2008 Olympian Steve Mocco has announced his intention to pursue a mixed martial arts career. This announcement means that we are a mere Henry Cejudo away from seeing more than half of the 2008 freestyle Olympic wrestling team fighting for paychecks inside of a cage. An era is fast approaching when world or Olympic team freestyle wrestler's migration to MMA is a norm rather than an exception.
Skeptics of the value of world class wrestling credentials as a predictor of mixed martial arts success cannot deny that things have gone swimingly well for the two members of that Olympic team who have already embarked on their MMA careers. Daniel Cormier and Ben Askren have not a single loss between them and wear belts from two of the top three MMA promotions on the planet. I believe that Steve Mocco will experience comparable success.
Continue reading to for a retrospective on Steve Mocco's wrestling career and reasons why Steve is particularly equipped for a very nice run in professional MMA.
Steve Mocco, High School Wrestling legend
My teenage confidence, crystaline in its fragility, shattered when I peered at a freshly printed bracket sheet to see that I was seeded fourth. The fairly high seed at a very respectable tournament should have encouraged me; after years of struggling as a mediocre wrestler I was enjoying some level of success and recognition. Instead, I was deeply troubled for eight lines above my name and next to the number one was Steve Mocco. He and I were slated to wrestle in the semi-finals. Usually wrestling based fear is due to a natural aversion to potential embarassment, an aversion that was strong in high schooler Mike Riordan, but this fear was justly founded, Steve Mocco could have seriously messed me up.
Steve was scary. He still is, but he was really scary, particularly to the eighteen year-old version of myself. I was an underpowered and undersized two-hundred and fifteen pound heavyweight with midling skills and Steve was the greatest high school heavyweight...ever. He was built like something imagined by Maurice Sendak and his style was one of brutality and he did not hesitate to unleash this brutality on any quality of the competition. Whether he was wrestling the pud who took up wrestling because it was the only sport without cuts, or a collegiate All-American, Steve would attempt to obliterate his opponent with extreme prejudice. I'm happy to say that at least he didn't injure me.
Since I began to follow (obsess about) wrestling in my young teens more than a decade and a half ago, Steve has been probably the third most hyped high school wrestler to pull up singlet straps. He won four national prep titles, four Fargo national championships, an NHSCA national championship, and was victorious at Dapper Dan.* Wrestling one of the toughest high school schedules imaginable, Steve lost once in varsity competition, and even that was something of a fluke.
Behind Steve's stellar competitive credentials were the best training resources available. Before his junior year Steve transferred to Blair Academy, the nation's preeminent high school wrestling program. When he was not receiving top flight coaching at Blair, he was receiving instruction at the New York Athletic Club and Edge Wrestling School, the private training school of six different NCAA champs. Steve also supplemented his wrestling with judo, a martial art in which he was also a top flight practitioner. His judo background would prove to be very important to his wrestling success, as well as his impending success in MMA.
Mocco's Post-High School Career
Steve followed his incredible high school career with a fantastic collegiate and post collegiate career. He was a four time NCAA finalist and two time champ and he followed this with a 2008 Olympic appearance. These accomplishments appear to be above reproach, but careful reading between the lines of the story of Steve Mocco's wrestling career reveals a tale of immense potential that was not quite fulfilled.
Mocco had only six collegiate losses. Two of those losses, however, weigh more heavily than any other as they were in the NCAA finals. Both of those losses were razor thin and occurred against opponents whom Steve had beaten in the past. If either loss were to be reversed, Mocco would statistically be the greatest collegiate heavyweight ever.** The finals loss that particularly stands out was the loss to Cole Konrad in 2006, Steve's senior year.
After beating Konrad in the 2005 NCAA finals and winning the Hodge Trophy, wrestling's Heisman, two seasons separated Mocco from his last loss and he looked as if he would to cap off his collegiate career with a third straight undefeated national championship season. Instead Mocco experienced what I believe is his worst season in college where he was pinned for the only time in college and doubled his career loss total. Granted, his losses in this season only came to a great wrestler in Cole Konrad and two were decided in tie-breakers, but more alarming than actual defeats was the fact that Steve seemed uninspired and he certainly was not growing as a wrestler.
