By Sam Caplan
One of the most anticipated debuts in mixed martial arts is scheduled for this weekend when former NCAA heavyweight and WWE champion Brock Lesnar fights Min Soo-kim.
Kim represented South Korea in the Olympics and won a silver medal in Judo. Despite his strong amateur credentials, Kim’s conversion to MMA has not been a smooth one. Fighting exclusively for K-1, he is just 2-5 in seven lifetime bouts with his wins coming against Yoshihisa Yamamoto and Sean O’Haire.
His two wins can hardly be considered quality ones, as Yamamoto is just 6-16. As for O’Haire, the name may be familiar to wrestling fans as he formerly wrestled in WCW and then the WWE before leaving to try his hand at MMA and kickboxing. The expirement was a total failure and O’Haire has already retired from combat sports.
Kim’s losses have come against top kickboxer Semmy Schlit, Siala “Might Mo” Siliga (who will also be fighting on Saturday’s card), Ray Sefo, MMA legend Don Frye, and former Chicago Bears offensive lineman Bob Sapp.
For lack of a better term, Kim is a tomato can. He’s not much different than the “jobbers” the WWE used in order to build up Lesnar’s reputation as a monster when he first started wrestling for the Vince McMahon-owned promotion.
While Saturday will mark Lesnar’s first MMA bout, he’s been training dilligently for nearly a year. Working under the watchful eye of Greg Nelson in Lesnar’s home state of Minnesota, the former amateur wrestling champ has been receiving world class training. Nelson’s camp is home to some of the top mixed martial artists in the world, including UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk.
In addition to working with Nelson, Lesnar spent some time early in his training with Pat Miletich at the Miletich Fighting Systems main training center in Davenport, Iowa. Nelson is good friends with Miletich and the ciriculum taught by both camps are very similiar.
I had a chance to speak with Miletich about Lesnar on two separate occasions and his appraisals of Lesnar’s ability were glowing. At one point, Miletich referred to Lesnar as “Matt Hughes at 265 pounds.” Lesnar’s wrestling ability is unquestioned and he apparently picked up submissions with ease. The only question is his standup, although Miletich said that from what he saw of Lesnar, he looked light on his feet for such a big man and has a lot of potential in that regard. He’s apparently made major strides in his standup game while working with Nelson.
Lesnar’s match this weekend will actually be the third time his debut has been scheduled. He was originally supposed to fight last fall but it was then re-scheduled for December before ultimately being re-scheduled once again for Saturday. His match was almost scratched once again after his original opponent Hong Man-Choi was denied a license by the California State Athletic Commission. In addition to Choi being denied a license, the card itself was in doubt until FEG (the parent company of K-1) was granted a temporary promoter’s license just late last week.
In this day and age, it’s not easy to predict the outcome of a match. However, Kim is not a strong opponent and there seems to be little doubt within the industry that Lesnar will defeat him with ease. I would expect Lesnar to keep things simple by going for a takedown early and trying to win the match via ground and pound.
Lesnar is contracted to FEG for just one fight so he will become a free agent at the conclusion of his bout against Kim. Once his match is over, he will become one of the most coveted free agents in mixed martial arts.
It’s unknown what Lesnar will make for Saturday’s bout but he will be in line for a huge payday should he look impressive against Kim. How much he attracts on the open market was believed to be tied to just how well Dynamite USA!! did at the box office and on pay-per-view. However, due to FEG’s mismanagement, Dynamite USA!! is bound to be a dud when it comes to revenue generated. Fortunately for Lesnar, FEG’s troubles have been so transparent that Lesnar won’t be held accountable for bad ticket sales and a poor PPV buyrate.
His suitors will be numerous, with EliteXC president Gary Shaw saying in the past that they have strong interest and UFC president Dana White recently claiming publicly that he is interested as well. Due to financial issues, the IFL will not be able to bid on Lesnar’s services but there have been rumors that Bodog Fight is interested in signing Lesnar with an eye towards a main event match against fellow former WWE wrestler and amateur wrestling standout, Kurt Angle.
Let’s break down the field of potential suitors that will be pining for Lesnar after his match Saturday:
FEG/K-1: Lesnar has a lot of market value to the Japanese audience. Japanese MMA fans place a great importance on amateur fighting credentials and there is also a fascination with size. Lesnar already is known very well in Japan based on his stint with New Japan pro wrestling, in which he held the much coveted IWGP heavyweight title. One could make the argument that Lesnar has more drawing power in Japan than he does in the States. However, the complete lack of organization exhibited by FEG in putting Dynamite USA!! has to be a turnoff to Lesnar. With his confidence in the company likely shaken, FEG would probably have to pay twice as much for Lesnar than the second highest bidder.
