By Doug Frattallone
You know you've made it in the professional wrestling game when you're at an autograph signing and an adoring fan hands you a metal folding chair. A Sharpie in his beefy mitt, 2,500 fans looking on, Brock Lesnar scrawled his name on the dastardly foreign object, a ring weapon with which he is quite familiar.
It was a mid-October afternoon, the stage: Sam Goody Central in Mall of America. A Minnesota Gopher-gone-golden in Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment empire, was holding court. The faithful, who started lining up at 6:30 a.m., were giddy to get a glimpse, handshake and snapshot of the so-called Next Big Thing.
"Of all the wrestlers I've seen come down the pike, he's one of the best," says George Schire, a local pro mat historian. Schire would know. He's followed this particular circus for decades, comparing Lesnar to a "young Dick the Bruiser." To anyone 40 and under, the comparison may be lost, but for old-timers who appreciate the American art form that is rasslin', it's high praise.
Lesnar doesn't take himself so seriously. He knows it is just entertainment and wants his boss, Mr. McMahon, to appreciate his efforts. In other words, he likes that big paycheck and knows he has to put on a good show night in, night out or all of a sudden he's on the undercard instead of the Main Event.
"I perform under pressure," said Lesnar. "If there isn't (pressure), I put it on myself. I want to make sure that I'm doing the best that I can do."
And right now the man from Webster, South Dakota is doing the best he can. He not only made a quick jump from the WWE farm system (Ohio Valley Wrestling), but at 24 became the youngest "world" champion in WWE history. Don't ask how many "world" belts there are. Mr. McMahon and family seem to change that number on a monthly basis, depending on the ratings. That, of course, is showbiz. But Lesnar, through his hard work and being in the right place at the right time, is already a huge star.
On the Ohio Valley circuit, Lesnar says it was grueling, but great training: "We had matches four nights a week, we taped our TV [show] Wednesday night. Just a local TV taping, which kind of groomed us. It wasn't by any means WWE (caliber) television, but we got a chance to learn how to perform in front of the camera. Then we also trained four to five days a week, two to three hours every day in the ring. (It was) just lots of drilling and learning the wrestling business."
Some might argue that Lesnar was way ahead of the game during his days at the U of M, as a scowling maroon and gold marauder on his way to an NCAA national heavyweight title.
"I got a rush out of being in front of people," said Lesnar of his amateur days. "I could control some of the matches that I was in, and get a certain crowd reaction from certain things I did to my opponent. Pretty much that's exactly what we do in the wrestling business."
Lesnar, however, didn't even watch the WWE while growing up on the farm in South Dakota. He says there was too much to do. "We didn't have cable TV," said the Superstar, "so I spent most of my time (if I did have free time) hunting or riding my motorcycle or just being outside. If I wasn't working, I was lifting weights.
Not to mention the fact that the paid grapplers really didn't have anything to offer Lesnar at the time. "As an amateur wrestler," he said, "I could see through all the holds that the professional wrestlers put on each other. I knew that those things just didn't work in amateur wrestling."
So he didn't watch. He couldn't care less and now it's his life. A life on a national TV stage, week in, week out. One day it's headlining a pay-per-view against The Big Show (Paul Wight, if you're keeping score), the next it's shooting a commercial for the latest Smackdown! video game. Not that it's gone to his head.
Brock Lesnar, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, sits down with an interviewer in the basement of Mall of America. He seems bigger in person than on TV, and the interviewer hopes the entertainer doesn't swat him like a gnat. Hey, you never know.
The entertainer speaks quietly and thoughtfully, polite to the core. When talk turns to Webster, the giant blushes a bit, a guy who knows that everyone back home is proud, no matter what. "Oh yeah, I got a lot of support back there," Lesnar said. "A lot of people are just in awe still. You know, they're not sure what to think of me wrestling. I've got a lot of fans. And a lot of people that disliked me in high school that are now my best friends."
One of Lesnar's best allies to this day is his old college coach, Minnesota's J Robinson. He calls Lesnar an anomaly, but in a "very positive way." "You don't see people like him," said Robinson. "He registers. Because he's unique. You always remember the biggest." Robinson jokes that wrestling's Next Big Thing could also be Hollywood's next big action hero, a la Arnold. When told about J's movie talk, the NBT laughs it off, saying Robinson is simply proud and happy. "I don't see myself even coming close to what Schwarzenegger has done," said Lesnar.
But that doesn't mean Lesnar would totally rule out movies: "I could see myself doing one or two of them, but I'm not going to make a career out of it. Right now, I'm more interested in wrestling."
He's interested in forging a name for himself on a stage where the biggest names seem to be in the spotlight for decades. Take Terry "Hollywood Hulk Hogan" Bollea, for example. In one of Lesnar's most memorable pro matches, Brock smacked Hogan with one of those folding chairs, and the old lion started to bleed. That was the scripted part. Lesnar then ad-libbed, wiping the Hulkster's blood on his chest. A big moment in sports entertainment, brought to you by Brock. So what did the WWE suits think of the unscripted move? "They must have thought it was great because they play it all the time," said Lesnar. "I've got great instincts, something you can't teach in this business."
Oakdale wrestling historian George Schire isn't a big fan of the business today, which is basically a monopoly controlled by McMahon. Besides an outfit in Nashville (NWA-TNA), there are no other national stages for professional wrestlers to practice their unique craft. Schire says, "It's not like the old days, where a performer could pack his tights for regional territory "B" after the storylines in territory "A" all played out. McMahon ended the territory system, and then bought out his national competition. So if Vince tires of the Next Big Thing? " He's out of a job," said Schire. "Or he's relegated to the undercard. What does he do then?"
Hopefully he listens to the advice from the old-timers in the WWE locker room. Guys like Hogan and Ric Flair (Richard Fliehr, raised in Edina), 50-something grapplers who have seen it all. Says Lesnar, "The best advice that all the guys give me is, "Save your money kid, and keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut." It sounds like something J Robinson might have said to his amateur athlete. A coach who chuckled when asked if he'd ever be part of the WWE act. Says capital J, "They'd have to talk pretty hard." Never say never, especially in Never-Never Land.