Former Division I NCAA wrestlers occupy eighteen spots in the top ten of the February Bloody Elbow metarankings, across the eight ranked weight classes. This means that nearly a quarter of the top ten fighters in these rankings once wrestled on the highest collegiate level. Four very high profile UFC title fights loom on the horizon which feature a Division I NCAA All-American. While it may be a stretch to say that the sport is dominated by Division I wrestlers (18 of 80 top ten fighters), as only one UFC belt is held by a Division I wrestler at the moment, there is little doubt that these elite wrestlers are leaving a sizable footprint in MMA.
Success breeds emulation and this wrestling footprint only stands to increase in size in the future, particularly considering that the new flyweight class has yet to draw the talent from college wrestling's lightest competitors. For this reason, the coming NCAA Division I wrestling championships should hold special interest for all MMA fans. It is a certainty that future MMA stars will be on display on the mats, and some in the MMA media will attempt a good bit of conjecture as to which wrestlers would project the best as prize fighters and which ones will actually make the jump to more pugilistic endeavors than freestyle wrestling.
Attempting to prognosticate the fighting future of college wrestlers can be quite a bit of fun. Unfortunately, I fear I am going to put a bit of a damper on this fun by listing five things that we should consider before we even talk about the MMA potential of the fantastic wrestlers competing this week.
1. For the most part, we aren't going to know which are going into MMA right away.
When a top collegiate wrestler commits to an MMA career, we usually don't hear about it until a good bit after the NCAA tournament. Case and point, in the last two NCAA tournaments, we've only seen two NCAA finalists announce their intention to pusue an MMA career before their wrestling career ended: Bubba Jenkins and Chris Honeycutt. Of the more than thirty wrestlers who appeared in the NCAA finals the last two years, I have no doubt we will eventually see more embark on a fighting career, but it's going to take a while. Often times, and much to the detriment of the wrestler's fighting career, it takes years to discern if MMA is the right path to follow.
In fact, the most common time to see wrestlers jump to a prize fighting career is not after and NCAA tournament, but after an Olympic trials tournament. The top wrestlers have trouble ignoring the siren's call of a possible Olympic berth and potential Olympic medals. This leads me nicely to my next point.
2. If they are too good, we probably won't see them go MMA
After the smoke clears at NCAAs this weekend, we will undoubtedly hear many calling for the college wrestling's most shining stars to embark on MMA careers. Unfortunately, you almost certainly won't see the Logan Stiebers, Jordan Olivers, and Ed Ruths of the world slip on four ounce gloves anytime soon. All of the aforementioned have serious shots at making the 2016 Olympic wrestling team (in fact, I'd be surprised if at least two of them were not bound for Rio de Janeiro). Additionally, little doubt exists that the two luminaries of the 165 pound class will try their hands at a serious international career. David Taylor and Kyle Dake may never beat out Jordan Burroughs for the 2016 74 kilogram slot, but you can bet they'll try their damndest.
Compound this with the fact that if wrestling survives as an Olympic sport past 2016, you will see more of these stars extend their wrestling careers. With 5 of the 7 2012 freestyle Olympians back for another cycle, USA wrestling seems to be doing a better job these days of retaining its top talent.
Lastly, heaven forbid if some of these wrestlers actually win Olympic medals, their chances of becoming fighters dwindle even further (I addressed this in a series of articles this summer). Jordan Burroughs, world and Olympic wrestling champion, recently tweeted the end to his flirtation with a future in MMA with a statement about coaching wrestling. I am under the impression that Jordan has parlayed his wrestling success into a good degree of financial stability (deservedly so). This leaves him with little extrinsic motivation to go out and get punched in the face. Getting punched in the face really hurts - just for those who did not already know.
Unfortunately, the reality is this: certain blue chip prospects are "too good" for MMA right now and some will be too good forever.
3. For those who do start fighting, most of us won't see them in the UFC for quite a while
For some wrestling fans, one of the great fantasies is for UFC to become like a professional league for college wrestling. This may end up becoming quasi-true, but college wrestling will never have the same relationship that is maintained between NCAA basketball and football, and the NBA and NFL, respectively. College football and basketball produce ready made stars with household names for their professional counterparts. Star college football players regularly make big impacts for their NFL teams as rookies. This will almost never be the case with college wrestlers in MMA.
