If you are new to this feature, I strongly advise reading earlier entries in the Factgrinder story stream, in order to see my explanation on the significance of accomplishments at wrestling's various levels.
This ranking should have been written a while ago. I now realize that its necessity to the mission of my Factgrinder series. The wrestling accomplishments that accompany mixed martial artists lack meaning without perspective. I created Factgrinders to provide this perspective, but a ranking of the best wrestling credentials in UFC history would have provided a logical starting point for the project.
Wrestling success helps to predict success as a fighter, but it does not guarantee it. You will notice many present and former UFC champs who use wrestling as a base, such as Jon Jones, Rashad Evans and Urijah Faber, will not appear here because their amateur wrestling accomplishments appear thin in comparison to those on the list. This is not a "Wrestler who is the best fighter" ranking, nor is it an account of the relative "MMA wrestling" abilities of UFC fighters. This ranking merely serves as an attempt to order UFC fighters according to their achievements as amateur wrestlers.
I wish to make it clear that this ranking does not consider fighters outside of the UFC. Some extraordinarily good wrestlers have competed in major Japanese promotions, but three who would be high on this list - Rulon Gardner, Eldar Kurtanidze, and Karem Gaber - only fought once and I would like to avoid as many "one and done" fighters as possible. I had to bite the bullet with Mark Schultz, as you will see.
I also left out fighters from regional/minor promotions, including Bellator. While I'd love to talk about guys like Kenny Monday, Tom Erickson, Mo Lawal, Ben Askren, Shawn Bunch, Joe Warren and Cole Konrad, all of whom would displace someone on this list, I had to draw a line somewhere.
Adventures in Ranking Across Styles and the 21 Best Wrestlers in UFC History
Just like any ranking of this sort, plenty of room should be left for debate, but therein probably lies the point. This ranking presents a particular set of difficulties as it seeks to compare accomplishments in three separate styles of wrestling: Freestyle, Greco-Roman, and American Folkstyle. Imagine trying to rank the relative accomplishments of strikers across Muay Thai, kickboxing, and boxing. Now imagine that most of the fighters you are tasked with ranking had great careers in two or more of those striking disciplines. I believe that illustrates the trickiness of this wrestling ranking process.
Ranking across the Olympic styles of Greco and Freestyle presents problems on the domestic level. I would say that world and Olympic level accomplishments in the two styles bear approximately equal weight, but this does not hold true on the domestic level. The United States possesses a freestyle program superior to its Greco program, even in the face of recent examples where top level wrestlers have found greater success in freestyle than in Greco after competing in both in successive years. As it stands, a U.S. National championship or world/Olympic trials championship means somewhat more in freestyle than in Greco.
Collegiate accomplishments in the American folkstyle of wrestling throw an additional monkey wrench into the proceedings. While medals at the Olympics or Senior World championships trump all other accomplishments, the waters become murky when comparing domestic-level credentials in the Olympic styles to achievements on the NCAA Division I level. Unquestionably, simply making a world or Olympic team means more than a single NCAA championship, but far more difficult scenarios can easily come to mind. If a wrestler places third at an Olympic Trials in Greco, does this constitute a superior accomplishment to an NCAA Division I championship? What if a wrestler wins three NCAA championships, does this overcome the significance of a World or Olympic Team Trials victory in freestyle? How about in Greco?
This problem, in particular, manifests itself in the case of Chael Sonnen. His college achievements alone do not warrant inclusion in this ranking. Chael "only" achieved NCAA All-American status once, placing 8th on the Division I level. Chael, however, made an impressive run at the 2000 Olympic trials, finishing 4th in line for the Olympic spot. In fact, Chael had a notable career on the FILA Senior level, placing at a number of U.S. National Championships and World Team Trials. Chael also owns an interesting distinction with his silver medal at the University World Championships. I made the difficult choice of placing Chael at 20th in the rankings ahead of Shane Roller, a three time All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State who placed third twice and fourth once in Division I. I then realized that if I included Chael, I would have to also include Aaron Simpson, who was a better college wrestler, and who had a comparable career on the FILA Senior level. Finally I gave up on the idea of only ranking 20, so I made this list into the 25 best wrestlers. This leads us to the rankings themselves, and the 25th best wrestler in UFC history...
25. Shane Roller, Oklahoma State. 3rd, 4th and 3rd in the NCAA.
The king of winning ugly ought to find himself on this list. In his last two years at OSU, Shane had the skills to truly threaten to win a national title.
24. Aaron Simpson, Arizona State. 8th and 4th in the NCAA.
Aaron's post-college freestyle achievements earn his spot on this list. He finished fifth in line for an Olympic berth in 2000, and fifth again in 2004. In addition to his Olympic Trials success, he placed at a number of freestyle national championships and World Team Trials.
