From feared enemy to 'sweetheart,' Brock Lesnar stories from those who know him

Remembering Brock Lesnar's MMA career (3:08)

With Brock Lesnar being such a big star in WWE, Ariel Helwani and Chael Sonnen remember Brock Lesnar's UFC debut against Frank Mir at UFC 81. (3:08)

Editor's note: This story was originally published in April 2020, prior to Brock Lesnar's appearance at WrestleMania 36.

Brock Lesnar doesn't like being around people. That's not a WWE gimmick or a persona he put on in advance of pummeling fellow heavyweights in the UFC. Unless you're someone who has earned his respect, Lesnar admittedly does not mix well with others.

One of the biggest money-making stars in combat sports history would rather be on his farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, with his wife, Rena, and four children than in a stadium filled with 100,000 screaming fans. He doesn't do social media. He doesn't do many interviews.

"Brock Lesnar is an enigma," WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon told ESPN. "He likes to keep his personal life private."

This weekend, Lesnar will perform in yet another high-profile WWE match. He'll be defending his WWE championship against Royal Rumble winner Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania 36. But instead of the show being held in front of nearly 100,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, the action will take place at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, with the ring surrounded by empty seats.

Perhaps that's what Lesnar would prefer anyway.

Lesnar, 42, has made many connections over the years -- friends, training partners, coaches, peers, opponents. He's viewed as an intimidating hulk, a sweetheart, a loyal friend and someone you don't cross. Lesnar is an athletic marvel who left WWE in 2004 to spend more time with his family, tried out for the NFL and then became UFC heavyweight champion in just his fourth pro fight. He's someone who nearly died from diverticulitis -- he had perforations in his large intestine -- in 2009.

ESPN spoke to more than a dozen people who have known him over the years to tell their greatest stories in their own words about the combat sports icon.

(Interviews edited for length and clarity.)

How Brock was robbed of a chance to show his full potential

Paul Heyman, Lesnar's friend, biographer and WWE on-screen advocate:

Brock Lesnar is absolutely my best friend in the world. In this zombie apocalypse that we are living through at the moment, if the zombies start coming up the driveway, we're headed to the Lesnar compound. My money in that fight -- as with any other -- would be on Brock Lesnar.

I think within five minutes of us having a personal conversation, we both knew we had found a best friend for life. It's a fearless friendship, because we both know that the other speaks the absolute truth as we see it. And then there's nothing to fear.

It was during Brock Lesnar's battle with diverticulitis that we were writing his book. So I lived a lot of that with him, through his comeback fight with Shane Carwin in 2010. Of course there were concerns. The realization that diverticulitis robbed Brock Lesnar of just how great he could ever become. That as much of a once-ever athlete as he truly is, we'll never know just the level that Brock Lesnar could have achieved and his dominance in the heavyweight division of the UFC. Let alone the main event of WWE. Because so much of his physicality, of his athleticism was robbed. And still he was as great as he grew to be.

The battle with diverticulitis was a very humanizing time for Brock Lesnar. And he didn't like it. He was very concerned. He almost died from it. And then rightfully concerned with how much of his career he was going to be robbed of and deprived of.

He went straight home after beating Carwin, because his wife was nine months pregnant with their second son. He went straight from the enormity of that fight and all that it represented, and how metaphorically it was a picture-perfect example of what his life had been like. The first round with Carwin was a lot like diverticulitis in that it almost took him out. And the second round, he choked out Carwin, which is Brock getting by diverticulitis. And then he went straight into personal mode. Went back home for the birth of his second son, his third child.

We both understand the wrestling business for being a business. And not for being a showcase of our ego or a feeding frenzy indicative of a need for affirmation. We understand what this was and what this wasn't. And we understood that the art of the performance was a means of support, not a search of a de facto rock-star experience. So in many ways as diverse as our backgrounds were -- a piss-poor dairy farm boy from Webster, South Dakota, and a smartass New York Jew always looking to cause trouble -- the fact is what drove us, what motivated us and our outlook on our lives was eerily similar.

How Brock Lesnar, a two-time All-American and 2000 NCAA heavyweight champion, was recruited to WWE

J Robinson, former University of Minnesota wrestling coach:

I knew WWE producer and talent scout Jerry Brisco. We were on the wrestling team together at Oklahoma State. I told him, "You guys butt out until this is over." When Lesnar's college career is over, if he needs help making a decision or he needs something, we're fine with that. But right now, you guys need to stay out of here. And for the most part they did a pretty good job of staying out of there.

You're trying to get him to win the national championship. You're trying to get the team to win. You don't need stupid things that are going to be distractions and take him somewhere else.

