Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar emerged from a one-year layoff and serious illness Saturday with a win that showed how much he has matured as a UFC fighter.
Lesnar was rocked badly in the first round by unbeaten foe Shane Carwin, who landed punches and knees to end up on top of the former WWE and college wrestling star.
But Lesnar managed to defend, covering up with his giant arms and leaving Carwin little room to land punches that could have finished the fight. Lesnar slowly recovered and got to his feet, surviving a first round that Carwin won overwhelmingly.
Carwin, who had never reached the second round in his career, was visibly winded. Lesnar circled cautiously with Carwin early in the second, then took him down.
In his last fight against Frank Mir, Lesnar finished with an unrelenting assault of punches on the ground. This time, Carwin defended the punches well.
Then came the unexpected. Lesnar wrapped his arms around Carwin’s neck and arm. Carwin appeared to have the choke well-defended. But Lesnar squeezed and forced the submission through brute strength.
It was a startling show of progress for Lesnar, who lost his UFC debut 28 months ago when he left himself vulnerable to a kneebar against Mir, whom he had pounded badly before falling into the submission.
Lesnar, just six fights into his MMA career, has now beaten two accomplished veterans in Mir and Randy Couture along with Carwin, the most meteoric riser in a fast-evolving heavyweight class.
After the fight, Lesnar also showed his mature side. Upon beating Mir last year, Lesnar taunted his fallen foe, extended middle fingers to the crowd, insulted a UFC sponsor and made a crude sexual reference. This time, he thanked everyone from his family and trainers to the doctors who helped him recover from a bout with diverticulitis that almost ended his career.
Lesnar was one of several fighters to win by submission on a lively UFC 116 card.
In the co-main event, late replacement Chris Leben brawled with Japanese star Yoshihiro Akiyama through three dizzying rounds before finishing the bout with a triangle choke. Leben replaced Wanderlei Silva on the card despite fighting just two weeks ago in a knockout win over Aaron Simpson.
Leben’s career seemed to be in limbo less than a year ago. He had lost five of eight fights and served a suspension after a positive steroid test. He rebounded on a UFC Fight Night card in January with a unanimous decision win over Jay Silva. Now with two wins in quick succession, he’s poised for a move into middleweight title contention.
Also on the card:
• Chris Lytle defeated Matt Brown in the first of three fights that featured heavy exchanges of punches and ended with a submission. Lytle did the trick with an armbar in the second round.
•Stephan Bonnar ended a three-fight losing streak and avenged an unconvincing loss to Krzysztof Soszynski, getting slightly the better of furious exchanges and then earning a TKO in the second round. At times, the fight resembled Bonnar’s slugfest with Forrest Griffin in the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, an action-packed bout often credited with spurring the UFC’s growth over the past five years.
• Rising Australian lightweight star George Sotiropoulos looked sharp on his feet and on the ground in taking a unanimous decision over Kurt Pellegrino.
• In one of the preliminary fights shown live on Spike, Brendan Schaub made quick work of Chris Tuchscherer, getting the TKO win in just 67 seconds. Schaub emerged from the cast of The Ultimate Fighter’s recent heavyweight season.
• In the other Spike fight, Ricardo Romero withstood an onslaught from Seth Petruzelli, who knocked out Kimbo Slice on short notice and in short order in the last EliteXC card shown on CBS, and won with an armbar in the second round.
• In a prelim shown during the extra time remaining in Spike’s one-hour window, Gerald Harris knocked out Dave Branch with a slam in the third round. Harris showed restraint that won praise from the broadcast crew, holding off on a punch when he realized Branch was out and the referee had not yet been able to move in for the stop.
• Other winners: Kendall Grove (over Goran Reljic, split decision), Daniel Roberts (over Forrest Petz, split decision), Jon Madsen (over Karlos Vemola, unanimous decision)