23. Chael Sonnen, University of Oregon. 8th in the NCAA.
From the late 90's to 2003, Chael was a force to be reckoned with on the Senior Greco circuit. His greatest moments came when he placed second at a University World Championship (I've discussed the significance of the "University" level in previous Factgrinders), and lost only once at the 2000 Olympic Trials Challenge Tournament, placing third, leaving him fourth in line for the Olympic spot. Like Simpson, he also earned hardware at a number of Senior national championships and World Team Trials.
22. Chad Mendes, Cal Poly. 6th and 2nd in the NCAA.
Chad's first All-American finish came way down at 125 pounds. He finds himself at this spot on this list for his dominant senior year at 141 pounds where, if not for a poor call from a referee in the NCAA Finals, would in all likelihood become an undefeated NCAA champion.
21. Reese Andy, University of Wyoming. 2nd, 6th and 2nd in the NCAA
Few realize that Brandon Vera's initial opponent upon his move down to light heavyweight was actually an elite college wrestler who came very close to winning an NCAA championship.
20. Brock Lesnar, University of Minnesota. 2nd and 1st in the NCAA.
Brock is an awfully decorated wrestler to sit this far down on these rankings; this should provide some idea of the caliber of wrestler that will pop up down the line. I should note that prior to his college days in Minneapolis, Brock placed 3rd and 1st in the National Junior College Championships.
19. Mark Munoz, Oklahoma State. 3rd and 1st in the NCAA
Mark gets the nod over Lesnar because of his silver medal in freestyle in the Junior World Championships.
18. Phil Davis, Penn State. 7th, 2nd, 5th and 1st in the NCAA
Four-time All American and NCAA champ, and only 16th in the rankings.
17. Josh Koscheck, Edinboro. 4th, 2nd, 1st and 3rd in the NCAA
Josh doesn't get the credit he deserves for his spectacular college career. He could easily have been a three-time champ. He also placed in the top eight in a U.S. Freestyle National Championship.
16. Kevin Randleman, Ohio State. 2nd, 1st and 1st in the NCAA
Here's a little trivia: Randleman is the only wrestler to pin someone and be pinned in the NCAA Finals. He'd probably sit higher in these ranking had he maintained academic eligibility his senior year (This is now known in Columbus as a Katzenmoyer-shirt)
15. Johny Hendricks, Oklahoma State. 5th, 1st, 1st and 2nd in the NCAA
14. Mike Van Arsdale, Iowa State University. 6th, 3rd and 1st in the NCAA
Mike gets bumped ahead of more accomplished college wrestlers due to his Senior-level freestyle career. In freestyle, he finished fourth in line for the Olympics after the 2000 trials, 2nd in line in 1996, and placed as high as second at the U.S. National Championships. Additionally, Van Arsdale once placed at a World Team Trials in Greco-Roman.
13. Dan Severn, Arizona State. 2nd and 4th in the NCAA
Dan's 4th place finish as a senior means quite a bit when you consider that 1st and 2nd place winners would go on to win three Olympic gold medals between them (and the third place finisher was "Dr. Death" Steve Williams). He lands here on this list not for his injury-plagued college career, but for the freestyle wrestling he did afterward. Dan failed to make the 1984 Olympic team by the narrowest of margins, barely losing to Lou Banach who would go on to win gold. Dan did finally get a chance to represent Team USA in 1985 when he won the World Team Trials and placed 5th in the world. Dan also holds a Junior World title.
12. Mark Kerr, Syracuse University, 1st in the NCAA
In addition to his NCAA championship, where he beat Randy Couture in the finals, Mark finished 2nd to Kurt Angle at the 1995 World Team Trials in freestyle, won the World Team Trials in 1994, and placed 11th in the world.
11. Jake Rosholt, Oklahoma State University, 1st, 3rd, 1st and 1st in the NCAA
I've ranked Jake, who never wrestled on the Senior level, ahead of two World team members because of his insane track record at the NCAA tournament. In four trips to the NCAA Wrestling Championships, Jake lost once. On placings alone, this would tie Jake with Mark Churella as the seventh-greatest college wrestler ever.
[Author's note: I am not advocating the position that Jake Rosholt is in fact the seventh-best college wrestler ever, this would be wrong and unfair to the greats who wrestled during the era when freshmen were ineligible.]
10. Randy Couture, Oklahoma State. 6th, 2nd and 2nd in the NCAA
Randy followed an outstanding college career with an excellent and long Senior-level Greco career. You get some sense of Randy's age when you take into account that he competed in four Olympic Trials. In 1988 he finished fourth in line for the Olympic spot, second in 1992, fourth in 1996, and sixth in 2000. During this time he won U.S. Greco nationals four times, won the World Team Trials three times, and placed top 10 in the world once.
9. Dan Henderson, Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State.
Dan Henderson's highest collegiate achievement included qualifying for the NCAA tournament once and winning a single match. However, in Greco he reigned as the premier American wrestler at his weight. Competing on the Senior-level Greco circuit, Dan won the Olympic Trials twice, the World Team Trials twice and U.S. nationals three times. Henderson's greatest performance saw him place 7th at the 1997 World Championships.