I told Brock that's what your job is -- not sign and become a pro wrestler. If you win the national tournament, pro wrestling will be there. And it'll only be better. And you'll only have more power to negotiate if you have that behind your name. Nobody is going away in the next four, five months. And, of course, he won the national championship in 2000.

When Brock Lesnar met Vince McMahon for the first time

Jim Ross, former WWE color commentator and talent-relations executive:

I introduced Brock to WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon in Minneapolis. Vince had never met him, never laid eyes on him. Brisco and I had been recruiting him for quite a while. It was at the end of his senior year, so we knew we were gonna get him. If we didn't it was gonna be hell to pay for all of us.

We were at a TV taping in Minneapolis in 2000, and Vince was walking out to get into his position at broadcast. He sees Brock talking to Brisco and some of the other guys.

I'll never forget this -- he did a double take. If he was drinking coffee, he'd have done a spit take. He turned around, and with that Vince McMahon walk that Conor McGregor loves to emulate, Vince strided over to Brock and he introduced himself.

I think Brisco told Brock when Vince was coming over, "This is the big boss. Be on your best behavior." That type of deal. Not that he wouldn't have been. But he never met Vince. Brock was not a wrestling fan. He didn't watch wrestling on TV. He didn't have a clue who Vince McMahon was in that era. He knows him very well now. They're multiple millionaires together.

After Vince met him, he said, "My god, he's a viking." I said to Vince, "I was thinking more like a Hereford bull." Then Vince started quizzing me about cattle: "What's a Hereford bull?" Never mind. Vince was amazed at the athletic specimen that Brock Lesnar was and is.

Brock Lesnar goes undercover as ESPN security guard

With Brock Lesnar making his return to the UFC in July, did the WWE superstar consider a career as an ESPN security guard?

Don't mess with Brock

Rip Rogers, one of Lesnar's trainers at Ohio Valley Wrestling:

Brock was a man's man. He wasn't used to the pro-wrestling world and the bulls--- ribbing. Some of the guys would mess with him, and when they mess with somebody, that means they like you. It means you're accepted. So this one guy named Vivacious Charles Wimberly, he smarted off to Brock, and Brock just backhanded him. Knocked the holy s--- out of him. Charles was basically on the floor about to start crying and everything.

It was like, "Brock, what the hell?" Brock was like, "God damn it, he said something." I was like, "Brock, he's ribbing you." Brock was like, "Well, what's that?" Well, he's kidding with you -- that means they like you. Brock said, "Oh."

That's Brock.

A real wrestling match between Brock and Kurt Angle

Kurt Angle, WWE Hall of Famer, Olympic gold medalist:

It was 2003. I didn't want to wrestle Brock. I know he didn't want to wrestle me. But the rest of the guys put me on the spot, and I was like, "No, he couldn't beat me. But if he thinks he can, let's do this." It kept going back and forth, trying to get us to do this. Eventually, I just went up to Brock and said, "Hey, let's get this over with." And he said, "No man, I have slippers on." I said, "That's OK, we'll go in our bare feet." He said, "No, no. I'm not gonna do it." So, it didn't happen.

A couple of weeks later, he and Big Show were in the ring. He is double legging and picking up Big Show. They were wrestling, and Brock was showing his dominance. Big Show wanted to see what it was like to be in there with an NCAA wrestling champion. This is when Big Show weighed about 520. He was picking Big Show up and slamming him down on the back of his head. I'm going, "Holy smokes, this guy might kill me." I was 225. Big Show was 520, and Brock was manhandling him. I've never seen anyone do that to a human.

So while they were doing it, they took a quick break. Brock's back was facing me. I was outside the ring. I looked at Big Show and said, "Get out of the ring." He's like, "OK, OK." So he gets out of the ring, and I walk up behind Brock and I tap him on the shoulder. He goes, "Oh, s---." He knew we were gonna go.

I didn't want to go with him, trust me. But the boys were doing their thing. Now, Brock and I were enemies. So we did it. The rumor is that I completely dominated him. That is not true. It was very close. I took Brock down a couple of times. He didn't take me down. But we went 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes and there were only two takedowns. It was a pretty close battle. Did I win? If you want to give the aggressor the win, then I won. But it was really close.

Brock impressed me, because he was a college wrestler. There's nothing wrong with that. An NCAA champion is a world-class athlete. But there's a big difference between Olympic gold medal and NCAA champion. That's what I wanted to prove to Brock at the end of the day. Thank God, I won. Because if I didn't, I wouldn't have heard the end of it.

