World team member and two time Olympic alternate* wrestler Shawn Bunch has signed with the fighting promotion Bellator. This marks the presence of yet another world class wrestler on the MMA scene and, more specifically, another world class wrestler in Bellator.
With the addition of Bunch, Bellator expands its wealth of elite wrestling talent. This talent has thus far thrived in the promotion, and Bunch should be no exception; he possesses all the tools to make up for his relatively late start in the sport and excel like Cole Konrad, Ben Askren, and Joe Warren before him.
Bunch and Edinboro
Originating in Kansas, a state with no Division I wrestling programs, Bunch had no choice, but to go out of state to compete on the highest collegiate levels. That he choose Edinboro University of Pennsylvania speaks volumes about his commitment to the sport.
Wrestlers do not go to Edinboro to become a Rhodes Scholar, they do not choose a campus that close to Lake Eerie for the weather, and I would guess that they do not select the 'Boro' for its girls. Wrestlers go to Edinboro because the wrestling program's no nonsense, blue collar approach to the sport consistently gets the most out of its recruits year after year. Their program is quietly and consistently one of the best in the nation, commonly finishing in the top ten at the NCAA tournament, producing a slew of All-Americans and an impressive number of national champions. I have no clue what Head Coach Tim Flynn does to his athletes in their dank dungeon of a practice room, but it is probably unpleasant and undeniably effective.
At Edinboro, wrestling is the only game in town. It is the school's lone sport to compete on the elite NCAA division one level. Their athletic director is the nation's second greatest wrestler ever, Bruce Baumgartner. Even the mighty University of Iowa has a popular BCS football team to contend with. This is not so for Edinboro, the only division one school where wrestling, usually banished to languish in the sporting belfry, occupies the lone place of privilege on the altar of the college's athletics budget.
The wrestling Scots of Edinboro University are so emboldened by their status as the pond's big fish that they don kilts in lieu of sweatpants as part of their team warm-up uniforms for home dual meets. I would not believe this to be true were I not to see a photo. They apparently are very, very proud of this take on Scottish fashion, and they think it looks really cool.
I digress. Bunch is part of a long line of Edinboro wrestling success stories and a burgeoning trend of MMA success. UFC star Josh Koscheck, Strikeforce contender Justin Wilcox, up and coming heavyweight Chris Birchler, and new prospect Chris Honeycutt all took the mat with a big red "E" on their chests. Bunch enters mixed martial arts with a distinction unique among Edinboro wrestlers; he represented the U.S. on the world stage and came within a hair of becoming an Olympian.
Keep reading to discover more about Shawn Bunch's wrestling past and his likely future as a mixed martial artist.
Since Shawn Bunch's announcement of plans for an MMA career came so close on the heels of Steve Mocco's, I found it appropriate to post a GIF which not only features Shawn Bunch wrestling, but also Mocco inexplicably in the background sitting in a coach's chair.
When I compared my excited reaction to Mocco's announcement to my initial ambivalence reaction to Bunch's after studying the actual facts, I realized I was being rather unjust and had to reevaluate my opinion of Bunch and the importance of his move to mixed martial arts.
While Shawn's collegiate credentials are not as impressive as Steve's, Bunch "only" achieved second and third place finishes at the NCAA tournament, Bunch and Mocco's post collegiate freestyle careers are almost identical. Both won national championships, experienced first place finishes at one of the world's toughest Grand Prix tournaments, qualified for a single World/Olympic team and were extremely close to qualifying for several more.
Until I did some research for this piece, I had forgotten that Bunch was the alternate for the 2008 Olympic team and that he has been near the top of the American Olympic ladder for more than five years.. With his announcement, six of the fourteen finalists in the 2008 freestyle Olympic trials will have fought in professional MMA - with a possible seventh in Henry Cejudo waiting in the wings.
Bunch's entrance into MMA is just another step towards a world where mixed martial arts are an expected final step in the competitive career of the United State's most elite wrestlers.
The End of his Olympic Dream
With reigning world team member Reece Humphrey out of action this spring, Bunch, then the number two on our freestyle depth chart, was tasked with the responsibility of qualifying the USA in the 66 kilogram weight class for the 2012 Olympic games. After some initial failure, he managed to fulfill his responsibility by placing third at the second to last Olympic qualification tournament in Taiyuan, China.
