On March 18, 2002, the WWF Hardcore Champion Maven defended the title against his Tough Enough trainer Al Snow. It was a Hardcore Title match in the 24/7 rule period, so it was only a matter of time until someone else came in to interfere and try to win the title. In this case, it was Spike Dudley who leveled Snow with a stop sign. But all of that was just a backdrop for the real story. Out of the crowd came a physical specimen, with shoulders that looked like basketballs and a head shaped like a honey glazed ham. As he proceeded to lay out all three men, Jim Ross announced to the world that this was Brock Lesnar, the hottest free agent in the game. With Paul Heyman coming in and raising Brock’s hand in victory, JR and Jerry Lawler wondered aloud what this meant for the WWF.
It was the beginning of one of the most memorable two-year runs in the history of the company, as Brock Lesnar would quickly ascend to main event status. However, the tolls of the lifestyle, as well as frustrations with the company, would lead to an ugly divorce from the company and pro wrestling as a whole. In this series, I’ll look back on Brock Lesnar’s first run in the WWE in full, from this night to his infamous farewell at WrestleMania 20. I will also be including thoughts from Lesnar himself, as published in his 2011 book Deathclutch: My Story of Determination, Domination, and Survival. In this chapter, we will take a look at Brock’s beginnings in the business before going to his first televised match in WWE at Backlash 2002.
Brock Lesnar grew up competing in amateur wrestling tournaments since age five. Despite not being recruited by any Division I colleges out of high school, he eventually earned a spot on the University of Minnesota team. That was thanks to Shelton Benjamin, who was on the team and helped with scouting. In 1999, Brock got to the finals of the tournament to determine that year’s NCAA Division I Heavyweight Champion. He lost to future New England Patriots offensive lineman Stephen Neal 3-2.
Brock wrote that he felt that he gave Neal too much respect, and that cost him the title:
I thought about that 3-2 loss a lot, and I finally realized that I was never going to win the biggest prizes by showing that kind of respect to any opponent again. Not ever. If someone wants my respect, they better beat it out of me. That’s the only way they’ll get it.
It was here where Brock learned that despite his dislike of media attention, he had the ability to talk people into the building:
I found out very quickly that I could manipulate a lot of people and create a lot of interest in upcoming matches based solely on the words that came out of my mouth…If you look back, you can find a Minneapolis Star Tribune story from 1999 that reported a comment I made about what I was going to do to Wes Hand, the Iowa Hawkeye heavyweight, and how the U of M was going to steamroll over Iowa. Just because I made that comment, we drew a sellout crowd. The university had never seen this kind of press for the wrestling team. Even back then, people came to see Brock Lesnar.
In 2000, Brock had several setbacks that kept him from his full potential. He wrestled the entire season with a knee injury, and had a salivary gland surgically removed in the course of the year. He still went undefeated for a majority of the season, before losing to the aforementioned Wes Hand one week before the Big Ten Division Championship meet. Brock would come back to defeat Hand to win the Big Ten Division title before facing him in a rubber match in the finals of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. The match would go into double overtime before Lesnar got the win and accomplished his goal of winning the NCAA Heavyweight Championship.
Soon after, Brock met with Gerald Brisco of the WWF, who desired interest in signing Brock to a developmental deal. While Brock had an offer from Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy to try out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL, the WWF bigger money that was also guaranteed. It was the biggest developmental deal in company history at that point, and Brock didn’t hesitate to sign. At age 22, Brock Lesnar was off to the WWF.
In his book, Brock writes about his first meeting with the top WWF official, Vince McMahon and his lawyer, Gerald Brisco, and Jim Ross. Ross had told him that the company took three things seriously: faith, family, and the Federation. Brock talks about how that made more sense as time went on:
I sure got it after a couple years on the road, because by then I thought I’d lost my faith…I didn’t have a family because I was on the road 300 days a year…and all I had was the Federation. That’s how Vince McMahon ends up owning all these guys. All they have is that company, that business. All they have is what Vince allows them to have. He owns their careers, and their careers become their lives, so he owns them…Even early on I could see that is not how I wanted to end up.