How Brock reacted after his mistake at WrestleMania

Gerald Brisco, former WWE executive and talent scout, recruited Lesnar out of college:

Brock was very intimidating backstage. Everybody bought into the gimmick, and Brock lived that gimmick. After he attempted a shooting star press on Angle at WrestleMania XIX and hurt his neck, he came backstage and started throwing stuff. None of the medical people would get close to him. Brock wouldn't let anybody look at him. Nobody. Doctors wanted to get to him. Trainers wanted to get to him.

All of a sudden, producer Michael Hayes came hollering at me, "Brisco, you need to go control your boy." I went over there and I said, "Calm down, Brock." We both embraced, and I said, "You OK?" He said, "My damn neck." I said, "Let's go look at it, let's get you some medical help." He didn't want any. I said, "You've gotta have it." We ended up spending the night at the hospital. I stayed with him, of course.

He was mad at everything, that he let it happen. He and I talked about it, if the shooting star should happen, over the course of us going over the match. He came to me as he always did. He had done that move several times when he was getting over with the fans, when he was 265, 270. Now, Brock is pushing 300, 315. He's 30 pounds heavier than when he was doing it, and he hadn't done it in a while. So he was a little nervous about the move from 1 o'clock in the afternoon the day of the show on. I said, "Brock, you do not have to do this." He said, "I'm just afraid if I don't they won't think I'm good enough to do things. I want to do it." Just that competitive nature kicked in. That was it. Of course, after the fact he said, "I didn't want to do it." But he committed to do it, and he did it.

Even in the hospital, he was so pissed off that something happened to him that he was still in a rage. The doctor tried to talk to him. Brock said, "I want to go, I want to go." They took an X-ray and decided it would be best for him to spend the night there and discharge him in the morning. He had great medical care and he was happy about that. He calmed down. They gave him some sedatives, too, of course.

Just one of the guys

Danny Davis, founder and former owner of Ohio Valley Wrestling, trained Lesnar:

One of the many things that I liked about Brock is he was a no-nonsense guy. What you see is what you get. If he likes you, he likes you. If he does not like you, he won't have a damn thing to do with you. And fortunately, as one of his trainers, he liked me.

Brock being a big old country boy, I tasked him with driving in the ring truck and making sure that it left on time and got to the arena on time. I knew he could do it, because he grew up on a farm. He was tailor-made for that part.

At first, I thought, well hold on a second. Is this guy gonna have such a big head that he's gonna say, "What you want me to drive the truck?" I was thinking, "Wow, what if he picks me up and chucks me across the arena?" Anyhow, there was no problem. He was actually great for that. The ring truck arrived at the arenas safely, on time, never late.

The thing that stands out the most about that is we had a lot of guys who thought they were too good to set up the ring. Well, Brock was just one of the guys. He did not think he was better than anybody else. He would get right in there and set the ring up, and if anybody would not help, he caught them slacking, he snatched their asses up and got them going.

Think about this, if he's over there picking up boards and loading them up on the trailer and loading up ringposts and you're over there shooting the s--- with somebody else and you're supposed to be doing the ring duty, he would stop what he was doing. He'd do one of two things. He'd either yell from right where he was, or he'd go right up to you, get in your face -- and I mean get in your face -- and say what he had to say to get you over there. I'll tell you not one single person -- and we had some big guys like him -- not one single person bucked him. Never.

Brock changes UFC gloves

Burt Watson, former UFC event coordinator:

It was the night of Brock's first fight in the UFC. When fighters come in on fight night, they come into the dressing room, and I have cutmen assigned to wrap their hands. I assigned "Stitch" Duran, the godfather of cutmen, to wrap his hands. At the time, the UFC glove had an elastic band around the top. That meant you had to squeeze your hand with the hand wraps through that band to get it on. Well, my man's hand was about as big as my foot. And by the time I put the hand wraps on, it was as big as my butt.

I went to put the gloves on, and the largest we had was a 3X. We couldn't get it on. We were thinking about unwrapping his hands and rewrapping his hands so we could get it in there. He wasn't getting upset, he just saw that it wasn't happening. But he also knew he had to have a glove, and he just looked at me and said, "Now what?" But he was calm, he was not belligerent. He wasn't Brock Lesnar, famous WWE star. He was there in a whole different world. He was going out there in that cage, and he could have gotten his ass whooped like anybody else. But his thing was, "Now what?"

So, I went over to Stitch and said, "What'll happen if you cut that top of that damn glove leather? Cut it open, and let's wrap it so tight with tape." Stitch said, "S---, I'll do it, Burt. If you say do it, I'll do it."

