The Great and the Large

On Brock Lesnar, Alistair Overeem and other Big Things.
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The visible man's man, man.

Illustration by Brandy Jefferys.

The delayed grimace gave it away. A few moments earlier, Alistair Overeem had sent his left shin screaming into Brock Lesnar’s right flank. The screamer yielded no immediate result, but bodyshots are dramatic like that. A perfect headshot is impressive in its immediacy—x hit lands at spot y, the lights go out and that’s it. A perfect bodyshot, by contrast, is a Rube Goldberg machine of violence—the initial strike sets off a chain event of physiological reactions that each take an extra beat of their own before revealing the collective end-game.

After Lesnar’s grimace came the involuntary doubling over and then came the pained drop to one knee and then came the hopeless guard flop and then came the perfunctory exclamation points crashing into Lesnar’s agonized mug for the perfect Goldberg-ian anticlimax and after all that came Lesnar calling it a career at all of eight fights. And so it went.

The fight’s preamble was sketched by marketers in broad strokes as a clash of the titans minus the mechanical owl but doubled down on the silently homoerotic worship of large men. What we got beyond the promised and obvious clash of said large men was a narrative baton-snatching—the story that began with Lesnar’s MMA debut in the summer of ’07 is no longer his own to finish. And so the still-unwritten ending is left to a new physical marvel carrying possesses of all the same human frailties that made his predecessor an always-captivating “What If?” worthy of Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter—and, perhaps, little else.

The relative tragedy of that lies in what we can say with certainty of Lesnar’s MMA career. That he entered MMA on the cusp of 30. That his only combat sport experience was a long-dead amateur wrestling career. That his professional wrestling career and taste in phallo-centric tattoos made him an easy punchline. That it took him all of five fights to unify the UFC’s heavyweight title and become by far the biggest PPV draw this still nascent sport has ever seen. And finally, that a recurring case of life-threatening diverticulitis robbed him and us both of the chance to see the fullest version of his story told and instead turned him into some sort of vague, bleak metaphor—a 6’2”, 280-pound super-athlete rendered void by a hole in his colon.

Sure, Lesnar’s limitations—overvalued wrestling chops and a general lack of versatility standing foremost—would have eventually collected their due toll, but it’s hardly a coincidence that after his first bout with diverticulitis we never again saw the same fighter. The dreadbeast was suddenly on the other end of the maw and he proved ill-prepared for such a reversal. Retiring after eight fights may seem rash on the surface, but wealthy men who’ve faced death twice over tend to realize the virtues of chilling the fuck out. This is good for both Lesnar and the already burdened conscience of MMA fans. There is no sport or satisfaction to be found in a beaten man collecting pay checks.

So in Lesnar’s place we now have Overeem, an equally absurd collection of muscles minus a few birthdays and plus several birthdays’ worth of relevant, non-scripted experience. And yet, all the same questions hound the massive Dutchman—man, “Dutchman” sounds racist—mostly because his ascent as an elite mixed martial artist dovetailed with his ascent as an elite kickboxer. Sports moonlighting is totally +175 Bo Jackson points, but Jackson is rightly remembered as much for his greatness as the greatness that could have been. Say hi, Brock.

Thankfully, depending on your perspective, a remarkable series of circumstances have played out to all but force Overeem into setting his MMA legacy in order. The long-overdue fall of K-1, the premier heavyweight kickboxing organization in the world, and the only one that mattered for anyone hoping to make serious money, and the UFC’s purchase of Strikeforce left Overeem short his two regular employers. This left the UFC as Overeem’s lone avenue to making a living off of hurting people real bad like.

Just as circumstance set its sights on Lesnar’s innards, it set those same sights on the inner workings of the combat sports world at large. The former left us with unanswered questions—how great for how long, how many hilariously off-message post-fight rants, and so speculatively on—that are now unanswerable. The latter may yet balance the ledger.

Lesnar’s role in the sport’s larger narrative is a role common to all sports: the too-good-to-be-true generation talent who proves too-good-to-last. Rugby has Jonah Lomu and his damned kidneys. Boxing had Salvador Sanchez and his damned Porsche 928. MMA has Brock Lesnar and his damned colon, but it does not have Alistair Overeem. At least not yet. Arguably the world’s best heavyweight kickboxer stands on the verge of becoming the world’s greatest heavyweight mixed martial artist and maybe, just maybe, the greatest heavyweight fighter ever.

The beauty of it all is that we can watch Overeem fight and…that’s it. There is no ages-old prologue strangling your imagination. No need to divide eras or parse stats. No rancor from the old-timers forever imposing their history on the ones writing it anew. None of this will last, of course, but that only invests every moment of Alistair Overeem’s present with that much more significance.

For fuck’s sake, I just want to see the large man fight.

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