Even though it's flagship show is the most watched show on cable television, WWE has always had to work to get coverage in the mainstream. Oftentimes, when it does happen, it's because WWE will inject some mainstream star into their universe, the perfect excuse for high brow cable like ESPN and CNN to "cross over" and acknowledge "sports entertainment."
Back in the day, Hulk Hogan was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that was because he was partnered with Mr.T and Cyndi Lauper as the key players at the first Wrestlemania. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin wound up on Sportscenter one night back in 1998, but that was because he was tussling with Mike Tyson.
Donald Trump, Pete Rose, Floyd Mayweather, Snooki. All of them athletes or celebs whose magnetic attraction pulled the mainstream spotlight to WWE for a minute or two.
That's what makes Brock Lesnar's appearance on Sportscenter Tuesday night so significant. There was no garden variety celeb taking Lesnar along for the ride. Brock Lesnar was the star.
In case you missed it, on Tuesday night, Michelle Beadle hosted a sit down with Lesnar on the early evening edition of Sportscenter from Los Angeles. Lesnar was in California after Monday Night RAW at Staples Center on Monday and in advance of Wrestlemania 31 in the Bay Area on Sunday night.
Lesnar made it clear from jump that he was on the set to make a major announcement. Given the rumors of Lesnar's departure from WWE to give MMA a go again combined with the relatively thin roster in WWE right now, wrestling fans were holding their collective breath in anticipation that Lesnar could be recommitting to MMA, or at the very least taking time off from anything physical (although admittedly, an announcement to that effect would've effectively torpedoed the main event at Wrestlemania Sunday in which Lesnar defends the WWE title against Roman Reigns).
Instead, Lesnar announced that he was retiring from MMA and committing long-term to WWE, having signed his new contract last night with WWE President Vince McMahon:
Lesnar is a former UFC heavyweight champion with a 5-3 career record as an MMA fighter, however he has "closed the door" on that branch of his athletic life, signing his contract with WWE on Monday and putting an end to the whirring rumor mill about his leaving the company at month's end, which is when his contract would've been up.
"It was a very hard decision at this stage of my career," Lesnar said. "The fighter inside me wants to compete. The father and husband -- I'm an older caveman now. I make wiser caveman decisions. So, I'm here to say my legacy in the Octagon is over.
"It was a hard decision to make. It took me a year. I've thought about this for a year. At the end of the day, it's all about me wanting to have fun. The last two-and-a-half months I've been training to get back into the Octagon. I felt physically great, but something lacked mentally -- and that's not good."
The UFC rumors were fueled even more heavily in the last month or so when Lesnar showed up at Ronda Rousey's UFC pay per view in Los Angeles, although Lesnar made it clear on Tuesday that he was merely at that UFC event as a fan and admirer of Rousey, not as a bargaining ploy with McMahon.
Lesnar's MMA debut took place in 2007, and his first bout in UFC was at UFC 81 against Frank Mir, a loss via submission. In November 2008, Lesnar knocked out Randy Couture to win the UFC heavyweight title. UFC 100, his rematch with Mir, remains the highest selling pay per view in UFC history. Lesnar would eventually be sidelined for more than a year with diverticulitis, returning in July 2010 and losing two of his next three fights.
"I could go back to the Octagon, but what am I going to gain? I was the UFC heavyweight champion of the world. Due to my illness, my career got cut short. That's God telling you, 'it's time to move on.'"
Lesnar admitted that, at age 37, his duties as a father and husband were a factor in his decision, and that his status as a part time attraction in WWE (part time, despite being their champion) and the freedom it affords him were keys to his decision. While the WWE's schedule allows him to spend time with his family, to some degree it also keeps him fresh as an act on television and gives him a truly special aura when he shows up on television. In short, when Lesnar shows up on RAW, it clearly matters.
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Attention now shifts to the WWE's signature event on Sunday in Santa Clara, where Lesnar's match with Reigns no longer has the specter of Brock's leaving the company hanging over it. If there were any chance of Lesnar's leaving the company, chances are he would be putting Reigns over. To wit, Bovada put the odds of a Reigns victory at -170 on Tuesday afternoon. In the wake of Lesnar's announcement on ESPN, the match has been pulled off the board. (Yes, you can wager on scripted WWE events. 2015, yo!)
We will find out Sunday what the plans are for Lesnar going forward, but on Tuesday, one thing was abundantly clear -- like The Rock before him, Brock Lesnar was now on that next level of WWE champion, where mainstream stars were not needed to drag him into the spotlight.
He is the one drawing it.