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Lesnar returns to UFC for Overeem showdown

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POSTED December 29, 2011 10:01 p.m.

Brock Lesnar spent the past 14 months since he lost the UFC heavyweight title re-evaluating an entire life spent getting in fights.

After serious health problems pushed him to the brink of forced retirement, Lesnar returned from a lower-intestinal ailment with an improved perspective on mixed martial arts’ place in his life. The most popular bruiser in the sport has enough money to walk away, but he decided to keep fighting.

“I probably needed some time off, anyway,” Lesnar said. “I didn’t even think about fighting when I was going through the surgery, because I knew if it wasn’t a success, I wouldn’t be fighting again, so I just tried to focus on my health.”

And now that he’s all better, a 6-foot-5 Dutch kickboxer is waiting to welcome him back at UFC 141 in Las Vegas.

Lesnar will fight Alistair Overeem on Friday night in a five-round heavyweight finale to the UFC’s traditional end-of-the-year card in its hometown.

The main event should be a spectacle, with the UFC cramming two of MMA’s most massive, intimidating athletes into one octagon. While the well-traveled Overeem (35-11-1) is a slight favorite in his UFC debut, Lesnar (5-2) is confident his new perspective on life will propel him back to contention for the belt he lost to Cain Velasquez last year.

“I went up to my farm and got my hands dirty and got back to the grass roots of who I am with manual labor,” said Lesnar, who lives in Minnesota and has an estate in Canada. “You take all this stuff away from me, I’m a family guy, I love farming, and that’s really who I am. I enjoy competition and I enjoy fighting, and for now that’s my life, but it doesn’t last forever.”

In the co-main event at the MGM Grand Garden, lightweight contender Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone goes for his seventh consecutive victory in just 15 months against Nate Diaz, the rambunctious younger brother of welterweight contender Nick Diaz. Welterweight Jon Fitch also returns from a 10-month absence against rising contender Johny Hendricks.

To at least a small extent, Lesnar’s health problems have accomplished what fame, fortune and family never managed: They mellowed out a barrel-necked wrestler who captivates fight fans with his wide-eyed intensity and a gruff, brash attitude that hasn’t changed much since his days in phony wrestling.

Trainers and sparring partners sense a newfound calm in the focused athlete who once scowled through workouts without saying a word. Lesnar seems determined to make the most of his second chance in an athletic life with multiple acts, from his stints in NCAA wrestling, the WWE and Vikings training camp to his surprisingly successful MMA career.

“Out of all the criticism that Brock takes, it would be pretty damn boring if Brock wasn’t in the heavyweight division,” UFC President Dana White said. “He’s a guy who has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. He came over here 1-0 ... and he’s fought the best in the world since he’s been here. Nobody does that.”

Although Lesnar is three years older than Overeem, he’s in just his eighth MMA bout. Overeem had that many fights by the time he was 19, and his UFC debut will be his 69th fight in 14 years.

Overeem has won heavyweight MMA titles with the Strikeforce and Dream promotions, and he claimed the K-1 kickboxing promotion’s title last December by winning three fights in a day.

While nobody in the still-young sport can match Lesnar’s star power, Overeem still is fairly unknown to casual MMA fans outside the Netherlands and Japan because the erudite striking specialist didn’t join the sport’s dominant promotion until September. Some fighters expect he’ll be an immediate title contender, and others think he’s out of his depth.

“I’ve already beaten everybody outside of the UFC, so this was the logical next step,” Overeem said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this soon, but I’m very happy. My goal is that UFC belt. Brock is in the way, and on Friday, I’m going to beat him.”

The main event presents a stark contrast in skills between Lesnar’s wrestling and Overeem’s striking. Lesnar’s standup game is his biggest weakness, while Overeem hasn’t been tested by a wrestler with Lesnar’s pedigree and brute strength.

Both fighters agree their bout should be entertaining for however long it lasts. Lesnar has gone to a decision only once in his career, while Overeem has guaranteed he’ll knock out Lesnar within the first two rounds.

“We’re not the type of guys that want it to go to the second round,” Overeem said. “Judging from his character and his previous fights, he’s going to come in for the kill, and so am I. One plus one is two.”

The winner will get a title shot early next year against Brazil’s Junior Dos Santos, who claimed Velasquez’s heavyweight belt this fall.

Overeem hasn’t lost an MMA fight since September 2007, and White would have given him an immediate title shot if the timing had worked out — but instead, Lesnar thinks he can slow Overeem’s UFC rise before it begins.

“He’s worked and fought in other organizations that can’t hold a candle in the wind against this organization,” Lesnar said. “This organization is the only organization out there with legitimate athletes in it, so he’s going to discover that. (The MGM Grand Garden) is my house, too. That octagon is my home.”

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