Recently, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones tweeted that he is a "black belt in wrestling". This is interesting, not only because wrestling lacks a belt system, but also because it forces us to wonder as to exactly how good Jones' wrestling background really is.
We know that Jones was a national junior college champion, and was allotted scholarship money by wrestling powerhouse Iowa State University. These facts speak volumes about his abilities, but I believe that far more exact knowledge can be gained about Jones' wrestling pedigree by examining the results from his run in the NHSCA Senior Nationals, while he was still in high school in 2005.
Here he competed against a field that was as elite as a high school field can be, one which included future Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner.
After the jump: what we can learn about Jon Jones from an old high school wrestling bracket sheet?
When a bracket sheet from a big-time wrestling tournament slides into my grasp and my eyes settle upon it, the world is right. My troubles are gone, my stresses disappear, my universe shrinks to lines of ink and minutely typed names.
Bracket sheets usually cause the pleasure centers in my brain to fire, but I found the bracket sheet from the 2005 NHSCA Senior National Wrestling Championships filled me with what approached euphoria -- this tournament was absolutely loaded with future wrestling superstars. The two biggest future stars in the tournament, Jake Varner, eventual Olympic gold medalist, and Jon Jones, present day UFC champion and MMA prodigy, were both in the 189 pound weight class and neither came home with a gold medal.
I find these results fascinating, if for no other reason than they provide a great deal of perspective as to the exact level ofwrestling pedigree. I believe this tournament, though it took place in high school, is a far greater predictor of NCAA division one success than Jones' junior college achievements. NCAA division one achievement is the gold standard for domestic amateur wrestling credentials, and Jon Jones' fourth place finish at NHSCA Senior Nationals provides great insight into how he would have fared in collegiate wrestling's highest level.
I will also take this opportunity to address the folllowing position: "All that matters in an MMA fight is who gets their hand raised at the end of the fight -- who cares how good fighters were in different sports?" First, I am of the opinion that one of MMA's core missions should involve attracting the very best in all combat sports. I expounded on this in a previous post. Second, if I were told that a fighter as magnificent as Jon Jones had a background in amateur wrestling, I would find it interesting to acquire a clear picture of just how good a wrestler he was.
But that's just me.
[This is the link to the brackets for this tournament, scroll approximately 75 percent of the way down to find the 189 pound weight class. For bonus scavenger hunt points, look for former TUF champion, Efrain Escudero in one of the lower weights]
How Tough Was This Tournament?
One of my earliest frustrations with MMA was the apparent ignorance and lack of perspective that surrounded the amateur wrestling credentials of many fighters. Announcers can still be heard mindlessly reciting the accomplishments of ex-wrestlers, clearly with no idea as to what these accomplishments actually mean. I don't have the time to launch into specific examples of the feats of ignorance accomplished by the professional analysis of amateur wrestling backgrounds by MMA commentators, but trust me, they are jaw dropping.
One problem with examining high school level amateur wrestling achievement is that there are approximately ten zillion different state championships, few of which are relevant determiners of elite wrestling ability. This problem is compounded by the fact the high school wrestling lacks a true national championship, though there are two tournaments which can pretty legitimately claim to award national titles.
The most prestigious of these two is probably the Asics/Vaughn Junior National Freestyle Championships (I'm not going into the Greco side in this post) held every July in Fargo, North Dakota, also known simply as "Fargo". A Fargo championship is the highest achievement a high school wrestler can earn, but a few factors detract from its status as a true national championship.
- It is essentially open to only High School Juniors and Seniors who make their state's "National Team", and spend the entire summer wrestling and spend a bunch of money to travel out to North Dakota, which is where Santa Claus lives. Many of the top graduating seniors no longer attend as their collegiate path has already been set.
- It is freestyle, which makes no sense to me if it is to serve as a high school national championship, and one of the biggest opportunities to impress college coaches. Why the hell is our most important high school tournament for college scouting in a different style? It's like NASCAR having it's NEXTEL cup guys try to make the big leagues by driving formula-1.
- NHSCA is available to only high school seniors who are state finalists or receive a waiver (I believe that rising MMA star, Bubba Jenkins received a waiver into this tournament, and then de-pantsed the field).
- Attendance is far from universal and often some top kids abstain from going for various reasons.
I believe that the quality of NHSCA has declined in the last few years, but this was definitely not the case in 2005. This tournament was absolutely loaded with talent.
Cutting out the two lightest weight classes, which for high school seniors are not reliable feeders for collegiate wrestling, and taking out heavyweight, which was devoid of any future division one college wrestling difference makers, sixteen on the remaining twenty two finalists went on to be NCAA All-Americans (I am including Adam Frey, whom I believe was a sure fire All-American had not cancer tragically ended his life). This is an incredible success rate. Three weights boasted finals featuring two future NCAA champions, and the 215 pound weight class saw two future NCAA champs fail to place.
How Tough Was Jones' Weight?
Really, really, really tough. All three wrestlers who finished ahead of Jones went on to brilliant college careers and NCAA championships. Max Askren, brother of Ben Askren, who beat Jones by decision for third in this tournament, was an All-American three times and won an NCAA title. Mike Pucillo, who beat Jones by decision in the semi-finals, went on to be a four time All-American in college and won an NCAA title. Finally, Jake Varner, who won the semi-final opposite of Jones, would become a four time NCAA finalist, two time champ, and win an Olympic gold medal in London. Jake would lose to Pucillo in the finals of this tournament.
Additionally, thirteen wrestlers, by my count, who placed lower than Jones in this tournament would go on to be NCAA All-Americans, two of these wrestlers, Hudson Taylor and Louis Caputo, were in Jones' weight class. Two other fourth place finishers, Jay Borshell and Jared Rosholt, would go on to be NCAA finalists (Borshell won in the finals, Rosholt was brutally knocked unconscious two weeks ago). In this tournament Jones also beat the previous year's Fargo champion at this weight, Patrick Bond, who went on to a very respectable college career at Illinois.
If I were to aggregate all this information into a prediction of Jon Jones' probable NCAA success level: Jones would have at the very least been an extremely good college wrestler in the mix for All-American honors several times, but there is a very legitimate chance, taking his physical talents into account, that he would have won national championships and maybe even more.
Jones is way more than justified in claiming to be a "black belt in wrestling".