Stitch went on and cut the glove. The glove then spread open, and we were able to get the glove on Brock's hands. Once he put them on, we put white tape around it and we put blue tape around it. But we were sweating, man. We were getting to the point where we were going to put grease on top of the hand wraps that we had on his hands to try and get his hands in. I had never seen anybody that couldn't fit into the 3X.

We cut it, and it worked, but it also gave us an idea for a newer glove. Now, all of the gloves are cut and it's a Velcro top that closes it up. That started from the time I had to cut the glove with Brock Lesnar.

Brock's legendary strength and athleticism

Cole Konrad, former Bellator heavyweight champion, one of Lesnar's main MMA training partners:

I remember when I was probably 20, in 2004, I was still in college. And he had stopped by the University of Minnesota wrestling room. Someone always asked him -- it had to be annoying as s--- -- "how much can you bench?" His response was, "However much I put on the bar. It doesn't matter. Just keep putting weight on, I'll keep doing it."

After having wrestled with him and lifted with him, he actually answers that honestly. It doesn't really matter. Keep on loading it up, he'll keep lifting it up. Honestly it was pretty much whatever the hell got thrown on there, he just did it. I'm sure he had a limit somewhere, I just never saw it. I know it was way, way, way past my limit.

Kurt Angle, WWE Hall of Famer, Olympic gold medalist:

I would see Brock with almost 400 pounds on the bench, and he would get five or six reps. He wasn't a bodybuilder. He wasn't really training weights. But he had the strength of an ox. I mean, I saw him squat, I think, 750 pounds about eight times. And the crazy thing is, if you look at his legs, his legs are the smallest part of his body. For him to squat that much weight, can you imagine what his upper body is like?

God made him to be the formidable athlete that everybody wants to be, as far as strength, size, speed, explosiveness. He is a freak of nature.

We had a really fast runner, a really great athlete in WWE -- Billy Gunn. He challenged Brock to a race, a sprint -- a 60-yard dash. Brock smoked him. He had to run maybe a 4.8 40, a 4.7 40 for the Vikings. That's how quick he was -- and he's 300 pounds. You don't run that fast at 300 pounds. Maybe Brock could even run a 4.6, I don't know.

Brock is just ... I can't explain it to you. I've seen the kid dunk a basketball. We were in a gym, he grabbed a basketball. He couldn't dribble it, but he jumped up and dunked the basketball. It blew my mind. That was the same day he beat Billy Gunn in a sprint. He showed me many facets of himself that day.

Brock plays bumper cars using "Dana White's truck"

Chuck O'Neil, former MMA fighter and current pro wrestler, on Lesnar's team on TUF 2010:

We had a van that came and picked us up at the house every day. We were rolling up to the training facility. We were just talking, shooting the s---, and then we just get slammed from behind. We looked back behind us and there was Brock in this huge white truck. He was just like laughing -- like the normal Brock Lesnar laugh from TV. He was ramming into the van.

We get out and we're like, "What are you doing?" We're thinking it's his truck. He's like, "Oh, I don't give a s---, it's Dana White's truck anyways." He just smashed into our van. Dana rented him a house and rented him a truck. We were like, "What the hell just happened?" We weren't really sure.

Brock puts family first

Rey Mysterio, WWE superstar

I remember at one point Brock being miserable. This is right before he left WWE in 2004 the first time. We were going to Europe, and my wife and I were sitting right behind Brock on the charter plane. I just saw Brock biting the f--- out of his nails and looking at a picture of one of his kids. It really hit him, the fact that he had to travel so much. That was the human side of him. The father instinct that he has. Shortly after that, he was like, "I've gotta get out of here, bro. I can't f---ing do this anymore."

I think for a lot of us, we work so hard to get to that position, and when you do have it and you do make it, the one thing you want to do is brace yourself and hold onto that position -- make sure nobody takes it. For him, it was like, "I think I did what I need to do here and I'm out." I give him a lot of props for that.

I grew up around the business. I kind of expected our road would turn out this way. After seeing Brock like that, it really put things into perspective. It made me see my personal life in a different way, too. We just had my daughter, so I was raising some kids at the time. It hit him and shortly after it hit me, too. Brock took that really, really hard. Even though we don't see it, he's very close to his family. That stuck in my head. You have to choose one or the other, and he chose to spend more time at home and not be on the road as much.

Brock's return to football

Ted Cottrell, defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings when Lesnar tried out:

He had been away from football for such a long time. He was trying to do a quick, accelerated course to pick things up. He was out there before practice working, he was there after practice. And he would be working in between practices with one of the defensive line coaches and with himself to catch up on some of the techniques and things he had been away from for such a long while. You never had to talk to him about hustling and working hard during practice.