IFL: As alluded to earlier, this has no chance of happening. In a recent SEC filing, the IFL acknowledged that right now they don’t have enough money to make it through the fourth quarter. They will probably offer a second round of stock in order to raise some more capital, but it won’t be enough to land Lesnar. Plus, he’s not a good fit for their business model. You couldn’t have Lesnar wrestle as a heavyweight for a team, leaving him as a “Superfight” attraction. But aside from Ben Rothwell, the IFL doesn’t have very many high-profile heavyweights on their current roster that could matchup well with Lesnar. Not to mention, with no PPV deals in place, it would be hard for the IFL to make their investment back.
Bodog Fight: This company no doubt has plenty of money to spend, but I think even Calvin Ayre has a threshold he isn’t willing to cross. Bodog is not as financially strong as it once was. Ayre’s MMA promotion has been a huge money loser and his own personal wealth has dropped greatly in the last year because their core business, the online sportsbook, has suffered following a bill that was passed last fall in the United States making it illegal to place bets over the Internet. Bodog also paid a ton of money to Fedor Emelianenko to headline a PPV in St. Petersburg, Russia this past April and the buyrate was dreadful. With the promotion’s television ratings on the Ion network also doing poorly, will Bodog be willing to put all their chips on the table one last time?
And in order to maximize Lesnar’s drawing potential they can’t just put him in with no-name cans. They will have to go out and sign other high-profile heavyweights that can be booked in marquee main events with Lesnar. Even if Bodog offers the most money, I don’t see Lesnar signing with Bodog on a long-term basis due to the promotion’s suspect image. Why go with a company that isn’t considered legitimate (yes, I know they treat their fighters great, but fighting for Bodog doesn’t carry the prestige that fighting for the UFC does) when you can sign with a promotion that has a better reputation and has more staying power? I could see Lesnar signing on for one match in order to increase his market value further, but there would still be risk involved in pursuing such a course of action. If he signs and headlines a PPV and it does a bad buyrate, his market value could actually decrease if he’s perceived as not being a big draw.
EliteXC: EliteXC, with the backing of Showtime, certainly has the resources needed to meet Lesnar’s demands. I expect them to pursue Lesnar with tremendous vigor to not only enhance their talent roster, but to also block to UFC from enhancing their’s. One issue with EliteXC is that they don’t have an established heavyweight division. However, the company has made contact with Josh Barnett in the past and have also had brief talks with Kurt Angle, so while the potential opponents aren’t on the roster now, the company could definitely go out and get them.
UFC: When Dana White said he intended to sign every big name fighter, he apparently wasn’t kidding. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Cro Cop, Dan Henderson, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua have all been signed away from Pride in recent months. Even though the acquisition of Pride has been completed, there is still uncertainty as to whether all of the Pride fighter contracts are transferrable. Leaving nothing to chance, the UFC is believed to be close to signing Wanderlei Silva to a new deal and negotiations with Fedor are ongoing.
While the UFC just spent a lot of money to close the Pride deal and will be taking heavy losses by promoting cards in England, they are still strong financially and can afford to outbid any major MMA promotion for Lesnar’s services. The question though is value. Lesnar has unlimited potential and I believe he could one day emerge as the top heavyweight fighter in the world. His wrestling skills are tremendous and he has the athleticism needed to become a respectable striker. However, he won’t become the best overnight. It will take time and any promotion that signs him will have to initially protect their investment. The UFC couldn’t sign him and immediately throw him in the Octagon against Mirko Cro Cop, Andrei Arlovski, or Randy Couture. They’d have to protect him by putting him against other fighters with a wrestling background who aren’t on the same level as Lesnar. They could try putting him against strikers with no ground games such as Antoni Hardonk or Cheick Kongo, but there will still be risk in doing so because if Lesnar doesn’t get the fight to the ground, there’s the chance he could be knocked out. So the problem is that the UFC will initially be paying Lesnar large sums of money to fight in one-sided matches against inferior competition.
Despite concerns about growing pains, the financial upside of Lesnar will be too strong for Zuffa to ignore. Not only could they build towards major money matchups against the likes of Cro Cop, Couture, and possibly Fedor, but by signing Lesnar they also hurt their competition in the process. If Lesnar were to sign with a company like EliteXC, which has good distribution and exposure in the U.S., the gap between the UFC and EliteXC could potentially tighten.
Lesnar also has a lot of potential value to the UFC if they decide to rebuild Pride and run cards in Japan. As mentioned earlier, Lesnar is a big name in Japan and he’d be a huge drawing card.
With all that in mind, I think the UFC is the odds on favorite to sign Lesnar with EliteXC the only other viable candidate at this point.