8. Daniel Cormier, Oklahoma State University. 2nd in the NCAA
Daniel went from the wrestling backwater of Louisiana, to Colby College where he won two Junior College National Championships, and then to wrestling super power Oklahoma State where he wrestled his way into the NCAA Finals as a senior. The end of college only marked the beginning of Daniel's amazing run in freestyle.
Daniel held an absolute stranglehold on the United State's 96kg weight class in freestyle wrestling for more than half a decade. He represented the USA at world level championships an incredible six years in a row, winning four World Team Trials, and two Olympic Trials. In the 2004 Olympics he made the semifinals and eventually finished in 4th place in a star-studded weight. At World Championships he placed in the top five twice, winning a world bronze medal in 2007. In 2008 he looked poised to win an Olympic medal, but apparent weight mismanagement cost him a chance to compete and placed an unfortunate end on a stellar wrestling career.
7. Mark Coleman, Miami of Ohio and Ohio State, 4th and 1st in the NCAA
NCAA champion, World silver medalist, and 5th place in the Olympics - Mark Coleman owns a pretty dang impressive wrestling resume. Were it not for a flukey throw by a German opponent in the Olympic consolation semifinals, Mark would also likely have an Olympic medal on his list of achievements.
6. Royce Alger, University of Iowa. 5th, 1st and 1st in the NCAA
Sometimes it is easy to forget that Alger had a couple UFC fights, but we should not forget about that he once stood almost on the very top of the wrestling world. After winning two NCAA titles, Royce placed second at a Senior World Championships in freestyle.
5. Townsend "Junior" Saunders, Arizona State and Cal State Bakersfield. 1st (Division II), 2nd and 3rd in the NCAA
Saunders fought twice in the UFC, both losses, one a split decision to Pat Miletich. As a freestyle wrestler, he won two Olympic Team Trials, four World Team Trials, and placed second in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
4. Matt Lindland, University of Nebraska
Matt holds the dubious distinction of being the only college wrestler in history to enter an NCAA championship as the top seed and then get eliminated by losing his first match (the tournament at the time followed a "piggy back" format). He more than made up for this let down on the Senior Greco circuit where he won the World Team Trials four times and made an Olympic team. You always hear of his Olympic silver medal in 2000, but you rarely hear of how in 2001 he moved up a weight and won a silver medal at the Greco World Championships.
3. Yoel Romero
Romero won five medals at world championships, including a gold medal in 1999. Twice in world-level finals he lost to Adam Saitiev, whom I believe to be the third greatest wrestler ever. This includes the 2000 Olympic finals where Saitiev pinned him in one of the most spectacular moves in Olympic history, thus securing an Olympic silver medal for Romero.
2. Kevin Jackson, Louisiana State and Iowa State. 3rd, 3rd, 7th and 2nd in the NCAA
Kevin is the most accomplished senior level wrestler in this ranking, and the only UFC fighter in history to have won an Olympic gold medal in a non-boycotted Olympics. On top of his Olympic triumph, Kevin won two world championships, and almost medaled in a third, finishing fourth in 1994. The only reason he does not receive the nod for the top spot on this list is because this ranking also considers collegiate accomplishments.
As a side note, a famous story tells of Jackson losing a match to Vladimir Matyushenko during a trip to Europe after Matyushenko was seen washing the mats. Supposedly, this is where Matyushenko got the nickname "Janitor". Matyushenko is said to have won a USSR championship, which if true would place him fairly high on this list, unfortunately, no documentation of his international wrestling accomplishments appear readily available.
Which leads us to the most accomplished wrestler in UFC history...
1. Mark Schultz, Oklahoma University. 1st, 1st, and 1st in the NCAA.
Schultz failed to place at the NCAA tournament as a freshman, probably because he was still learning how to wrestle - after all, he only started as a high school junior. In terms of pure physical ability, Mark Schultz may have possessed more gifts than any competitor to ever step foot on a wrestling mat, or to enter a UFC Octagon, and we should all feel a bit of disappointment in the fact that he only fought once.
Not only did Mark win three NCAA titles, but one of them came with a finals victory over Ed Banach. This would stand as Banach's only defeat at an NCAA tournament, and the only match which separated him from becoming college wrestling's first four-time national champion.
In his Senior level freestyle career, Mark won the World Team Trials three times, and the Olympic Team Trials twice. His most remembered moment came in the Los Angeles Olympics where he joined his brother Dave as an Olympic Champion, but his greatest competitive achievements came later. Wrestling powers Russia, Cuba and Iran all boycotted the L.A. Games, but all three attended the 1985 and 1987 World Championships, where Schultz also won gold medals.
Look forward to Channing Tatum's depiction of Mark Schultz in the forthcoming film "Foxcatcher".
With that, we conclude this ranking of the most accomplished wrestlers in UFC history. Let the debate begin over the merits of this list, and let me know if you think I left anyone out.