Derek Hannon sent along the following:
FOXBORO – Anyone who saw Brock Lesnar dismantle legendary MMA fighter Randy Couture in Saturday’s UFC heavyweight title bout probably had a thought: “Good lord, who can beat this man?”
For an answer, look no further than Patriots guard Stephen Neal.
Long before Neal won a Super Bowl or Lesnar an Ultimate Fighting title, the two wrestled collegiately.
They met in the finals of the 1999 NCAA tourney, where Cal-State Bakersfield’s Neal defended his heavyweight title against Minnesota’s hulking junior college transfer, who had wowed Div. 1 with his prodigious strength.
Yesterday, Neal and Lesnar reflected on the 1999 bout that Neal won 3-2.
“He was just this big, strong, powerful man the wrestling world hadn’t seen,” Neal said before Patriots practice. “He was so big and strong, you didn’t want to make a mistake against him.”
Lesnar returned the compliment. “The kind of athlete Stephen was, we were men amongst boys,” he said by phone.
Neal was the storied champ with unbelievable quickness who would win U.S. Open and World Championships. Lesnar was the upstart transfer from Bismarck State who possessed awe-inspiring power. He knew he faced a tall order.
“I literally had about three months of wrestling at the Div. 1 level and the next thing I knew I was the Big Ten champ in the NCAA finals against returning national champion Stephen Neal,” Lesnar said. “I didn’t even know what was going on until it was over. It was a whirlwind. I didn’t have time to be scared or nervous. I just figured, `Well, I’m beating everyone else, I don’t know why I can’t beat this guy.’ But I came up a little short.”
Both men remember the match well. Lesnar powered out of Neal’s early single-leg attempt before shooting for a double-leg takedown of his own. Neal spun deftly away for the two-point reversal and it was game on.
“I think I surprised him a little when he attempted that takedown and was unsuccessful,” Lesnar said. “I had overpowered him and muscled my way out of it.”
They wrestled tentatively thereafter and Neal broke a 2-2 tie with an escape in the final period.
“I thought he was going to be attacking because if he won, his team would have won,” Neal said. “I miscalculated the situation. A lot of people were upset that I didn’t attack him more, because that was my thing, but I won the match and that’s all that matters.”
“We both probably should have been more aggressive,” Lesnar said. “It would have been a better battle, but in the end, he was the better man and he beat me. He went on to do great things and in a three-month period was an NCAA champ, a U.S. Open champ, and a world champ. He was no slouch, that’s for sure.”
The two viewed the match a little differently. For Neal, it was a step on the way to bigger things. For Lesnar, it provided motivation to come back as a senior in 2000 and win an NCAA title of his own.
“Not to take anything away from Brock, but I wouldn’t say that match was the highlight of my career,” Neal said. “Later that year I won the world championships. That was probably the highlight.”
Neal finished his college career with a record of 151-10. Lesnar won the 2000 heavyweight title and graduated with a record of 106-5.
Then their paths diverged. Neal joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2001 and started in a Super Bowl three years later.
Lesnar joined the WWF in 2002 and rose to fame as “The Next Big Thing,” earning a seven-year, $45 million contract and worldwide fame. But something was missing.
“I went in the entertainment business and that’s all it really was, just entertainment,” Lesnar said. “But the competitiveness didn’t leave my body like I thought it would.”
So in 2004, after a nine-year absence from football, Lesnar attended Vikings training camp as a defensive lineman. He was raw and unpolished, but at 6-3, 290 pounds, also insanely strong and athletic.
He improbably survived until final cuts. The Vikings wanted him to play in NFL Europe, but Lesnar was distracted by a lawsuit with the WWE and quit.
“When I got cut I was kind of relieved and disappointed at the same time,” Lesnar said. “I just wasn’t feeling it in my gut anymore. I had other things on my mind, and you get tossed around on the football field a little bit, you get humbled pretty quickly.”
Neal believes Lesnar would have become an NFL player with a little more time.
“If he had gotten the opportunity that I had, for three years or something, he could have made the transition,” Neal said. “There’s no question he could have made it.”
Lesnar instead focused his competitiveness on the UFC, debuting in February against former heavyweight champ Frank Mir and taking control of the action before getting caught in a kneebar and submitting.
Lesnar fought his way back to a title shot from there and pummeled Couture to win by TKO in the second round. His next bout will be against the winner of Mir and Antonio Nogueira to unify the heavyweight crown.
“The guy’s a beast, man,” Neal said. “You’ve got to give him credit. He’s still a powerful beast of a man. He’s really impressive.”
So what about the flip side? Neal is a known UFC fan who trained with former champ Tito Ortiz and once pondered a future in the sport. But after multiple shoulder surgeries, those impulses are gone.
“I thought about it when I was younger,” Neal said. “I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing. If I have any part of my body left to do that stuff … no, I don’t see it. I’ve had too many problems with my body that it would probably be hard to deal with those guys.”
Lesnar, for one, is intrigued by the thought of Neal giving it a chance.
“Obviously, he could become something great, but he’s in a great spot playing with the top team in the world,” Lesnar said. “If he ever tried (UFC) and could make weight, I’d have to say he could be a force to be reckoned with.”