The weight room was never a problem. He could probably lift the whole damn weight room up if he wanted to. I don't know if he was the strongest guy on the team, but he was near the top. He was up there pretty damn good.

To me, it was an adventure by him to see if he could do this. I think if he really put his mind to it and spent a year [on the practice squad], he could have eventually made the team.

'This is f---ing crazy. I'm actually in here with Brock'

Daniel Cormier, former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion:

I remember talking to Brock months before UFC 226 in 2018. I was like, "Hey, man. I'm fighting Stipe Miocic. You should come back and fight. I win this belt, maybe we'll get the opportunity finally to fight, to compete against each other."

As I get done with the fight, I see him out there and I'm like, "I'm gonna cut a promo on him." What's the worst thing that happens, he no-sells me? But he's obviously there for a reason. He didn't know what I was doing. I started talking about someone I knew, someone that's an All-American and someone this, someone that.

I said that, and he actually came storming up the side of the Octagon, and I was like, "Oh my goodness, this is actually happening." I couldn't believe it. I'm telling you, in the midst of it, I'm thinking to myself, "This is f---ing crazy. I'm actually in here with Brock."

I had seen him on so many different occasions and never thought that him and I would have had that type of moment. And as it's happening, I'm thinking, this is massive. And the crowd -- the crowd is hot. In the business, they say the crowd is on fire. The crowd was as hot as you could imagine. It only took about a minute and a half, but it felt like forever.

We had been friendly over the years. But this was much different. We were gonna fight. The switch had flipped from all those friendly interactions. When you're in that Octagon and you're the enemy, it's a much different intensity. And look, with Brock multiply it times by like 100. Because he's a big, bad, mean son of a gun. He's big, he's mean, and he wants to freakin' rip you apart. I could definitely feel the difference.

It was awesome. It was like, I'm having my WrestleMania moment, this is my moment. Obviously, with the thought that we could have fought, and it could have culminated in me beating him. It never played out. But we got that. For two guys that have known each other for 20 years, for us to have that, it was f---ing awesome.

Brock looks out for his own

Jacob "Stitch" Duran, Lesnar's former UFC cutman:

I was always the one designated to wrap his hands. I remember the time when he was fighting Heath Herring in 2008. I'm wrapping his hands. I remember telling him before that, '"That's a nice t-shirt."' Because he had nice shirts. And he said, '"I have one for you."' He said, "When I was packing, my wife asked, 'Should I bring a shirt for Stitch?''' I finished wrapping his hands, he reaches into his bag and gives me a shirt. I thought that was nice, because those are moments that are done when you're not there. They kind of think about you. I'm not even part of the team, but it made me feel like I was part of the team. It was one of the team's t-shirts.

When he fought Cain Velasquez in 2010, he ended up with that big old gash on his cheek. I'm working on it and literally the whole swab went all inside. You could literally see the bone, the cheekbone. When I'm working on him, just between him and I, he said, ''Stitch, take care of me." I said, "Don't worry, brother. I got you covered all the way." And I did.

Being spontaneous on the biggest stage

CM Punk, former WWE champion; wrestled Lesnar at SummerSlam in 2013:

I don't want to ruin his image. I think he's a f---in' sweetheart. This is a guy, when I got into MMA and I left wrestling, he was texting me, "Hey, if you need any help." I'm always kind of a standoffish guy. It's hard to open up and trust people in the pro wrestling world. But he was never anything but a real sweetheart. It was a pleasure to work with him. He's just a great guy, I think.

I think I'm one of the lucky guys who he wanted to work with in pro wrestling. We put together a pretty special match. I don't think Brock gets the credit for how smart of a wrestler he is.

I didn't know how Brock was going to be receptive to any ideas. So I, especially at that point in my career, I was like, "Let's just go out there and call it in the ring." He was totally stoked to do that. I kind of said, "I just want to do this and this and this." He said, "Oh." After every idea I had, he had three ideas that spun off that he wanted to do.

It was fun. That match is everything that I loved about pro wrestling. Just two guys coming together and being like, "F---, let's just do whatever we want and have fun."

I think Brock has got a big heart, and that's something a lot of people don't talk about. They'll talk about the freak strength and the crazy athletic things he's done in his career, the accomplishments. But they don't talk about the fact that he loves his wife, his kids, lives on a farm and just kind of wants to be left alone. All the fame and the money and everything is really just a side effect of being successful at what he wants to do. And he does what he wants, when he wants. That's the beauty of Brock Lesnar.