It’s not highlighted on any calendars, and it’s not a date most will recall as significant off the top of their heads.
But Oct. 20, 2007, was an extraordinarily significant day in the history of mixed martial arts and, more specifically, in the history of the UFC. It was on this date that UFC president Dana White announced in Cincinnati that the promotion had signed Brock Lesnar.
When Lesnar put pen to paper that night and officially became a UFC fighter, the promotion and the sport changed forever. Even though Lesnar’s time in the cage was brief – just eight fights, including four wins and a no-contest in that decade – his stint will go down for reasons both good and bad, positive and negative, as one of the most significant 10-year periods in the sport’s history.
Had Lesnar not been a household name in pro wrestling at the time, the UFC almost certainly wouldn’t have signed him when it did. He had all of 69 seconds of professional mixed martial arts experience when he signed with the UFC, a win over a completely overmatched Min-Soo Kim at Dynamite!! USA in Los Angeles on June 2, 2007.
He had the pedigree, as a national junior college heavyweight wrestling champion and then as the 2000 NCAA Division I heavyweight champion while at Minnesota.
He was a bear of a man – he’s 6-3 with an 81-inch reach – but had surprising quickness and athleticism for a man so large.
Without the name recognition that he earned in the WWE, he would have had to toil in the regional promotions to demonstrate his ability to compete at the sport’s highest level before getting his shot in the UFC.
White knew, though, that Lesnar had the amateur wrestling base that had been the base for so many MMA greats, so he gambled. He knew Lesnar would be an instant ticket seller, and he matched him aggressively by pairing him with ex-champion Frank Mir in his debut.
Lesnar instantly became the biggest star in the sport, even when Mir submitted him in 90 seconds at UFC 81 in Las Vegas on Feb. 2, 2008.
Remarkably, just two fights and nine months later, Lesnar won the UFC heavyweight title when he stopped Randy Couture in the second round at UFC 91. Couture at that stage was arguably the most successful fighter in the sport’s history, having had three stints as heavyweight champ and two at light heavyweight.
Lesnar successfully defended the heavyweight belt twice, which remains tied for the most in UFC heavyweight history.
Of the seven men he fought in the UFC – he met Mir twice – four held a UFC title and six fought for one. Mir, Couture, Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez are all ex-UFC heavyweight champions, while Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt were unsuccessful in title bids. Only Heath Herring, whom Lesnar fought in his second UFC bout, never had a shot at the promotion’s title.
The UFC immediately benefited from Lesnar’s presence, receiving media attention it hadn’t gotten before and expanding its fan base. Lesnar brought many pro wrestling-only fans with him, and they became a large part of his base.
Eventually, a large portion of those Lesnar/WWE fans became regular buyers of UFC pay-per-views as well.
The attention and media coverage Lesnar received helped the UFC to finalize its landmark deal with Fox and enable it to appear on network television for the first time in its history.
He battled illness, fighting diverticulitis while he was in the UFC, as well as persistent rumors that he was using performance-enhancing drugs.
The UFC didn’t have its own testing program until after Lesnar had seemingly left MMA for good, following a loss to Overeem at UFC 141 on Dec. 30, 2011. He made a surprise return at UFC 200 to face Hunt, but by that point, the UFC had contracted with USADA and required its athletes to face random testing.
Lesnar won a decision over Hunt, but failed two drug tests. One was given to him before the bout, but results did not return in time to prevent him from competing. He then failed his post-fight test, for the same substances, and the win was changed to a no-contest.
It also led to the deterioration of the relationship between Hunt and the UFC. Hunt spoke openly prior to the bout about his concerns that Lesnar was using PEDs. At the time, Lesnar should have been required to be in the USADA testing pool for four months before being allowed to compete, but there was a provision to waive the requirement if it was deemed unfair to the athlete.
Lesnar agreed to return on June 4, 2016, for a July 9, 2016 bout, and so he needed, and was granted, the drug-testing waiver.
Hunt sued the UFC not long after the bout when Lesnar tested positive and was suspended for a year. That suit is ongoing.
The suspension effectively ended Lesnar’s MMA career, but the Lesnar Era was among the most compelling in the history of the UFC. He remains one of the most remarkable athletes in the company’s history, and no one attracted as much attention as he was able to do.
His promotional style opened the door for fighters who were good with a microphone like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor to become major superstars.
It was a gamble when White signed him, because of questions about whether he was ready and of the affiliation it would cause with the scripted outcomes in the WWE.
But for all the ups and downs, it was one of the best gambles White ever took.