ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In just his seventh mixed martial arts fight, Brock Lesnar is carrying an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders. Fortunately for the UFC, its hulking heavyweight champion is certainly built for the task.
The former pro wrestler who has improbably evolved into the UFC's biggest star faces the toughest challenge for his belt to date at UFC 121 on Saturday night at Anaheim's Honda Center. Cain Velasquez is younger, more experienced in MMA and unbeaten during his relentless rise to the top of the UFC heap.
Lesnar (5-1) was sent straight to the top thanks to his wrestling fame, yet he has earned the entire league's respect since then with his training regimen and remarkable improvements over the past three years. After losing a year of his career to a medical problem, Lesnar is fighting for the second time in less than four months -- and he's grateful for every ounce of pressure, every bit of danger.
"At the end of the day, I love this," Lesnar said. "I don't have to prod myself out of the bed in the morning. I try to be the first one in the gym. I'm so thankful and glad there's a UFC. If there wasn't, I don't know what I'd do with myself. I just want to be the best I can be."
Lesnar and Velasquez headline an intriguing Orange County card also featuring Jake Shields' UFC debut against Martin Kampmann and former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz's second comeback bout against his former student, Matt Hamill.
Last fall, Lesnar was forced to postpone a title defense against Shane Carwin after he fell ill during a hunting trip to Canada. He was diagnosed with an intestinal inflammation which he attributes to an all-meat, no-vegetables diet -- something that would seem preposterous coming from just about any athlete except Lesnar.
He acknowledges his determination to live a mountain-man, Viking-esque lifestyle in his Minnesota compound overrode even common sense sometimes. He hunts, fishes and works his farmland 130 miles northwest of Minneapolis with a passion only equaled in his training -- and he has even grown a thick Viking beard this fall.
"I finally just hit puberty and I just wanted to try it," Lesnar said with a laugh. "It's wintertime, I'm going hunting, and I'm proud to be from Minnesota. It's that time of year when you just grow a beard."
He got treatment, recovered and returned to the octagon in July, submitting Carwin in the second round in Las Vegas after first surviving a nonstop flurry of strikes from the challenger in the first round. Lesnar proved his ability to take a punch or 40, answering another question about his still-evolving skills.
"I was in trouble, and it built a lot of character," Lesnar said. "Anybody who gets down and gets back up, it's a character-builder."
But Velasquez (8-0) presents challenges Lesnar has never faced. The former Arizona State wrestler trains at a famed kickboxing gym in San Jose, developing an all-around game to back his remarkable physical presence despite giving up two inches of height to the 6-foot-3 Lesnar.
Velasquez's trainers tout their smaller challenger's cardiovascular skills, saying they'll attempt to stretch the fight out to a full five rounds to tire out Lesnar. The champion only laughs, saying he has more than enough endurance to survive 25 minutes in an octagon.
"We're not jogging. We're fighting," Lesnar said. "That's the only thing you hear about him: Cain Velasquez's conditioning. From the beginning, we've always trained to go 25 minutes. That's the deadline. It's very basic."
Velasquez doesn't have the reputation or fan base of Lesnar, but he has long been considered a top prospect for a UFC belt. Just one of his MMA fights has even gone the distance since the 28-year-old started competing four years ago.
"I'm not intimidated by fighting Brock, even though he's a great champion," Velasquez said. "He's the top guy in our division, and everybody wants to knock him off. Everybody wants what he has, and I've got the next chance. I don't know what he can show me that I haven't prepared for."
Velasquez also could become the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion in MMA or boxing history. Velasquez, who does extensive charity work in Latino-based social programs, wears the honor proudly, with "Brown Pride" tattooed across his chest in large Gothic capital letters.
Velasquez embraces the chance to represent the sport before a growing segment of the UFC's fan base.
"It definitely helps, having a Hispanic heavyweight who's big," UFC president Dana White said. "He's going up against one of the best heavyweights of all time, though. I consider Brock one of the best ever, and he's just getting started."