A Country Boy Can Survive

Across the street from the quiet Alexandria airfield, there is an ochre-colored building with a small sign on the front door that reads “private facility, entrance by appointment only.” The structure is exactly the same in shape and color as the tractor-trailer-tire building to its left and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources outpost to the right. The difference is that those places are well marked and happy to be found— Brock Lesnar’s gym isn’t. If there was ever a metaphor for how Lesnar prefers his privacy, this is it: Appointments here are impossible. There’s no phone number.

Brock pulls up in his “get-around truck,” a 1989 Dodge Ram pick-up, which happens to be a hand-me-down from a friend’s father who passed away. Every day, Lesnar bumps along the 10-minute route from his 140 acres of Luddite living to this little training bunker with as much anonymity as a 290-pound freak of nature can manage. Clearly, he is snug as a bug out in here in the sticks. He’s dressed in camouflage, but everyone can see Lesnar coming. Just as his lawyer/agent, Brian Stegeman, says, “It’s hard to conceal him.”

Lesnar’s very pregnant wife, Rena, arrives with their pit bull puppy, Jonas, in his more fuel-efficient option: a tiny Chevy Aveo, which Lesnar has christened “The Red Rocket,” a car that must be like Dr. Who’s TARDIS on the inside to fit Lesnar’s six-foot-three frame. All the Lamborghinis and private planes from Lesnar’s pro wrestling days belong to a $40 million past, a personal scaffolding that he both embraces and cringes over. “I could care less what I drive,” the Brock of today says. “Cars are stupid. Now I am into saving money so I can retire and raise my kid to be the next UFC champion.”

It’s easy to brace for Lesnar’s voluminous size when you’ve seen him flexing and posturing on any of a thousand WWE cards, when he was the Next Big Thing, or more recently when he reduced Heath Herring into a homunculus at UFC 87. His sworded thorax is renowned, his 4X hand-size catastrophic. That neck of his is completely nihilistic, and it’s all the more ridiculous up close. His head belongs to Easter Island. But the thing that stands out immediately about Brock is not so much his size and strength. It’s that, after years of well-funded illusions, Brock Lesnar, at age 31, has become a serial realist.

There’s no sign of the UFC’s new heavyweight champion anywhere, no belts on display, no trophy case, nothing except $250,000 worth of state-of-theart equipment that exists exclusively to build a cold leviathan. His unmarked gym—like everything in Alexandria, from the Ben Franklin Crafts store on Main to the Runestone Museum—is altogether without pretension. Brainerd, to the northeast, has Paul Bunyan, and Alexandria has the flat-topped Lesnar, who couldn’t grow a hermit’s beard to save his life. The man who once kissed Kurt Angle on the lips in a crazy display of WWE histrionics now says, “Eh, Kurt’s hard to talk to because he’s got his head in too many pills.”

He also says that, save for an occasional conversation with Mark Calaway, known in the WWE as “The Undertaker,” he doesn’t really keep up with any of those guys from his Googleable past. There’s really no reason to. Brock’s new life as a mixed martial artist is more like his old life as a South Dakota farm boy: It revolves around what he calls a “need factor.”

That’s why he’s in Alexandria, a town situated between Minneapolis and Fargo that has a catchy slogan, “easy to find, but hard to leave.” He felt he needed to be closer to his daughter from a previous marriage, who resides in this town of just over 10,000 people. He prioritizes with the same intensity with which he fights.

Still, it would seem that Lesnar has receded into the woods like a modern day Thoreau to live—if not deliberately—at least contentedly in his state of immense focus. “This is my second chance to be a successful businessman,” he says. “I made a lot of money in pro wrestling, and I spent a lot of money.” And now he does without, like an ascetic, albeit with certain allowances. While people talk about limiting their distractions and becoming simpler, Lesnar lives it. He has given up on social appliances such as computers and the Internet (“that shit’s dumb”), cell phones (“though I had to get one temporarily while Rena’s pregnant”), and the bustle of city life (“I’m two minutes from my deer stand, I love it”).

In fact, his longtime wrestling coach and mentor, Marty Morgan, who’s known Brock for a decade and is closer to him than anything besides his wife and his secrets, often learns of the training schedule via fax from Lesnar. That’s how out of touch he is.

His profile, however, remains high. Half a year after manhandling the most celebrated underdog of all time, Randy Couture, he’s humming along to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as the promotion’s heavyweight champion. He’s very marketable as a villain— his Couture fi ght attracted over a million pay-per-view buyers, and almost all of them cursed his name when he tried on that belt. But if he’s a villain, he’s one characterized by weary indifference. When I ask him where he keeps the belt he claimed on that night in November of last year, he says, “To be honest, I don’t know where it is right now, probably in some closet.” Seriously? “I’m not very sentimental,” he deadpans. “If anything, I frame my paychecks.”

This is the kind of weird shit Lesnar says. The kind of stuff that makes some of MMA’s most hardcore fans hate his guts. Like when he goes “Shane who?” when the name of potential challenger Shane Carwin is brought up. Or it could simply be that he is that zeroed in on Frank Mir, whom he fi ghts at UFC 100 in Las Vegas on July 11, a day before his thirty-second birthday.

He’s also sincere. Though a relatively young man, Lesnar has the rare distinction of having lived multiple lives, which can be easily distilled down to two: He has lived as new money and he has lived as old money. Now, with the sagacity of the latter, it pleases him to distinguish between the two, but his detached cockiness is by turns traceable to both. And yet, other than a body that would seem imaginable only to Frank Frazetta, there’s really nothing inherently braggadocio about him. If anything, he is absurdly civil, a quality he would have you know goes back to a third life that gets too often overlooked: He has also lived the life of no money.

