InterMat Reads: Brock Lesnar Book

Mark Palmer

3/13/2011
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

A dozen years ago, Brock Lesnar burst onto the Division I college wrestling scene as a junior at the University of Minnesota. In just two short seasons, Lesnar became a two-time Big Ten heavyweight champ and two-time NCAA finalist, winning the national title his senior year at the 2000 NCAAs. In the decade since, the former Golden Gopher has made a name for himself beyond amateur wrestling, first in professional wrestling in the WWE, and now, in mixed martial arts (MMA), as a former UFC heavyweight champ who hopes to win back the title.

Now a new book -- Brock Lesnar: The Making of a Hard-Core Legend by Joel Rippel -- covers all these aspects of Lesnar's life and career, and more.

The right book, right on time

If anyone were destined to write Lesnar's life story, it would be Joel Rippel. He is a long-time writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and has authored four books on Minnesota sports history. And, just like Lesnar, Rippel is a graduate of the University of Minnesota.

The timing for a book on Brock Lesnar couldn't be better. More than a decade after first appearing on the radar screens of college wrestling fans, Lesnar continues to make headlines. This month, it was announced the former UFC heavyweight champ would return to the Octagon to face Junior dos Santos at UFC 131 in Vancouver, British Columbia in June. (The two UFC big men have been serving as opposing team coaches on the latest installment of the popular reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter.)

Lesnar's name also popped up in numerous stories this month about his college rival Stephen Neal announcing his retirement from the New England Patriots after ten seasons as right guard. Neal defeated Lesnar in the 1999 NCAA Division I heavyweight championship match to win his second national title.

First, a bit about Brock

For millions of folks, mention the name Brock Lesnar and they immediately think of his meteoric career in Ultimate Fighting Championships, winning the UFC heavyweight title from Randy Couture after less than a handful of MMA matches. For others, Lesnar was "The Next Big Thing" in professional wrestling, becoming the youngest-ever WWE champ at age 25.

Some of us are old enough to remember when Brock Edward Lesnar was the "next big thing" in college wrestling. In January 1999, Lesnar was recruited to wrestle at the University of Minnesota after head coach J Robinson saw the Bismarck State College heavyweight -- and 1998 national junior college champ -- demolish the competition at the Bison Open.

Within days of coming to Minnesota, Lesnar became THE talk of the amateur wrestling community. The South Dakota native was the subject of numerous threads on wrestling discussion forums. Even Dan Gable weighed in. As a commentator on Iowa Public TV's College Wrestling series, the legendary wrestler and coach said this about the new Golden Gopher heavyweight: "When he strips out of his warm-ups, Brock Lesnar turns more heads than Cindy Crawford in a thong."

In a weight class where a number of the competitors looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy, Lesnar's physique was something else. The 6'3", 265-pound Minnesota heavyweight appeared to be carved from granite. (The school's wrestling program capitalized on this fact by issuing a "Brockfast of Champions" poster, featuring Lesnar in his Minnesota singlet, complete with call-outs that provided a "tale of the tape" as to the measurements of his 20" neck, 52" chest, and more.)

Lesnar's musculature wasn't the only thing that generated buzz in the college wrestling world. Right from the start, his on-the-mat performance got people talking. Within a couple weeks of becoming a Gopher, Lesnar pinned his way through four matches at the 1999 National Duals. Among his early pin victims: Iowa's Wes Hand, who became arguably Lesnar's top college rival.

During the 1999 season -- his first in Division I -- Lesnar compiled a 24-2 record, including a 21-match win streak, and nabbed the Big Ten title. His two losses: to Iowa State's Trent Hynek early in the season, and, to defending heavyweight champ Stephen Neal in the finals at the 1999 NCAAs at Penn State. The following year, Lesnar lost only one match -- to Wes Hand -- but got revenge by defeating the Hawkeye big guy in the Big Ten and NCAA title bouts.

Brock's real wrestling career, by the book ...