I believe that Mocco was burnt out. One season of college wrestling can inflict wear and tear that can last a lifetime and Steve had been training like an Olympian for at least ten years. The fact that Mocco left the sport for a year to play defensive tackle for the OSU football team lends some credence to my speculation. It seems he just wanted some time away from a wrestling room. Mocco did regain enough focus and motivation to win the Olympic trials in 2008 and place seventh in Beijing, losing one match short of the bronze medal bout.
Looking back on Steve's wrestling career after high school, I see great accomplishment, but I also perceive some level of disappointment. Out of high school Mocco looked poised to be the greatest college heavyweight ever and win multiple world or Olympic medals. These may be mammoth expectations, but Steve had justly earned them and he did not fulfill them. The most notable disappointment, however, is the arc of his improvement.
He never developed the skill set necessary to consistently generate offense on the world's best and he let inferior wrestlers surpass him in competition. Chief among these were the aforementioned Konrad and more recently, Les Sigman, whom Mocco once would beat handily and regularly but who was able to close the gap and beat Mocco in the semi-finals of last month's Olympic trials. Seven years ago, if a man were to predict that Les Sigman would make as many world or Olympic teams as Steve Mocco (one) and win as many world level medals (zero) in his career, I would have figured him for a moron or lunatic.
Most wrestlers at the world class level are hyper-critical of themselves and If I detect the shortcomings in Mocco's competitive career, then I have no doubt that he does as well. This leads me to believe that Mocco may be entering into MMA motivated by more than a payday, but by the drive to climb the sport's highest summit. This is important because I would imagine that when getting punched in the face by a giant Brazilian, it helps to have as many motivating factors as possible.
What Mocco Brings to MMA
Mocco experienced large volumes of hatred as a wrestler and I suspect he will experience the same as a fighter. Steve received some hate as a backlash to the hype that accmpanied him. He earned more this hatred when after his sophomore year in college, Mocco transferred from the University of Iowa to Oklahoma State. These two programs have won more than sixty percent of the sport's national titles between them. They bitterly hate each other and are vehemently detested by the rest of the wrestling community. Exacerbating the situation, Steve's transfer came at the time when Iowa was struggling and OSU was on top of the sport, lending a LeBron Jamesian feel to the whole affair. In spite of this, for more reason than any other, Mocco detractors hated Steve because he was tubby and often somewhat boring.
Mixed martial arts fans will hate him for the same reason. They will call him fat, though if you were ever to stand next to him in his current shape you would realize that he has a shockingly lean appearance and is clearly in fantastic physical condition. Fans will also whine that he is boring and lays and prays*** because he will take all but the most elite opponents down whenever he feels like it and he will be able to hold them down at his leisure.
We will not see him fighting in the style of fellow OSU Cowboy and Olympic teammate Daniel Cormier. Mocco is a very good athlete and an excellent athlete for his size; Mike "I'm 40, I'm a man" Gundy is not going to let many people with absolutely no football experience walk on to his team. The fact that Mocco spent a year playing Big 12 football speaks volumes about his physical talent and ability to adapt to different sports. This bodes well for his ability to pick up the striking and submission elements of MMA at an fairly rapid rate.
This being said, he still does not possess the elite athleticism of Cormier and we will probably not see him train for a year or two and conduct striking clinics against more experienced fighters. He is not much taller than Cormier, if at all, is fairly stubby and will not have Daniel's quick feet to allow him to close distance rapidly enough to compensate for the lack of reach. His talent level is such that he should be able to pick up adequate enough striking knowledge to stay out of danger against most adversaries long enough to take them down. It is a safe prediction, and one that brings me great joy, that his fight strategy will will closely resemble that of his rival Cole Konrad.
