He waits in the locker room, nervous. He warms up with his teammates, working up a sweat. He stretches each of his muscles. First, he works out his calves, then his legs, then his arms. The crowd is outside is loud, but from the locker room he can only hear a dull roar. He pours water down his back and takes a big swig of the bottle. He tries to focus on his training but the pounding of his heart drowns out all thoughts of strategy. He looks at himself in the mirror: for his entire life he has competed in a singlet. After today he will never put on a singlet again. He hears the door open and his teammate enters the locker room, victorious. It is almost his time for him to step on the mat. He steps out of the locker room to the roar of the crowd. He crouches down in the center of the mat, determined to break the will of his foe.
No, this is not the description of an MMA fighter preparing for a fight, but a wrestler preparing for a match. Looking at this preparation, it is easy to see why the transition from wrestling to MMA is so appealing for wrestlers. Wrestlers seem to be uniquely qualified for it.
Most fighters would be nervous going into their first professional fight. Your life will completely change after your first fight – with a win you will receive validation that your hard work and dedication have paid off, and with a loss you will doubt your choice to compete in a sport where the loser is often left bloody, broken, and unconscious.
But it’s different for wrestlers. Wrestlers understand pain. Wrestlers understand sacrifice. In fact, while most people look at MMA and think ‘I could never do that,’ wrestlers think ‘I can do that.’
“I saw the original UFC way, way, way, back when. But realistically, I first knew about it in college,” remembers Ben Askren. Before breezing through a Bellator welterweight tournament and wresting the organization’s championship crown from Lyman Good, Askren was a Division 1 All-American wrestler at University of Missouri, and competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics. To say that Askren was an elite wrestler would be an understatement.
But how do you make that decision to give up Olympic glory for a job that involves getting punched in the face for a living?
“I knew I had four years until the next Olympics,” Askren said. “I had thought about giving MMA a shot so I just decided to do a ‘now or never kind of deal’ and hop right in it.”
Nowadays, that decision may be easier for a guy looking to make the transition from wrestling to mixed martial arts – wrestling has been recommended for removal from the Olympic Games. For top-level collegiate wrestlers like Askren, the Olympics were always the number one goal; now that may no longer attainable. This makes MMA competition an even more enticing option for wrestlers looking to make a living after college.
“When I heard about the recommendation [to remove wrestling from the Olympics], initially I was in shock,” said Kerry McCoy, former Olympian and head wrestling coach at the University of Maryland. “If it weren’t for the Olympics I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Then once those feelings went away, I thought to myself, ‘Well, what are we going to do about this?’”
McCoy is working hard to make sure wrestling is not eliminated from the Olympic Games. But even if wrestling is retained, there will always be guys who are a better fit for mixed martial arts than Olympic competition. Some guys just don’t have the skills to be one of the top two wrestlers in their weight class. Some guys have different goals for their post-collegiate career.
“I ask my athletes, ‘When you finish your career, whatever it may be, what do you want your crowning moment to be?’ If I have an athlete who is tough as nails, a hard-worker, doesn’t really want to work a nine-to-five, and doesn’t want to worry about NCAA rules, he is a perfect fit to go into MMA,” McCoy said.
Guys like Daniel Cormier and Askren have already paved the way for wrestlers to make their mark in mixed martial arts. And if you’re a high-level wrestler, that transition may not even be as hard as you might think.
“I was at American Top Team in Columbia, Missouri,” said Askren. “We had a jiu-jitsu coach but no striking coach. That helped get my jiu-jitsu game up to par. We sparred every once in a while. I took my first fight after three or four months of training and I was off from there.”
Wrestlers are a different breed. The nature of their sport mentally prepares them to take on challenges they may not be prepared for. It’s that “I’ll take on any challenge” mentality that allows them to step into the cage without any striking training. Are there any other athletic endeavors where a guy can come in only having truly trained in the sport for a few months and win a professional fight? Are there any other sports where a former collegiate wrestler can win a major championship with a record of 3-1?
Walk into any college wrestling practice and you’ll see exactly what generates this willingness to take any challenge. It’s the push and pull of the matches themselves that serves as a microcosm for the challenges wrestling poses to its participant. You’re not going to win every match. It is not a team sport. When you lose, the loss is on you. You can’t blame the point guard for not passing the ball enough. You can’t blame the quarterback for throwing too many interceptions. If you’re going to wrestle, you have to accept that the season will be a grind. Just take a look at any college wrestling team the day after the season is over. They are tired, beaten, and their bodies look as if they have just been in a fistfight. It’s that willingness to accept the sacrifices of the sport that serves them so well in MMA, where they are required to accept the fact that they will be subject to concussions, broken bones and torn ligaments if they want to become champions.
“I wasn’t nervous going into my first fight, I knew my opponent was overmatched,” said Askren. “The guy I ended up fighting was like 4-6. It was fun, but there isn’t much excitement beating a guy when the competition level isn’t up to yours. I had worked super hard for my best victories. Years of work. So it wasn’t that much of a thrill to hop into MMA for a few months and then go beat someone up.”
If you’re getting sick of wrestlers in MMA, you better get used to it. With the future of Olympic wrestling in question, there may be a deluge of wrestlers coming to the cage. More and more wrestlers will be looking at MMA as a way to use their skills to make a living. And with UFC action available to anyone with a television, more and more wrestlers are going to see their counterparts transitioning into MMA and think to themselves, ‘Why can’t I do that?’
The door closes behind him as he enters the locker room for the last time. With the Olympics out of the question, his hopes of international competition are over. As his college career ends, his thoughts turn to that ‘ultimate fighting’ sport that he has seen on FOX. Looking at himself in that same mirror, he throws a jab, then a hook. He smiles to himself, knowing how ugly his punches look. He is not worried though, because he will always have his trusty single-leg takedown if he ever gets into trouble.
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