There are only nineteen slots per weight in the Olympics and qualifying is no easy task. In exchange for his success in qualification and his necessary absence from the Olympic Trials, USA Wrestling rewarded Bunch with a chance to wrestle for the US Olympic spot in a best of three series against Olympic Trials champion and former NCAA champ for Oklahoma State, Coleman Scott. The place for the wrestle-off: Times Square during the Beat the Streets charity gala (the wrestle off is being broadcast by NBC Sports Network at 8pm est on Thursday).
The wrestle off came down do the final period of the final match where this climactic flurry of activity took place.
Scott gets in deep on head-inside single set up by the slightest of misdirection to the left side. Essentially, there is a barely perceptible feint to the left, high crotch side followed instantly by the inside step single to the right. Scott elevates the leg, Bunch locks up the front headlock, and both wrestlers initiate a dramatic roll to the side, exposing both of their backs.
Upon video replay this was ruled a five point throw for Scott. It was determined that his momentum never stopped through the shot and the throw was "his move" a move which brought Bunch from feet to back for three points and then was judged to possess the necessary amplitude for two additional points. Had Bunch stopped Scott's momentum completely, then the roll though would have been "his" and the would have been awarded the points for exposing Coleman's back. These were the points which decided our Olympic representation at this weight and they were awarded based on as close a call as possible and one that forever ended Shawn Bunch's Olympic aspirations.
A while back, one of Bunch's college teammates explained to me that when Shawn wrestled from his feet, his approach was simple, he would look for the duck-under first, and if that was not there, he would then look for the double leg.
Bunch did indeed have a slick duck under in College. He hit it off an outside step to his left. Here he uses this technique against Illinois All-American Mark Jayne. Bunch gets Jayne to reach for his head repeatedly and just as he is reaching the last time Bunch lowers his level, penetrates with a small step out side Jayne's foot and slips all the way behind for an easy mat return to convert the takedown.
While this may not be a move we commonly see inside a cage it does inform us that Bunch was a pure left foot forward wrestler. This is important as it means that Bunch will be able to both strike and shoot while fighting from an orthodox stance.
As Bunch moved up in competition to the international level, the duck became a less available option and his primary means of leg attack was his blast double.
Here he hits the double on the former Iowa State national champion, Nate Gallick. His set-up is as simple as it gets: first, he pulls Gallick's head down; when he lets go of the head, Gallick snatches it up; at that moment, Bunch shoots. Shawn does a fantastic job running through the shot with short and choppy steps.
If nothing else, Bunch finished his take downs cleanly and authoritatively while displaying an impressive level of athleticism in the process. If Bunch can devise ways of setting up his wrestling offense amid the threat of fists, feet, and knees flying toward his head, his take down game will translate well into MMA
Freestyle wrestling provided Shawn with a means of scoring points unavailable in college/folkstyle. Shawn was very good at exposing his opponent's backs by using this reverse gator roll from a front headlock. Against higher levels of competition this technique would at times prove to be something of a liability as Bunch could slip off and get caught on his own back. I am not sure what implications this technique will have in MMA, but perhaps Bunch could develop some useful chokes based on his comfort and skill in the front head lock position.
Likely Career Arc
Yesterday Bjorn Rebney tweeted that Bunch is the future of Bellator. My response to this is that Shawn is nine months shy of thirty years old, so that future better come fast and it likely won't last that long. I predicted big things from the similarly credentialed Steve Mocco, but Steve's path lies through a much shallower pool of talent. This is not to say that Bunch will not be an MMA success, he has enough skill and talent to develop into a UFC champion - I'm just not sure that he has enough time.
I predict that Bunch will be very successful in MMA - though his late start will eventually put a cap on his ascension in the sport. At best, his career arc will end in the position occupied by some of Bellator's current dominant wrestlers. But even if Bunch wins the Bellator strap on his first try, by the time he defends it a couple times, he will be thirty-three or thirty-four years old, probably too old to move up to bigger challenges in the UFC.
That is a best case scenario. Judging from how another world class wrestler, Joe Warren, has performed against Bellator's best, I would have to estimate that Bunch is probably going to need a couple of years before he has the striking competency necessary to win a title, though his athleticism may allow him to shrink the needed preparation time. My most sensible expectation, particularly when I take off my wrestling blinders, is that Bunch will make a couple of strong runs at the Bellator title and maybe hold it briefly. After that his age will likely cause him to experience diminishing returns.
But hey! At the very least I get to see another great wrestler compete in MMA.
I'm jumping for joy.
*Technically correct would be to say he is a two time Olympic trials runner-up.
Mike Riordan is a wrestling coach and unsuccessful collegiate wrestler. He contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of Collegiate and Olympic wrestling.