When the cage door locks Saturday night in Las Vegas, two high level wrestlers will be face to face in the Octagon. While some are suggesting this is the era of the wrestler, that amateur studs are finally finding there way to the top, the facts disagree with that assessment. Since 1994, top American wrestlers have dominated MMA - in Brazil, in Japan, and especially in the UFC.
It all started with Dan Severn, a 36 year-old mustachioed wrestler from Arizona State. Severn made his UFC debut at UFC 4 and made an immediate impact with multiple back suplexes against poor Anthony Macias. Severn went on to crush Royce Gracie for 15 minutes before getting caught in a triangle choke by the sport's founding legend. Severn had years of wrestling experience, but he just wasn't a fighter in his heart. He had Gracie in very vulnerable positions but couldn't pull the trigger on the brutal headbutts, elbows, and punches he needed to win.
Mark Coleman didn't have that problem. Coleman was a former NCAA champion who finished seventh at the 1992 Olympics, but unlike Severn, "the Hammer" had a certified mean streak. People are impressed by Lesnar today, but his sense of invulnerability is nothing compared to the awe fighters and fans held for Coleman. He seemed like he would rule the sport for years, combining incredible athleticism with raw power and the wrestling technique to put any man on the planet right on his back.
Lack of physical tools didn't hurt Coleman -- work ethic did. Coleman never took the sport as seriously as he might have, never traveled around the country to learn new techniques or train with the very best. The Coleman we saw run through Severn at UFC 12 had just as many techniques in his toolbelt than the Coleman who fought Randy Couture at UFC 109 thirteen years later.
Others followed who would take advantage of what they learned watching Coleman and his camp struggle. More wrestling stalwarts await, after the break.
While Coleman never developed more than the most basic striking skills or submission defense, contemporaries like Randy Couture and Matt Hughes both continued to get better and better. Couture used strong boxing technique in combination with his world class wrestling, making himself a truly formidable opponent. Hughes added submission grappling (courtesy of the great Jeremy Horn) to his great collection of takedowns to become the most dominant UFC welterweight of all time.
Wrestling was still the centerpiece of their attack, but the two men needed to add additional pieces to become the best. A new generation of wrestlers wants to take that work ethic to the next level. Couture and Hughes were already in their physical primes when they learned the other facets of MMA and they had to learn on the job. A young up and comer like Bellator prospect Ben Askren was training in Jiu Jitsu before ever leaving his college campus.
All this brings us to Brock Lesnar. Is Lesnar going to be more like Couture or more like Coleman? It's an interesting question. Like Coleman, Lesnar can be a world champion and Hall of Famer with just a single superlative skill. But to be the best, he will have to follow the lead of Couture and Hughes, learning more than just the simplest escapes and reversals.
Couture's appearance at Lesnar's Minnesota camp bodes well for what kind of fighter the former WWE star intends to be. So does the presence of martial arts legend Erik Paulsen. The hip control we saw Lesnar use against submission specialist Frank Mir tells us he is more than just a giant looking to clobber his opponents into a stupor. There is science to go along with his brawn-and that has to be very scary for opponents like Shane Carwin.