Despite impressive win, Lesnar still a work in progress

LAS VEGAS -- There was never a doubt in Brock Lesnar's mind that he would become UFC heavyweight champion one day. That day came Saturday at MGM Grand Garden Arena before a sellout crowd of 14,272.

Lesnar, a powerfully built 6-foot-3, 265-pound mountain of a man, stopped defending titleholder Randy Couture at 3:07 of the second round. Although the fight's outcome wasn't a big surprise -- Lesnar was the favorite going in -- how it ended raised a few eyebrows.

Several days ago, Lesnar emphasized the improvement he'd made in his striking game. He spoke of sitting down on his punches better, which allowed him to generate more power.

There was more. Lesnar said that during camp, he had become more comfortable throwing combinations, and his punches were straighter.

Lesnar vowed to be competitive in the stand-up with Couture, and he kept his word. His most effective punch was the right hand.

Lesnar stunned Couture with a right early in the second round; moments later, another right sent the 45-year-old MMA legend to the ground. From there, Lesnar pounded on him with a series of chopping rights.

It took Lesnar just four fights, three in UFC, to become heavyweight champion. His size and athletic skills that helped him become a champion reflect a new look in the division.

Several heavyweights, some younger than 30 years old, have physical attributes similar to Lesnar's. Unlike Couture, who entered the Octagon a lean 220 pounds, the newly crowned champion can expect his future opponents to be big and powerfully built.

If Lesnar plans to hold his title for a reasonable amount of time, he must continue refining his skill set. Wrestling, athleticism and physical strength alone won't be enough.

The process of becoming a well-rounded mixed martial artist, Lesnar said, has already begun.

"You just try to learn something every day," Lesnar said. "I train hard every single day; I have a good group of guys around me who believe in me.

"You have to be a well-rounded fighter in this day and age. I will continue to keep molding myself into a dominating fighter, hopefully."

The amount of progress Lesnar makes in the next several months will be revealed in the first defense of his title. He'll face the winner of next month's showdown between former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir and Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira.

Both Mir and Nogueira have solid jiu-jitsu skills. Lesnar knows firsthand how dangerous Mir can be on the ground.

Mir handed Lesnar his only loss in mixed martial arts, needing less than two minutes to apply a leg lock on Feb. 2. Lesnar wants a rematch. This is expected, considering he was overpowering Mir before being forced to tap.

On the other hand, Nogueira likely represents a stiffer test. The UFC interim champion has a better stand-up game than Mir, and his jiu-jitsu is just as good, if not better.

Whether Lesnar faces Mir or Nogueira, there will be little mention of age. Lesnar is 31, Mir is 29 and Nogueira is 32.

And although Lesnar will have a weight advantage no matter whom he faces in his first UFC title defense, the disparity won't be nearly as great as it was with Couture. Both Mir and Nogueira tip the scales around 240 pounds.

One issue that will continue to stalk Lesnar is his lack of experience. Although he has faced nothing but top-level competition in UFC, Lesnar remains a work in progress.

"It's probably going to take him awhile to learn some more submission skills and feel really comfortable on his back," Couture said after losing his title. "He'd probably love to refine his striking skills, kicking and all those other things with that great big body. It's probably going to be awhile before that feels comfortable to him."

UFC president Dana White also chimed in.

"Not only technically, but the experience side as well," White said. "Brock got cut [Saturday night] for the very first time. Blood was running into his eye. He never had anybody push him that hard and exchange power with him; Randy is the very first one."

Couture, however, won't be the last to test Lesnar in the power department. Should his first title defense turn out successful, several more challengers who are bigger and stronger than Mir or Nogueira dot the landscape.

Cain Velasquez, 26, is a highly touted wrestler who enters the cage standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 245 pounds. He is physically strong and very confident.

The undefeated Velasquez continues to sharpen his striking skills. But with a 4-0 record, he has yet to face competition remotely close to what Lesnar has dealt with in his short MMA career.

Another fighter whom UFC brass is keeping a close eye on is Shane Carwin. Although Velasquez is several fights from garnering contender recognition, a buzz already surrounds Carwin.

At 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, Carwin is an intimidating figure. He is a good wrestler, but his credentials are a notch below Lesnar's.

An area in which Carwin (10-0) does have an edge over Lesnar is striking. Carwin dishes out punishing strikes and takes a good punch as well.

These are just some of the challenges that await Lesnar in the new-look heavyweight division. For now, Lesnar is the standard-bearer.

"[The division] is getting stronger and stronger," Couture said. "Brock is a great indication of where the division is going.

"Guys aren't just big anymore, they're very good athletes. … There are a lot of good guys in the division now."

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.