Twenty years after debuting in the WWE as "Next Big Thing," Brock Lesnar is as big -- and bad -- as ever.
Lesnar, 44, is once again WWE champion, and is set to defend the title in a winner-take-all match against Universal champion Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania in Dallas on April 3.
Before then, the former UFC heavyweight champion plans on giving somebody a tour of "Suplex City" when WWE returns to Madison Square Garden on Saturday as part of its "Road to WrestleMania" tour.
In this Q&A with Newsday, Lesnar looked back on his most infamous MSG outing, talked about winning his first WWE championship on Long Island and compared his work ethic with other compeitors in the WWE and UFC.
Newsday: You’re going to be in Madison Square Garden Saturday night, a building with a lot of history. Probably your most memorable match in the Garden was at WrestleMania XX, against Goldberg in 2004. [The crowd soundly rejected both wrestlers after news surfaced that it was their last night in WWE.] If you were in the same position today, how would you react?
Lesnar: I really didn't care at the time. I just wanted to get in that ring and get the hell out of there as fast as I could, because it was my last commitment to the company at the time. I was in a good spot, but in a bad sot at the same time, because I wanted out of the company. I was still a young athlete and I had aspirations of doing other things. At the time, WWE wasn’t enough for me. And I had explained that to Vince [McMahon] and we butted heads pretty hard, because I had just signed a new contract back then worth quite a bit of money at the time. And so the company backed Brock Lesnar at the time, but I just wanted out. And looking back now — and Vince and I have talked about this — it’s water under the bridge. And I don't think I would be as big an attraction as I am for them now [had I not left]. I think the company has made their investment back a million times over because I did leave the company, and I was successful when I left. I had a short stint in the NFL, did a little wrestling in Japan. Ultimately, I found my home, and it was in the [UFC] octagon. And it fulfilled that need and that void inside of me that I was yearning for. I had to go do that. And Vince, at the time, didn't understand that. He wanted to lock his claws into me and keep me because he made an investment. We laugh about it now. And we're both having a great time. We're at a good spot in our life. And I'm enjoying the hell out of this comeback.
Newsday: You get this reputation for being a guy who's just kind of in it for the money and doesn't really care. But clearly, your level of performances show otherwise. Would you set the record straight about whether you are passionate about pro wrestling?
Lesnar: I’ve put on some great [expletive] matches in my day. And you don't do that without having a passion for the squared circle. I’m a man that for the last 25 years of my life just wanted to be left the [expletive] alone. I didn't prostitute myself and put myself out there to be vulnerable to the media and be vulnerable to the next person that wanted to stick their claws into me. I just found out that it was easier for me to go and recharge my batteries and go be who I really wanted to be and hide that from the world. It's just who I am. I'm a private person. I approach my life and fighting and wrestling like this is a job. It's a career. I'm a prizefighter. I get into the octagon or the ring, I do my business, and I do it well, and I get paid for it. And so I'm very passionate about the business. But that was my character. For a long time, I had Paul Heyman speaking on my behalf. I didn't have to participate on the microphone. I was just a demolition man. I think people, if they could see through all of it, would understand that I've had some really great matches in my career with a lot of different people. You don't go to work, and put out a product like that if you don't have passion for it.
Newsday: You're in a position of potentially being kind of a leader in the locker room and a mentor for younger wrestlers. But as you just said, you're not necessarily the most social guy in the world. Do you feel like sometimes these younger wrestlers look to you, and are you willing to guide and mentor them?
Lesnar: I have. Over the years, if there's somebody that catches my eye and if I happen to perceive something that I like, or don't like, I will approach some talent. It’s not that I don't put myself out there to be approachable in the arena. It’s just kind of who I am. People probably find it hard to have a convo with me . . . Some of these young kids nowadays, they're so used to having everything they want at their fingertips with technology. I don't know where the grassroots, hard work, and the ethic is anymore. Some of these kids, they need to step up to the plate if they want to. They need to have a backbone. They need to do something different if they want to become successful. This business isn't just about getting in the ring and being able to do moves, you know. This is a business of storytelling and characters and being able to portray a passion about something. So either you have it, or you don't. Otherwise you’re just a mid-card wrestler, or an indie wrestler, or an internet wrestler. And you're just playing to the fans on the internet.
Newsday: When you were a young wrestler, maybe the most important moment in your career happened here on Long Island at Nassau Coliseum in SummerSlam 2002, when you beat the Rock to become the youngest WWE champion ever. When you look back on that Brock Lesnar, and you compare him to the young wrestlers that you're talking about now, did have your head on your shoulders better than what you see today?
Lesnar: I think, yeah. I think when I put my mind to something I become totally invested. Think about this: I grew up in West South Dakota and started wrestling when I was 5 years old. All I ever wanted to become was a champion. I became a champion wrestler. I wanted to play in the NFL. I did that. I wanted to fight. I became the UFC heavyweight champion. I wanted to farm. I wanted to be a butcher. I wanted to do all these things. When I put my mind to whatever I want to do, I get it done. And that's consistency . . . I just have a work ethic like no other, and it shows. If you followed me around for seven days, you would understand why I am who I am. And the people that get ahead and are successful -- like Dwayne Johnson, and Vince McMahon and Pat McAfee -- are just go-getting [expletive] that refuse the answer "no." And that's what's lacking in this world. I think there's a lot of laziness.
Newsday: You rankled some people when you brought up some of this in a recent interview with McAfee -- this notion of "You have to get yourself over." I know some people said, "Well, that's easy for you to say. Look at your genetics."
Lesnar: They can come up with all kinds of [expletive] excuses if they want to. That's easy to do. But get out there and do something with yourself. Everybody wants to bash the guys that get over or are successful. They always want to undercut it, because they can't figure it out. I’ll outwork anybody. That's just what I do . . . I'll be 45 and I look as good as I do. And I feel good, you know? Get off your lazy [expletive] and go do something with yourself, instead of taking your handout check.
Newsday: The work ethic you're describing, do you see that in Roman Reigns?
Lesnar: He's a workhorse, yes.
Newsday: You've mentioned UFC a couple times. Some of what you're talking about -- this epidemic of laziness -- do you see that there as well?
Lesnar: I don't think you get in the UFC if you're lazy. It’s a business where laziness doesn't get you a spot on the card.
Newsday: Do you have any thoughts on the heavyweight champion there, Francis Ngannou? A lot of people think he has some of you in him.
Lesnar: I think he’s great. This guy comes from Cameroon and just has a background in nothing. It's funny how people that come from nothing end up with some success. That's what I mean. That's why I tell my kids all the time, "I want you to feel like you're [expletive] homeless. Fight like you're homeless. Play hockey like you're homeless." Because that's the person you have to be to fight for things in your life. You have to just be a go-getter. Things aren't just going to be given to you.