Where he distinguishes himself from other wrestling centered heavyweights is in his preferred takedown methodology. Mocco's signature takedown is a footsweep. This is a technique that I believe he honed as a judoka and adapted to wrestling. While footsweeps are not completely alien to wrestling and I understand the move on a basic level, I do not know enough to articulate its intricacies on a technical level. Failing a detailed explanation, I have provided a specimen of said footsweep.
Mocco's judo background is what makes him a particularly interesting MMA prospect. He has elite, perhaps world class judo skills and he had the advantages of using judo technique in a gi-less environment for many years. Unlike other judo players, he will not have to learn to adapt to shirtless opponents and he has the folkstyle wrestling base that gives him an unmatched ability to keep competitors on the ground once taken down.
I have coached judo converts to wrestling to decent levels of success. Judo can help an inexperienced wrestler pick up victories against some more seasoned competition though ironically, the judo background that provides them with their initial success in the sport can limit them with a built-in cap to their long term success. Wrestling judokas tend to rely so much on certain judo techniques to score points and never properly develop the wrestling leg attacks necessary to defeat their most elite competition.
While Mocco was primarily a wrestler, I believe that his reliance on what is primarily a judo technique may have limited his success at the extreme upper levels of wrestling. With extremely few exceptions, to be able to beat the best wrestlers in the world it is necessary to attack their legs by lowering levels and shooting on them. Mocco, whether because of his dependence on his footsweep or his lack of length, never was able to generate shot-based offense good enough to regularly work on the world's very best.
What was his detriment in wrestling may well be his advantage in prize fighting. Dropping the head and shooting in a mixed martial arts bout is a perilous thing and all sorts of nasty counters can result, not to mention that it requires vast amounts of energy. Mocco will be the best heavyweight in MMA at taking opponents down without lowering levels to do so. This is extremely important; he can ground opponents from the safety of a standing position, do so relatively effortlessly and without putting himself in positions that will leave him vulnerable to get taken down himself.
Not that he has ever been particularly vulnerable to a takedown. I doubt that we will ever see Steve get taken down in a cage as he is one of the best defensive wrestlers ever. I can count the number of times he was taken down in college on one hand and I do not believe that any of those takedowns were the result of an opponent converting a conventional shot. More impressive is that he was almost as parsimonious in takedown defense on the international level. I am racking my brain trying to think of a time when an opponent got in on his legs and actually took him to the mat in international competition and I cannot do it. Succesfully finishing a take down on Steve Mocco is next to impossible.
Mocco is entering the sport of MMA with the invaluable ability to take almost anyone to the mat effortlessly and defend nearly any of an opponent's takedown attempts. He carries these skills into a thin heavyweight class with a dearth of quality wrestling. Brock Lesnar and Cole Konrad recently ascended to the elite levels of the sport based primarily on their wrestling skills and physicality. Steve is more physical than either and even though he may not be as explosive as Lesnar and not have the favorable physical dimensions of Konrad, he's a better technical wrestler than either and with the integration of his elite judo takedowns he has a style better suited to MMA.
Steve Mocco is equipped to go very far in MMA. I see him as an eventual top ten heavyweight in the world and possibly top five. He will always have trouble with powerful strikers with excellent take down defense as well as any fighter with an active and dangerous guard but the fact of the matter is that there just are not that many heavyweights which fit these descriptions. Steve will be a bad matchup for almost any current MMA heavyweight, expect for him to make some big noise in the division really soon.
And now a GIF of Steve punching Tervel Dlagnev in the face.
*The pomade brand has been sponsoring this ultra-elite highschool all-star dual meet for decades and decades.
**I did not forget about Dick Hutton, also an OSU heavyweight, I just disregard college wrestling results from the 1940's
***I wish that the SBNation word processing software would allow me to enter some sort of crying emoticon.
Mike Riordan is a wrestling coach and unsuccessful collegiate wrestler. He contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling.