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Move from mat to octagon continues to grow
Editor’s Note: This column was printed in the Nov. 8, 2013 issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. To receive that special College and High School Preview issue or to subscribe to WIN, go to https://secure.msdservices.com/winmagazine/subscribe/
By Mike Chapman
Ever since Dan Severn exploded onto the mixed martial arts (MMA) scene way back in 1994, wrestling has emerged as the dominant form of the sport. That has been the case for most of the past 23 years and it has never been more evident than now.
Former wrestlers are everywhere at the top levels of mixed martial arts. The man many consider the best pound-for-pound MMA practitioner in the world is Jon Jones, who came up through the high school wrestling ranks in up-state New York, and won a national junior college title for Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Today, Jones is the light-heavyweight champion of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), the No. 1 organization in the sport. He boasts a 19-1 record, with his only loss coming on a disqualification when he was winning the fight. Jones is the youngest UFC champion ever, in any weight class, and he recently broke the record for most title defenses in the light-heavyweight (205-pound) class.
Jones comes from a very athletic family, as two of his brothers are in the NFL. In my opinion, Jon Jones is one of the three or four best fighters in the entire history of the UFC.
But there are other wrestling stars alongside Jones. The UFC’s heavyweight champion is the formidable Cain Velasquez, also a former national junior college champion at Iowa Central Community College, and an All-American at Arizona State. After a huge victory on October 19 over former champion Junior Dos Santos, a Brazilian MMA expert of the highest rank, Velasquez is 13-1 and could rule the heavyweight class for years to come.
Then there is Daniel Cormier, currently 13-0 and one of the finest all-around stars in years. Cormier was a two-time All-American at Oklahoma State and took fourth in the 2004 Olympics, making the team again in 2008 but not competing due to medical issues. Not only does Daniel have great wrestling skills but he has developed into an awesome puncher, as well.
Many MMA fans would like to see a Velasquez-Cormier title fight, but it probably won’t happen as the two men are training partners and good friends. There is talk Cormier will drop down to light-heavyweight and take on Jones.
Another rising star is Johny Hendricks, who was seen on a recent edition of the cable series called “Being Mike Tyson,” hanging out with the former world heavyweight boxing champion when Tyson came to Las Vegas to watch a UFC workout. Hendricks was in training for his upcoming title fight on Nov. 16 against the legendary Georges St. Pierre.
Hendricks, who loved to work the crowds while a two-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma State (165 pounds), now sports a very bushy beard and a 15-1 record. He faces a huge task when he steps into the octagon against one of the top MMA stars of all time.
On the TV show, Hendricks watched in awe as Tyson punched the heavy bag and then the two champs exchanged small talk. Tyson told Hendricks to have a good fight, and a good life!
On October 11, Henry Cejudo, 2008 Olympic champion, made his television debut as a mixed martial artist with a decision victory. He is now 5-0 and appears on his way to a solid career as a 135-pounder. He was the subject of a nice profile before his fight, telling about how wrestling had been a positive force in his life.
Bellator is the company that gives the UFC its most competition, and several former wrestling stars have ridden the Bellator train to the top. Cole Konrad, a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion for Minnesota, posted a 9-0 record, but retired last year as Bellator’s reigning world champion, going back to college to work on an advanced degree.
Ben Askren found a home with Bellator, winning the welterweight title two years ago and posting a sparkling 12-0 record.
The former Missouri Tiger, who owns two NCAA titles and also won the Dan Hodge Trophy twice, has been one of the most dominant forces in Bellator history … but his style has antagonized some fans. Ben relies on his vast wrestling skills to take people down and dominate totally, while most fans like a stand-up, slam-bang style.
Askren is apparently searching for a new home for his efforts and according to one Internet blog he has become a pawn in a fight between Bellator and the UFC.
In addition, Michael Chandler, Ben’s teammate at Missouri, is the reigning Bellator champion in the lightweight class, with a 12-0 record.
Phil Davis and Bubba Jenkins, both of Penn State, and Steve Mocco are also NCAA champions who have started out on the mixed martial arts path, hoping to find fame and fortune.
A former NCAA champion, Davis is 18-1 at light heavyweight, while Mocco is 3-0 at heavyweight. A two-time NCAA champion and four-time finalist, for Iowa first and then Oklahoma State, and a former judo champion, Mocco appears to have a very bright future.
Jenkins, who electrified the wrestling world with his stunning pin of David Taylor in the 165-pound finals at the 2011 NCAA tournament, won his first four matches but then lost by knockout in his fifth fight.
Even with 49 fights behind him, Dan Henderson is still one of the main forces in mixed martial arts. A two-time Olympian, Dan has been fighting since 1997 and holds wins over some of the biggest names in the history of the sport and shows few signs of slowing down.
And of course, Randy Couture, the former Oklahoma State mat star, is still regarded as one of the top stars in the entire history of MMA. Randy retired in 2011 and has been making movies with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and is an owner of the Xtreme Couture training centers in Las Vegas and other cities.
I realize there are many wrestling fans who don’t like mixed martial arts due to its violence and its “over-the-top” reputation and I understand that.
But mixed martial arts is a phenomenon which has come of age and appears to be set for a long run in the American public.
And wrestlers have brought a new type of respect to Mankind’s Oldest Sport.
While men like Dan Severn, Don Frye, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Matt Hughes, Matt Lindland and Randy Couture opened the door, great athletes like Cain Velasquez, Ben Askren, Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones, Josh Koscheck and Johnny Hendricks are bringing lots of attention to wrestling.
I think that’s a good thing.
(Mike Chapman is the founder of WIN, the WIN Magazine Memorabilia Show and the Dan Hodge Trophy. He is the author of 25 books and has been named national wrestling writer of the year five times. He is a member of six halls of fame.)