UFC 159: Putting The Wrestling Of Jones And Sonnen In Perspective

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

As the showdown between Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen at UFC 159 approaches, we hear more and more discussion about their accomplishments as wrestlers before they were fighting. In an effort to fastidiously maintain fidelity to reality, we set the record straight on what their wrestling credentials really mean.

I've seen a bunch of people weigh in on the amateur wrestling credentials of Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen. Like usual, there is misinformation out there, and there are some people who know what they are talking about. Here we will attempt to provide a bit more definite of an account.

If we want to make sense of the wrestling achievements littering each fighter's resume, I suppose the first place to start would be in distinguishing between the two fighter's track records in two different wrestling styles-scholastic (which is my preferred name for American folkstyle) and Greco-Roman.

Comparing the scholastic wrestling of Jones and Sonnen- Scholastic wrestling is the style contested in high school and college. When comparing the wrestling achievements of two different wrestlers who both have collegiate resumes, one would best not dwell on any credentials earned as a high schooler and before. Anyone who follows college wrestling soon learns that high school victories mean little to nothing in the collegiate arena. If collegiate results are available, they possess the lion's share of probative value in these sorts of discussions.

In comparing the two fighter's collegiate credentials, the initial place to look should be each'fighter's competition level. Sonnen wrestled for the now defunct University of Oregon program, which is NCAA Division 1. Division 1 is the highest level of collegiate competition, and serves as something of a gold standard. The greatness of any non Division 1 wrestler, be it NCAA Division 2 or 3, NAIA, NCWA, or NJCAA, can only be determined by how he matches up with his Division 1 contemporaries.

Jon competed on the NJCAA (JUCO) level where he was a national champion in 2006.* What does an NJCAA national title mean? The answer can vary. A decent number of JUCO champs go on to great success in Division 1 wrestling and beyond. The year after Brock Lesnar won his JUCO title, he made it to the Division 1 national finals. JUCO Champ Tom Erikson went on to one day make a United States world team. Two time JUCO champ Daniel Cormier made two Olympic teams and earned a world bronze medal. These, however, are outliers. A JUCO championship, in my opinion, is at least equivalent of the achievement level of a mid-range Division 1 wrestler.

*This is not to be confused with a California junior college state championship, which is also sometimes referred to, quite misleadingly, as a national championship. Both Jake Shields and Tito Ortiz placed in this tournament, and for this reason some describe to them as "All American" wrestlers. They aren't All Americans, they are "All California JUCO".

Chael Sonnen's greatest achievement was placing eighth at the 1998 NCAA Division 1 tournament, the lowest one can place and claim All-American status. Not all eighth place finishers in this tournament are equal, fairly often we see less accomplished qualifiers in this tournament go on hot streaks and sneak into All American status. Chael was one of these one hit wonders, he had an impressive collegiate resume, including three qualifications for the NCAA tournament and placements at the prestigious Midlands championship. He even earned a seed at the 1999 NCAA championships where he placed in the top twelve.

Under normal circumstances, Division 1 All American status carries greater weight than an NJCAA championship, and Chael can claim a greater volume of wrestling achievement at a higher level than Jones. This is not the end of the story as one fact does work in Jones's favor- as far as I can find, in the results which are available to me, both Jones and Sonnen both can claim only one win in collegiate competition over a wrestler who would go on to become a Division 1 All American. In 1998, Sonnen defeated Michigan State's Nick Muzashvili in the round of twelve. Nick would go on to third and fourth place finishes at the next two NCAA tournaments. In 2005, in the semi finals of the University of Northern Iowa Open, Jon Jones defeated Missouri's Max Askren (Ben's brother). The next season Max would earn the first seed at the NCAA tournament, and finish his career as a three All American finishes and national champion.

So while most factors would indicate that Chael Sonnen had a superior college wrestling career to Jon Jones, at least in the category of significant victories, an argument can be made that Jones is equal to Sonnen.

The Greco-Roman Achievements of Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen

Greco is the upper-body only variation of the two Olympic wrestling styles (which are not contested in varsity high school competition nor in the NCAA). Sonnen's achievements emphatically trump Jones's in this style. Chael is, or was, a legitimate world class Greco-Roman wrestler. Chael placed third at the 2000 Olympic trials challenge tournament, putting him fourth in line for the Olympic team (the fourth place finisher at this weight was Dan Henderson, who defaulted his third place match against Chael). Chael won the very respectable Dave Schultz Memorial Tournament twice, and he finished as a runner up at a university world championship.

I should note here that the university world championship is not the "real" world championship. That would be the senior world championship. University worlds can't even claim to be the second best world championship, that honor would belong to the junior world championships, open to 20-22 year olds. The university world championships, meant to be a championship for students, is a weird event, and winning a silver medal there can have a variety of meanings. In Chael's case, it was an impressive achievement; he placed in front of some very good wrestlers in winning silver, including a Hungarian who would go on to win a silver medal at a later senior world championship.

Jon Jones Greco accomplishments were nice, though often portrayed with exaggerated importance. He placed fifth in the nation in the cadet age group in 2003, and won a northeast regional title in the junior age group in 2004 (this might be horribly confusing, the "junior" age group I just mentioned is a U.S. only classification for older high school age wrestlers, the "junior" I mentioned in the previous paragraph is the international classification also known as "FILA junior"). Apparently, Jones earned all his meaningful Greco credentials during his high school years, and thus they really don't hold up in comparison to Sonnen's.

The Verdict

In scholastic wrestling, Jones and Sonnen have a much more comparable pedigree than initial appearance suggests, and in Greco-Roman Sonnen's resume quite clearly outshines Jones's.

Jones is going to mash Chael. He'll probably out wrestle him in the process. Nevertheless, we should keep the respective amateur wrestling credentials of each fighter in proper perspective. Why? I'm pretty sure I explained why somewhere else on this blog, if not, just trust me, it's important.

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