“People forget that I’ve earned everything I have,” he says. “I used to have to dig through my pockets to fi nd hamburger money in college. I’ve earned everything.” Yes, even the title shot that he received. And as far as he’s concerned, to all the MMA purists who disagree he wags his 4X middle fi nger. “I was offered a title shot and I took it,” he says. “Anybody would have done the same thing. The people who are whining about it, it’s probably just jealousy.”

To truly like Brock Lesnar as a human being, you can’t look at how many total fi ghts he’s had in MMA (four), or how many NCAA heavyweight championships he’s won as a Golden Gopher (one), or how many times he’s sacked Damon Huard as a member of the Minnesota Vikings (a single glorious time), or how many times he’s squeezed the life out of Hulk Hogan before smashing a chair on him for good measure and then smearing Hulk’s blood all over himself like a man without Christian scruples (one documented case). That’s because, durin
g his unique trajectory, those events have been distorted by others. Though some insist he has juiced, for instance, he has never tested positive for any banned substance. As far as certifiable facts go, Lesnar is corn-fed and abnormally obsessed with weights.

But . . . to like a dude like Brock Lesnar, you need to like the idea that business and passion have equal claims to a man’s glory. And even here things are not as they seem. Passion by itself is a bit too gooey a topic for Lesnar—money is more anchorable. Yet, something like passion is implied by his leaving so many millions of pro-wrestling dollars on the table so he could be a part of a sport at which he could have failed miserably. A sport, though, in which he could literally enforce his will. As Morgan says, “I think the biggest thing about Brock is his fearlessness, just the courage of even doing this, to say ‘I want to take on the best fighters,’ and his diligence to train for this.”

Morgan quit his coaching position at the University of Minnesota to train Brock full-time, and to serve as half of Lesnar’s Octagon conscience (Greg Nelson being the other half). Since September, when he was readying Lesnar for Couture, he has driven over a hundred miles each way from New Brighton, at the north end of Minneapolis.

“To me, Brock went through a whole peak and valley there,” he says of the contrast between the Prestone-blooded pro wrestler and pragmatic mixed martial artist. “He went all the way to the top and he was tough to deal with at that time. It was tough to be around him. This stuff has brought him back to what I believe is the way he was when he was with us at the University of Minnesota, and he’s all the more knowledgeable having gone through that.”

And it’s that wrestling background that remains Lesnar’s impetus, and what makes no distance a safe distance when squaring off with him. Morgan puts Brock’s potpourri of training partners—a small group of out-ofthe- woodwork types—through drills with a yogi’s knowing smile. There’s the deputy sheriff of Douglas County, Brett Grewe, and former local law enforcement offi cer Jason Childers, both of whom Lesnar grounds into the mats, for “fun,” and then mops up afterwards. There’s UFC newbie Chris Tuchscherer, and occasionally a thick slab like Brad Imes comes around, but otherwise this is the Anonymity Top Team—the guys who stand in and shape Lesnar’s atomic energy. To help train for Frank Mir and his submissions, BJJ black belt Ze Mario Esfi ha is in from Tennessee.

“Take away his Jiu-Jitsu, and Mir is closer to a regular man than Brock is,” Esfi ha says before some grappling drills. “Brock is not an average man.”

Definitely not, and Esfi ha finds out the hard way. Lesnar drives the large BJJ specialist’s frame into the mat, and after some feet-zipping and thunderous thuds, Esfi ha howls and, just like that, he’s broken. Sternum injury. They send him home the next day. Lesnar shows concern, but on this 70-degree spring day in the center of a no-man’sland that fourteenth-century Vikings mistook for an island, Brock is already somewhere else. He would like nothing better than to auger a hole in nearby Lake Ida, jig for some bluegill, and not have to deal with people gazetting his life. Besides, he says “the crappie are already coming up.”

He doesn’t really need to train this soon, with Frank Mir having postponed the fi ght by two months to unify the literal and conceptual heavyweight belts. Mir is “probably stalling,” as Lesnar puts it, “but his day is coming, and he knows it.” Nevertheless, Lesnar is going through a rigorous mini-camp before he starts up his rigorous actual training camp, because, as he sees it, why not.

Most people saw Mir’s victory over Lesnar as fluke of perfect timing. It was Lesnar’s second professional MMA fi ght, after all, but the heavy weather that he showed at the bell is what has stuck in people’s minds. Lesnar, in his way, doesn’t see things too differently. For once, he agrees with popular opinion.

“This is a business, and I am out to win and I’m out to improve every day as a fighter,” he says. “This is a competition, and this next fi ght for me is about revenge. I hate that I lost to Frank. I want revenge and to keep my title. But I’m not out to prove anything.”

Except maybe that a country boy can survive doing things the redneck way. Lesnar comes back to the gym the next day and says he caught eighteen bluegill in two hours. All that nature does him right; he’s in a good mood about it. He gives half to Morgan, with instructions on what to do with them.

“I know how to prepare them,” Morgan says. And he does. If there’s one thing Morgan’s very good at, it’s the art of preparation. As for Lesnar? He trains rigorously for an hour and a half with his ears pinned back so that he can get back out on Lake Ida, auger himself another hole, and see if those crappie are there.

“I am a blue-collar guy; that’s just who I am. I’m just a country boy that makes some money fighting.” In Lesnar’s mind, it’s as simple as that. And as complicated.

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