The fight for the Olympics: 6 of the best wrestlers in MMA history
Well, I missed all of your ugly faces (ignore the fact I can’t see you).
I know you’ve missed my ramblings and semi-insane opinions in the past few months, but life beckoned for a while. Continuing my education (please hold the laughter), caring for a miniature human that is my son, and contributing to Lowkick (on top of the regular 9-5) simply was a bit too much at first (as well as one too many words beginning with the letter “C”). However, Anton and the gang were cool enough to keep my spot open so I’m back to rile the masses.
When, thinking about the various stories that can be expounded upon in MMA at the moment many come to mind, but the current struggle wrestling faces is a glaring beacon I will not ignore. The IOC (The International Olympic Committee) saw fit last week to cut wrestling from the Olympic games in 2020 over incredible sports like the Modern Pentathlon (the sport most thought to be on the chopping block), Tae Kwon Do, and . . . walking. This decision reeks of idiocy, corruption, and nepotism (the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., is the son of former IOC president and long time councilman the late Juan Samaranch) at the highest levels of amateur sport.
Some of the most accomplished fighters in MMA have a strong wrestling background. Demetrious Johnson and Matt Grice both accomplished a lot in High School. Former bantamweight title challenger Scott Jorgensen competed at the division 1 level for Boise St. University. Kid Yamamoto was a three time state champion in the United States, and was in the middle of an Olympic bid for Japan when he injured his knee. Johny Hendricks and Ben Askren both won multiple National titles for Oklahoma State and Missouri, respectively. Wrestling is ingrained into the fabric of MMA. The mindset, conditioning, and toughness drilled into the soul of a person who has been competing on the mat most of his life are invaluable when entering the fires of fistic combat. Below are just 6 of the best combatants to compete in mixed martial arts thus far with a wrestling background. They are in no particular order, and are not necessarily the only men worthy of this list.
(Note: Fighters like Georges St. Pierre and BJ Penn each dabbled in wrestling somewhat before their careers in MMA began, but since it was not at the extent of other disciplines they followed I excluded them from this list.)
The current UFC bantamweight champion (although injured) has used wrestling to propel himself to the #1 spot at 135 lbs. “The Dominator” first achieved his status in 2010 when he defeated then titlist Brian Bowles. Since then, he reeled off three straight wins against the top contenders in his division. What makes Cruz’s story so improbable is that he happened upon wrestling looking for a separate sport. In 7th grade he was searching for a place to sign up for soccer, but ended up wandering in to the wrestling room instead. The coaches took a look at him, and asked him how much he weighed. He advised them again that he wasn’t looking for soccer sign ups, but they just told him “you’re a wrestler now”. After some High School success his collegiate career was derailed by torn ligaments in his ankle. However, he’s still outwrestling his opponents today in MMA.
He’s a legendary former Welterweight champion used to be looked at as one of the best PFP fighters in MMA. His mixture of great wrestling skill, unreal strength for his size, and usage of positioning when rolling made him close to unbeatable in his prime. He cut through names like Royce Gracie and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai like a hot knife in butter, and only lost his spot as the best 170 lb(er) in the world when the beast known as “Rush” came along.
Matt’s accomplishments in wrestling don’t match his dominance in MMA, but he was extremely decorated none the less. He was an undefeated state champion in his final two years of High School, and was awarded All-American status in all four years of college.
Kazushi is a man who is most responsible for crushing the first family of Vale Tudo into a million little pieces, Sakuraba picked off each member of the vaunted group one by one. He blended his immense wrestling talent with submission grappling to become possibly the most feared person on the mat in the world at the beginning of this millennium. Sometimes referred to as the “IQ wrestler”, Kazushi was known for his incredibly fast paced grappling aided by some of the best single leg takedowns you will ever see in a fight. To this day, his fight with Carlos Newton is one of the best grappling displays in a MMA contest.
“Saku” was a standout wrestler in his High School years, and continued competing in college. He wrestled at Chuo University, and won the East Japan Championships his freshman year. Sakuraba once defeated future Olympic Bronze Medalist, Kat Ota, in an All-Japan competition.
The destructive force known as “Hendo” mostly uses his wrestling to keep the fight standing these days, and it pays off in the near decapitation of each of his opponents. Danny Henderson (as Randy Couture refers to him) is the only man in MMA history to hold two titles simultaneously. He’s destroyed Michael Bisping, Fedor Emelianenko, and Wanderlei Silva. Not too shabby for a guy who used to have the nickname “Decision Dan”.
Dan was a standout wrestler in High School, but in college he always seemed to come up short. It wasn’t until he moved on to the Greco-Roman style in International competition that he began to make his mark. Henderson represented the United States for both 1992 and 1996 in Greco-Roman wrestling at 82 kilograms. He finished 10th in 92’.
Jon is a mixed martial artist of the highest quality. He has blended incredible athleticism with a great work ethic, and he’s turned in to the marquee fighter of MMA’s marquee division because of it. Jon has trounced Ryan Bader, and Vladimir Matyushenko with his grappling. He’s steam rolled Shogun Rua and Lyoto Machida on the feet. Each opponent he’s faced has gone up against a man that continues to improve in every fight, and is already one of the 4 best fighters in the world. Oh yea, and he’s only 25.
Jon’s wrestling background probably would have been a lot more decorated, and might even be still be ongoing, had he not gotten his then girlfriend pregnant when he was about to transfer to Iowa from Morrisville State College (where he was transferring from Iowa Central Community College ). Jones won multiple titles before his MMA career got underway; he was a New York State champion in High School, and won a Junior College National Championship at Iowa Central.
Captain America (only in the cage according to Dana White) is possible the most famous “wrestler” in MMA’s short history. His grinding, mauling performances against men like Tito Ortiz, Tim Sylvia, and Chuck Liddell have reached legendary status. He’s held titles in two different weight classes, beat men half his age, and literally spanked an opponent in the cage. His name is synonymous with toughness, and his will and work ethic are second to none. And he got the better of Dana/Zuffa, one of only few in the last decade. That puts him over the top (Stallone style).
Randy’s wrestling career lasted about as long as anyone on this list. After a very good High School career, he moved on to plying his craft for the military. When he got out he competed for the international team in the Greco-Roman style, and for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. In college, he was a three time All-American and two-time runner-up. His senior year he was the runner-up at 190 lbs where he lost to future MMA stand-out, Mark Kerr.