would essentially be the opening minute of their first bout stretched out to fill one and a half rounds. The same dominance and brutality that Lesnar displayed during those 60 seconds reemerged at the centennial UFC event and put Mir out less than two minutes into the second round. And just like that, Lesnar not only unified the heavyweight titles but avenged his only loss as well.
His next battle would his toughest and would end up having the greatest impact on his career. In October 2009, Lesnar came down with an illness that would go misdiagnosed for nearly two months. Finally determined to be a case of mono combined with diverticulitis, the malady not only nearly ended the champion's fighting career but it almost cost him his life as well.
A year later, Lesnar made his return to the Octagon to face off against Shane Carwin in the main event of UFC 116. The champ took a beating in the opening round but managed to survive into the second where conditioning proved to be key. Lesnar had it, Carwin didn't. In a bout where either fighter has the ability to put an opponent to sleep with a single punch, it didn't end with a wild haymaker or even a picture perfect jab. The fight was decided by an arm triangle choke of all things.
Lesnar had successfully defended his title twice and thanks to a Fedor Emelianenko submission loss the week prior was recognized as the best heavyweight on the planet. It wouldn't last long. Less than four months later, Lesnar was humbled by Cain Velasquez and lost his belt. A stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) followed which was to lead to a number one contender's bout with Junior Dos Santos. Unfortunately, Lesnar's diverticulitis flared back up and the goliath was put back on the shelf, losing yet another year of his career.
That sabbatical ended last night and just as quickly began once again on a more indefinite basis. Following his loss to Overeem, Lesnar announced his intention to hang up his four ounce gloves. Seven UFC fights total, four of them championship bouts. Over five million pay-per-views sold with each of his title fights raking in one million a piece.
Just like he did in the WWE, Lesnar marched in, became the biggest star and left when he decided the time was right. As my colleague Geno Mrosko tweeted, "If you took a 12-inches of my guts out ... I'd go chill in the woods, too." Lesnar accomplished more than anyone ever thought he could in the UFC and the excitement, the intrigue he brought with him every time he stepped inside the Octagon will be missed.
Take care of yourself, Brock. Thanks for entertaining us.