Friday, 21 August 2015

Lesnar's forgotten U of Regina match

A 1998 Cougars wrestling card featuring Brock Lesnar.
    “Who is this guy?”
    That question echoed in whispers throughout the crowd at the University of Regina’s Physical Activity Centre on a cold winter night in January of 1998. University of Regina Cougars wrestler Adrian Gilmore left his team’s bench for his heavyweight match in a dual meet against the Bismarck State College Mystics and immediately stared into the eyes of an imposing opponent.
    Off the Mystics bench came this monster looking of a man, who was built like a tank.
    Gilmore stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 243 pounds and his opponent was 6-foot-3 and weighed about 270 pounds, but the sheer mass of the visiting wrestler made Gilmore, who was an all-Canadian the previous season, look small. A gasp came from the crowd as the hulking huge Mystic wrestler glared back at Gilmore with a stone-cold look. The Bismarck State College wrestler’s name was Brock Lesnar.
    That’s right – Brock Lesnar. The same Brock Lesnar who would go on to fame as a UFC heavyweight champion and a WWE star attraction.
    Back in that January day of 1998, no one would have fathomed Lesnar would become famous.
    At the time, the Cougars men’s wrestling team were the defending Canadian Interuniversity Sport champions locked on a mission to repeat. A few of the team’s members had been part of Canada’s national team system.
    The meet with the Mystics was scheduled to spark the Cougars into the second half of their season. As defending national champs, the Cougars also drew big crowds to their small home gym, who would overflow the two sets of stands that were usually set up for match nights.
    Gilmore had aspirations at the time to represent Canada at the Olympics and was also a standout defensive lineman for the Regina Rams, who were still in the Canadian Junior Football League at the time. He had helped the Rams win their 14th CJFL title in November of 1997. The Moose Jaw, Sask., product was a finely conditioned athlete, and you could see in the eyes of the spectators they wondered what magic Gilmore could pull off to beat this beast that stood in front of him.
    Going into the heavyweight bout, the Cougars claimed the vast majority of the matches in the other weight classes and had already won the meet. Gilmore was looking to add a cap to what was already an impressive night for the host squad. Lesnar had other ideas.
    Very quickly, it was obvious to see that Lesnar was overpowering Gilmore with sheer strength. The U of R standout tried to attempt a leverage move and ended up getting stuck up in the air.
     Lesnar caught Gilmore and proceeded to power bomb him into the mat.
    The violent look of the image was shocking. Gilmore ended up being cut open on his forehead, and the officials called a timeout.
    When the match resumed, Lesnar’s power was too much to overcome and the visitor claimed victory by a pin.
     For those that saw that match, Lesnar’s victory was hard to forget.
    With the Mystics located in Bismarck, North Dakota, their visit to the U of Regina would ultimately become a footnote in the Cougars 1997-98 campaign.
    The Cougars continued to romp over the opposition at dual meets and tournaments and would repeat as CIS champs.
    Gilmore would soon bow out of competitive sports. After failing to earn an individual medal at the 1998 CIS championships, Gilmore tried his hand at sports entertainment’s version of wrestling. He performed on various independent circuits as “Crazy Horse Eddie Mustang.”
    Lesnar went on to finish the 1997-98 campaign as the national junior college heavyweight champion in the United States. He transferred over to the University of Minnesota to compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top level and won the NCAA’s national heavyweight title in 2000 to close a four-year post-secondary career with a 106-5 overall record.
    From there, Lesnar embarked on his storied forays into the WWE and UFC. In a twist that is unrelated with his 1998 match against Gilmore, Lesnar and his family have spent a large amount of time residing in Regina in recent years.
    Almost no mementos exist from Lesnar’s amateur wrestling match in Regina, and the Queen City’s CTV and Global affiliates likely no longer have footage stored away from that night.
    For those that were there to witness what happened, they were treated to one of Lesnar’s early star moments, even if they didn’t know it at the time.

Cougars champ could have rocked the UFC

Lease Bertram was U of Regina's most outstanding male athlete in 1998.
    Had the UFC rocketed to a lucrative mainstream sport about a decade sooner than it did, one member of the University of Regina Cougars men’s wrestling team could have been one of the circuit’s biggest star attractions.
    The Cougars 1997 and 1998 CIS championship teams were filled with stars, and Lease Bertram was the star that shone the brightest during both those campaigns with all due respect to heavyweight and 2000 Olympian Dean Schmeichel. Bertram won an individual CIS national championship silver medal in 1997 in the 65-kilogram class and an individual CIS national championship gold medal in 1998 in the 68-kilogram class. Bertram was a member of Canada’s national team program at one point in time and was also the U of R’s most outstanding male athlete in 1998.
    The Eston, Sask., product was one of the best athletes ever in the history of the athletics program at the U of R.
    Pound for pound, Bertram was likely the toughest athlete the U of R ever saw, but he wore that toughness in a quiet manner. When he hit the wrestling mat, Bertram was all business.
    Besides being extremely well conditioned, Bertram was gifted in the sport technically, and that gift was taken to a higher level under the guidance of Cougars head coach Leo McGee. When Bertram competed in a match, you knew you were watching something special due to the way he made it look easy, when he put three to four moves together.
    He almost always won matches by technical superiority gaining a 10-point lead often in under two minutes and frequently in under a minute. Away from mat, Bertram became part of Cougars folklore, when he helped catch a couple of punks that tried to rob the U of Regina’s Campus Recreation office in late February of 1998.
    At the height of his success, Bertram walked away from wrestling at the end of the 1997-98 campaign at age 22, when he still had two years of CIS eligibility remaining. Amateur wrestling isn’t one of the most popular or followed sports in Canada, and Bertram’s motivation to continue wasn’t there.
    When Bertram was a Cougars’ superstar, mixed martial arts was still viewed as an underground, freak-type sport, and the UFC was a fledgling body. That all changed when Dana White became president and a minority owner in the promotion in 2001.
    White was instrumental in vaulting the UFC into the mainstream and turning mixed martial arts' top professional loop into a billion-dollar business, where fighters could make millions in income.
    Traditionally, fighters with strong amateur wrestling backgrounds have excelled in the UFC. Playing the “what if” card especially with the UFC making its Saskatchewan debut on Sunday with its Fight Night 74 card set for 4 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, Bertram might have remained in wrestling, if the UFC would have been the powerhouse entity it is now back in 1998. He could have taken his skills into a very viable professional outlet.
    With his work ethic and gifted ability, I could see Bertram posting submission victory after submission victory and being a dominate force and title holder in the lightweight division. Thanks to the UFC’s platform, the masses around the world would have gotten to see just how special of an athletic talent Bertram was.  
    Unfortunately, the timing in real life wasn’t there, but for those that saw Bertram compete, it is always cool to dream of what might have been.

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