Division I wrestlers, no matter their level of skill or accomplishment, enter the sport of MMA as mere prospects. It now takes years for a college wrestler to accrue the experience and hone his skills enough to make it to the UFC. Of the NCAA Division I wrestling All Americans in the UFC, Chad Mendes and Phil Davis are the most recent graduates, having last competed in 2008. Six Division I All Americans in 2009 and 2010, to my knowledge, still pursue MMA careers: Lance Palmer, Jarrod Rosholt, Justin Gaethje, Brandon Halsey, Darrion Caldwell, and Gregor Gillespie. All have yet to make it to the UFC and most have quite a long way to go.
So even if we guess correctly as to which NCAA wrestling competitors will strive to fight on MMA's highest stage, it will be years before we see any competing under the bright lights in the UFC octagon.
4. The future fighters will not come from the University of Iowa.
Iowa, even if it has "only" won three national titles in the last decade, is still college wrestling's marquee program. Over the last four decades, Iowa has dominated the sport, earned the most national championships both individual and team, and has accumulated a fan base that dwarfs that of any other program. Iowa wrestling is one of the few wrestling institutions which has transcended the sport. The mostly wrestling ignorant public would be able to mention Iowa when asked about college wrestling.
Question asker in food court of random mall somewhere in American not in the upper midwest: "Sir/ma'am, what can you tell me about college wrestling?"
Question answerer (typical American between bites of their bourbon chicken): "Oh it's where two guys wear the silly looking suits that show an imprint of their junk. Also doesn't, like, Iowa win every year?"
The ideal of "Iowa" has become somewhat synonymous with college wrestling. The team's hard-nosed, intense, no-nonsense, straight-ahead approach to the sport would seem to naturally lend itself to developing fighters. Yet no Iowa product has yet to make any real impact in the UFC. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State, perhaps Iowa wrestling's most hated rival, a program known for a slicker and flashier style of wrestling, has been churning out MMA fighters on the regular.
I think the weird absence of Iowa wrestlers from the MMA scene can be explained in two ways. First, for most Iowa wrestlers who originate from Iowa, competing as an Iowa Hawkeye in a black and gold singlet fulfills their highest competitive aspiration. These guys see no need to compete in MMA, they've lived their athletic dream already. Second, many of the wrestlers Iowa attracts from outside the state are super recruits - wrestlers like Joe Williams, Lincoln McIlravy or Brent Metcalf. These guys had serious Olympic aspirations from day one, and there was no chance that hey were ever going to do anything but wrestle after leaving Iowa.
Perhaps stud Iowa wrestler Tony Ramos will go on to make big waves in MMA, but he's only a junior, we hopefully will know more of his plans next year.
5. There's a good chance that the future fighter once attended junior college.
The only college to ever produce two simultaneous UFC weight class champions is Iowa Central Community College (ICCC). These two champs reign right now - Cain Velasquez and Jon Jones, who both won national championships for ICCC. A disproportionate number of Division I wrestlers who went on to fight in MMA also once attended community college. Here is an attempt to list them (this excludes the huge number who only went to community college and forewent Division I altogether or went to wrestle for a non-Division I school, the list can be found here).
I will not speculate as to why so many JuCo products go from Division I wrestling into MMA, but JuCo seems to be a very common element on the resumes of many mma fighters.
The offering of JuCo wresters at this year's Division I NCAA championships is rather limited, Unfortunately, the best former JuCo wrestler in Division I wrestling this year, Northern Iowa's Joe Colon, has been dismissed from his team. I am aware of only one other former JuCo wrestler in realistic All American contention - Indiana University's heavyweight Adam Chalfant. Perhaps he will go on to a career in MMA, as the indicators mentioned above are present, but it is not certain.
Bad news for wrestling haters
Division I wrestling continues to make a huge impact on big time MMA, but the prizefighting sport has only scratched the surface of wrestling's talent pool. This week at the Division I national championships, 330 elite wrestlers will take the mat, just like every year. As MMA grows in popularity, it only stands to reason that a higher percentage of that 330 will try their hand at fighting, as well as a higher percentage of the hundreds who didn't make the cut for the tournament. Even as I lay out the rules dealing with the problems involved with projecting the future fighting careers of individual wrestlers, the NCAA wrestling championships with each subsequent year represent a bigger part of the future of the sport of mixed martial arts. The athletes are too good and too determined not to make impact in their newly adopted sport and method of making a living.
Yet, which individual athletes will be agents of change is extremely hard to predict without keeping in mind the factors I list. We naturally want the blue chip prospects to come over, but the overlooked prospects with the chip on their shoulders are the better ones for us MMA devotees to focus on.