Brock trained with Brad Rheingans of AWA fame for a few months before moving to Louisville to train at the WWF’s developmental program. Brock wasn’t going to Louisville to have fun though. He had a goal, and he was going to get it:
I wasn’t at OVW to win a popularity contest. I was there to learn so I could move up to the WWE where the big money was. Some guys at OVW would stay out late every night so they can act like they were somebody for the locals in the bar. I probably ended up at the bar only twice a month, at the most, because I had no desire or interest in trying to impress the locals down there.
After nearly a year and a half in Louisville, Brock began working dark matches on the road before the televised shows. He was using a Shooting Star Press as a finisher, but some road agents got in his ear and advised him against that. Seeing what would happen down the road, that may have been for the best.
And then, we come to March 18, 2002. Brock debuts and breaks Spike Dudley in half with powerbombs as JR and Jerry Lawler put him over strong. The next week, he would attack Rikishi before getting drafted to Raw by Ric Flair. Once drafted, he would begin a feud with all three members of Team Xtreme. This time flew by for Brock, as he describes:
After my first TV shot, everything happened so fast. It’s really all just a blur. Kind of like I’ve been F-5’d myself. My entire time in WWE was a blur, actually, but those first few months were even blurrier. Paul (Heyman) became my on air “agent,” and I got moved into a program pretty quick with the Hardy Boyz. I really liked working with them. They could move around, the crowd loved them, and they could sell my moves in a way that got the audience into the match and mad at me. Lita, one of the WWE “divas,” was dating Matt Hardy at the time, and she was with them on camera as well, so that gave me and Paul someone else to pick on to get even more heat. Nothing like picking on a woman to get a crowd riled up.
That brings us to April 21, 2002, and the Backlash PPV. It was here where Brock Lesnar would make his much-anticipated debut against Jeff Hardy.
Brock Lesnar def. Jeff Hardy by referee stoppage (5:32)
We get a hype package to start. Paul Heyman, holding one of Lita’s thongs, essentially asks Lita to sleep with him in exchange for Brock taking it easy on Matt Hardy. This must be from before the women got to evolve. Lita said no, so Brock dropped Matt with an F5 on the ramp. We then cut to Brock’s weird back tattoo as Paul Heyman gives him a pep talk. Brock is gurning at the camera, trying his best to convey intensity while actually conveying constipation. He’d get better at that as time went on.
Jeff Hardy comes out with Lita, while Brock comes out with Heyman. Brock doesn’t have his current music yet, so he walks out to a generic guitar deal. We don’t hear much of it, as Jeff jumps him as he gets in the ring. Brock cuts him off and proceeds to ragdoll Jeff for a few minutes. Jeff has always been really good at that crash test dummy selling. Jeff catches Lesnar slipping and hits Whisper in the Wind before landing a Swanton Bomb for 2. Jeff goes to get a chair, but Brock cuts him off and hits an F5. Heyman tells Brock not to pin him, but to hurt him. Brock proceeds to powerbomb Jeff three times, leading to referee Teddy Long to stop the match. **1/2
This was a pretty good squash, thanks to Heyman on the outside and Hardy being very good at getting beat up. I will say that I wouldn’t be surprised if people weren’t very impressed with Brock here. Remember that this is 2002. Every few months, some stiff would show up and be a world-beater until they got beat. Then, they quickly became roster fodder. Not to mention that Brock didn’t do anything particularly special here. It was a lot of simple offense done very well, but the freak athleticism that set him apart from the aforementioned stiffs wasn’t on display here. I’m interested in seeing how that develops as time goes on in this series.
Next time, we’ll go to Judgment Day 2002 and see Lesnar team with Paul Heyman against both Hardy Boyz. Do you have any memories of Brock Lesnar’s debut? Let me know @SuitWilliams on Twitter, and I’ll see you in the next chapter of the Brockumentary.