(Lashley pressures Jason Guida.)
Clutching the floor of a Colorado Springs bank, Bobby Lashley had no idea his life was about to change forever. In 2003, Lashley was an Olympic hopeful. Then three gunmen followed him into the bank and one fired a round at the back of his head. The shot missed the wrestler but killed his dream – Lashley damaged his knee when he dove to the floor, and two surgeries and a six-month layoff caused him to miss the Olympic trials.
“I waited 18 years (for a shot at the Olympics) and it all came down to that,” he said. “I was like ‘What do I do next?’”
The irony of Bobby Lashley’s life is that he partially owes his budding MMA career to that awful moment. Lashley went on to become a pro wrestling superstar and then a high-profile free agent fighter. On Saturday, Lashley will make his debut for a major promotion, fighting last-minute fill-in Wes Sims at Strikeforce: Miami.
“People expect a lot out of me, but I don’t know why,” Lashley said. “I’m only four fights into (my career).”
Lashley’s humility isn’t forced, but it does seem a little naive. MMA fans might expect someone of his amateur pedigree (three-time NAIA national champion and former Olympic hopeful) and athleticism to excel. Promoters’ pupils turn into dollar signs when reminded of his pro wrestling success and the obvious, inevitable comparisons to Ultimate Fighting Championship Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar. Both were WWE champions with similar athletic backgrounds.
“People try to compare us, but I don’t care” Lashley said. “Ok, so we were both pro wrestlers with an amateur wrestling background. But that’s it. I’ve never even met him. We’re not the same person.”
But Lesnar’s success has transformed expectations for Lashley. Lashley was a sought-after free agent before his first fight and fans wanted him to succeed or fail based upon their own feelings towards sports entertainment. But while Lesnar jumped directly to the UFC, title contention and the disdain of many fans, Lashley chose a slower road.
“I wanted to take my time,” Lashley said. “Signing with Strikeforce was a good opportunity for me. I feel like I am ready for the next step and they have a lot of good heavyweights. Eventually there will be big fights with guys like Fedor (Emelianenko) or Fabricio Werdum.”
Lashley’s road to Strikeforce began on the floor of that Colorado Springs’ bank. With his amateur wrestling career over, he needed something else. In November 2004, professional wrestling promoters — perhaps looking for another Lesnar, who had recently left for the NFL – came calling.
“Professional wrestling presented an opportunity at a time when I had to seriously look at it,” Lashley said. “I was a (pro) wrestling fan when I was younger and when I had an opportunity to tryout, it was fun. They offered me a contract. I had my amateur career taken from me and this was something new. Plus, I went straight to the top.”
By 2005, Lashley was on television. By 2006, he was the World Wrestling Entertainment champion.
“I think pro wrestling is tougher on the body than MMA simply because of the schedule,” Lashley said. “It was four days a week, every week of constant pounding. And, whether the crowd is 2,000 or 85,000, you always want to put on your best match. It takes a toll on your body.”
More competitor than showman, Lashley left the WWE in 2008. He declined to elaborate on the circumstances, saying merely it was a combination of in-ring schedule and out-of-ring politics.
“Pro wrestling was good for me at the time,” Lashley said. “It was fun. I learned how to go in front of large crowds and not get rattled. I know how to perform. It was time for me to do something else.”
Inspired by wrestler-turned-fighters like Josh Thomson and Josh Koscheck, Lashley threw himself into MMA much the same way he had amateur and pro wrestling.
“Amateur wrestling gives you that grit,” Lashley said. “That’s why they do well in MMA. Wrestlers just keep coming. You can stop a lot of guys with a jab, but wrestlers are go-go-go. It’s that pressure cooker mentality.
“But it was very tough to get back to that mentality. I had to find the commitment to training that I had in college and at the Olympic Training Center. Pro wrestling is a different style of training. You put weight on and get heavier. There is some cardio, but not the same kind of cardio as amateur wrestling. I had to ask myself if I wanted to go through that kind of torture again.”
Once Lashley got his mind right, he has been on a tear. He has won all four MMA fights easily, including dominant wins over veterans Bob Sapp and Jason Guida.
“Critics try to find reasons for why I fight,” Lashley said. “It’s simple: I want to do it. I’m not going to do what I don’t want to do. I love fighting.”