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Is Brock Lesnar headed back to UFC after WWE’s ‘WrestleMania 34’?

Paul Heyman is not Brock Lesnar’s manager in real life. He just plays that role on TV.

Still, Heyman is one of Lesnar’s closest confidantes. Lesnar, a man nicknamed “The Beast” in WWE, is notoriously known for being a loner and having an extremely tight inner circle. So, when Heyman says in interviews that Lesnar is interested in another UFC run, it’s wise to listen.

“Brock is eyeballing a return to the [UFC] octagon,” Heyman told the New York Post this week. “He’s made no secret about it. He’s out in Las Vegas at the UFC offices taking a selfie with Dana White wearing a UFC T-shirt. These are not secret negotiations.”

Lesnar is currently the WWE universal champion, but his contract with the pro-wrestling promotion is up sometime after WrestleMania, which takes place Sunday in New Orleans. Heyman confirmed as much in the New York Post interview. Lesnar will be defending the title in the scripted world of WWE against Roman Reigns at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

How serious is this potential move back to mixed martial arts? UFC president Dana White said he’s “coming back” in an interview Wednesday. MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani reported that a “deal is in place.”

If WWE has Lesnar lose the belt to Reigns, it could be an indication his days with the company are numbered. Or maybe not. Usually in pro wrestling — and with Lesnar — there is more to everything than what meets the eye.

Lesnar, 40, is the shrewdest negotiator in the history of the UFC, with the possible exception of Conor McGregor. He has pitted the UFC and WWE against each other for his services for more than a decade now. Lesnar used his fame in WWE to land huge fights in the UFC beginning in 2008, then returned to WWE in 2012 even more famous, leading to further riches.

In 2015, while embroiled in contract negotiations with WWE, Lesnar surprisingly showed up at UFC 184 in Los Angeles and sat near UFC president Dana White and then-CEO Lorenzo Fertitta. At that time, Lesnar had been retired from MMA for more than three years, but his presence at Staples Center whipped people into a frenzy. Would Lesnar leave WWE for the UFC all over again?

The answer at that time was no. A few weeks later, he announced on ESPN he was heading back to WWE on another massive contract. Lesnar made $12 million from WWE in 2016, according to Forbes, while only wrestling a handful of dates. That brief UFC 184 appearance? A clever bit of contract gamesmanship.

Lesnar can command that kind of sum and has that kind of leverage because of how many people are willing to pay to see him fight, be it real or choreographed. He’s one of the biggest financial draws in UFC history and one of the few mainstream stars that WWE has developed since the departure of The Rock, better known now as Dwayne Johnson, Hollywood’s highest-grossing actor.

Lesnar, a 6’3, 290-pound former NCAA wrestling heavyweight champion, has always been the subject of fascination. Lesnar is as freakishly athletic as he is menacing, so gifted that he was a final cut of the Minnesota Vikings in 2004 despite having only played high school football previously. And his release was largely due to injury.

In 2016, Lesnar did end up back in the UFC. With his contract running out with WWE again, Lesnar managed to negotiate into his deal the ability to take a UFC fight while remaining on the WWE roster.

Lesnar ended up fighting Mark Hunt at UFC 200 in July 2016, winning by unanimous decision. It was nearly unprecedented for someone to come back after more than four years away from the Octagon and beat a highly ranked opponent in relatively dominant fashion like that. Lesnar pulled in a guaranteed $2.5 million for that fight, a number that probably ended up closer to $20 million when the pay-per-view buys were counted.

Of course, the entire comeback story was tainted a few weeks later when the UFC announced Lesnar had failed two drug tests administered by the promotion’s anti-doping partner, USADA. Lesnar popped for the banned substance clomiphene, an anti-estrogen agent typically used for what doctors call “post-cycle therapy.” In other words, it’s a drug steroid users take when they’re cycling off the hard stuff.

Lesnar was suspended one year by USADA and fined $250,000 by the Nevada Athletic Commission, which also overturned his victory over Hunt to a no contest.

Everyone had egg on their face in the aftermath of this mess. The UFC looked bad, because it had exempted Lesnar of four months of drug testing prior to his comeback fight, exercising a loophole in its anti-doping policy. WWE was hit with the aftershocks when it had to admit Lesnar was not part of its drug-testing program as a part-time wrestler. WWE allowed Lesnar to perform at its big SummerSlam show less than a month after the failed drug test news came out.

It’s because of that whole saga that WWE would probably not agree to let Lesnar take another UFC fight while under WWE contract. But you never know. Concessions are made for Lesnar. Doors are opened for him that wouldn’t be for others.

One thing that will stand in the way of a quick UFC return, though, is that same USADA suspension. Lesnar formally retired from the UFC about six months into the ban and took himself out of the USADA drug-testing pool. When a suspended fighter leaves the pool, the suspension is frozen. So Lesnar still has six months left on his USADA suspension if and when he returns to the testing pool.

In other words, if Lesnar were to announce his intentions to come back to the UFC this week and re-entered himself into the drug-testing pool, he still would not be able to fight until October. And there are no exemptions from a suspension.

That won’t stop Lesnar from using the UFC as a negotiating tool with WWE, though. And vice versa. With Ronda Rousey now in WWE, too, and McGregor’s status unknown, the UFC could use bankable stars. Lesnar more than fits that bill.

“The three biggest box office attractions in UFC history are Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, and Conor McGregor,” Heyman told the Post. “Ronda Rousey is now full time with WWE. Conor McGregor is a cottage industry all of his own, which frees up Brock Lesnar to come in and take over as the preeminent box office attraction in UFC.

“If Ronda Rousey ever goes back, it won’t be within the next year, so I think it’s a perfect time for Brock Lesnar because UFC is in desperate need of a top box office attraction and his box office receipts speak for themselves.”

That’s not just pro-wrestling carny bluster or a negotiating ploy. It’s simply accurate. And so we find ourselves doing this decade-old dance yet again.

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