Some biographies of former college wrestling champs who go on to find fame in pro wrestling give short shrift to their subjects' amateur mat careers, either by glossing over their real wrestling accomplishments in a few pages, or, in the case of one bio that comes to mind, being filled with glaring inaccuracies and misrepresentations. In his book, Joel Rippel manages to present a surprisingly complete presentation of the 33-year-old Lesnar's life that includes his growing-up years, and high school and college wrestling careers, as well as time in the WWE and UFC.

As Rippel points out, Brock Lesnar grew up on a farm outside Webster, South Dakota. The book is rich with details on Lesnar's early wrestling career, starting in seventh grade ... and his on-the-mat accomplishments at Webster High School.

Brock Lesnar: The Making of a Hard-Core Legend then takes the reader to college (with a surprising-to-most-readers side trip), first to Bismarck State College in North Dakota, where Lesnar was a two-time NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) All-American and 1998 NJCAA heavyweight champ. Then the book goes on to provide a look at Lesnar's two years at Minnesota, highlighting some of his most important matches as a Golden Gopher.

After winning the heavyweight title at the 2000 NCAAs in a thrilling overtime match with Wes Hand, Lesnar's life was at something of a crossroads. As Rippel states in the book, Lesnar considered many options, including staying at Minnesota to play football for the Gophers, or try to earn a spot on the U.S. freestyle team to compete at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Instead, he threw his hat into the ring ... the pro wrestling ring.

... then to the squared circle and Octagon

The book then presents Brock Lesnar's pro wrestling career, first in the Louisville-based Ohio Valley Wrestling, a developmental league for Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment. As was the case with his Division I college mat career, Lesnar's career in the squared circle was meteoric, becoming the youngest-ever WWE champ at age 25, and a superstar recognized around the world. However, as Rippel points out, all that fame -- not to mention the rigors of travel and performing in the ring -- took its toll on the former college champ, and he left the WWE after about five years.

Brock Lesnar (Photo/Sherdog.com)
Again, Lesnar wasn't sure what to do next. After trying out for the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, he found a new career in mixed martial arts, and, as in his previous personal combat endeavors, shot to the top of the UFC, the big-leagues of MMA, wresting the heavyweight title from another former college mat champ, Randy Couture, at UFC 91 in November 2008.

Not everyone in the world of MMA was happy with Lesnar's fast ascent to the title. Rippel shares this quote from UFC rival Frank Mir that has a strong undertone of resentment:

"If Brock Lesnar was never in the WWE, he would have never have gotten a title shot. And he knows that. But that's how people get paid. The bottom line is it's not always about who's a better fighter. All I remember from last time is him whimpering and wincing as I was tapping him ..." [Lesnar lost to Mir at UFC 91, February 2008 ... but avenged that loss at UFC 100 in July 2009.]

Brock Lesnar: The Making of a Hard-Core Legend provides interesting, behind-the-scenes detail of what many would say was Lesnar's toughest fight: his serious battle for his health that took him out of action for nearly a year, and nearly cost him his life. The book concludes with Lesnar's triumphant return to the Octagon in defeating former NCAA Division II heavyweight champ Shane Carwin at UFC 116 in July 2010; it does not mention his losing the UFC title to Cain Velasquez, an NCAA All-American for Arizona State, at UFC 121 last October.

Joel Rippel presents an even-handed biography of Brock Lesnar that strikes an appropriate balance among the various careers of the champ's life, including his amateur wrestling career. It is chock-full of quotes from those who know Lesnar, including former coaches and rivals. The one thing that astute readers may notice: all the quotes from Lesnar himself are from previous interviews, not direct one-on-one conversations between Rippel and Lesnar himself, which gives the book a bit of an "unauthorized biography" feel. (Don't worry; there aren't any salacious details.)

Brock Lesnar: The Making of a Hard-Core Legend is available for purchase online from a number of sources, including Amazon.

Brock Lesnar is one of four former University of Minnesota wrestlers to win an NCAA heavyweight title. (Only Oklahoma State has more heavyweight champs.) To learn more about Lesnar and his fellow Gopher big men titlewinners, check out Mark Palmer's InterMat Rewind article from May 2007.

For photos and more info on Brock Lesnar and other NCAA Division I heavyweight champs from 1928-2000, visit NCAA Heavyweight Champs Yahoo group.

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