The 20 Greatest Wrestling Matches Between Future MMA Stars, Part II: 16 and 15

Jared Wickerham

Before they obtained fame in mixed martial arts, many great fighters competed in amateur wrestling. Sometimes, amateur wrestling matches have even featured two future prize fight combatants. Bloody Elbow wrestling specialist Mike Riordan ranks the 20 greatest wrestling matches between future MMA stars.

Welcome to part II of Bloody Elbow's ranking of the greatest wrestling matches between future MMA stars. This entry presents the 16th and 15th ranked matches. Check the storystream for this series for all previous entries.

16. Chael Sonnen vs. Mark Munoz-2001 Oklahoma State University vs. University of Oregon Dual Meet

After the year 2000, the wrestling future of Chael Sonnen looked bright. While still a student at the University of Oregon, Sonnen finished fourth in line for the Sydney Olympic spot at 85kg in Greco-Roman wrestling, and earned a silver medal at the University Greco-Roman World Championships. He returned to campus in Eugene for the 2000-2001 college wrestling season, his senior year, looking to keep his run of success going, and earn his second top eight (All American) finish in the NCAA National Championship. Chael had the appearance of a true contender for the 2001 NCAA title at 197 pounds, as well as for future Olympic and world team berths in Greco-Roman wrestling.

At this same time, Oklahoma State's Mark Munoz showed even more promise than Sonnen. In 1998, he won a silver medal in the FILA Junior World Championship in freestyle, and placed third in the 2000 NCAA championships at 197 pounds. He possessed a crisp, technical wrestling style perfectly suited for world-level freestyle competition, and going into his final year of college eligibility in the 2000-2001 season, looked poised to become an NCAA champion. All signs indicated that Munoz had what it took to make serious bids at prestigious international titles in the new century.

Unfortunately, wrestling at the elite international level has little regard for the potential of athletes, and holds endless stores of cruelty for most of those foolish enough to attempt to ascend its vertiginous slopes. Neither Munoz's nor Sonnen's post collegiate wrestling careers saw them set the world on fire.  They would not number among the top finishers of the 2004 Olympic trials, nor would they pursue a spot at the 2008 games. Only a few years removed from their greatest achievements, Munoz's and Sonnen's competitive wrestling careers petered out and ended, not due to any flaws or shortcomings on their part, but simply because wrestling is vicious, and the higher a wrestler climbs in the sport, the exponentially more vicious it becomes. Wrestling routinely divests itself of its most committed devotees, and does so without the slightest twinge of concern. Thankfully mixed martial arts await for the multitudes of talented athletes so dispassionately cast off by such a callous sport.

At least Munoz did win his NCAA title in 2001. In January of his championship season, Munoz wrestled Sonnen in a dual meet between Oklahoma State and Oregon, and beat him by the comfortable score of 10-3. Though this match featured two NCAA All Americans, and two successful UFC middleweights, it does not break into the top 15 of these rankings because regular season college dual meets, for better or for worse, matter very little in the grand scheme of wrestling history.

15. Kevin Jackson vs Vladimir Matyushenko- Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix

During the era of the Soviet Union, the Tblisi tournament in Georgia could claim the title as the toughest freestyle wrestling tournament in the world excluding the Olympics or world championship, or, depending on whom you ask, including them, for each weight class at Tblisi featured not just one of the Soviet's best wrestlers, but all of them. The presence of the USSR did a nice favor for the rest of the wrestling world by consolidating the wrestling-oriented countries of modern-day Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia into a single wrestler per weight at the Olympics and World championships. Before the end of the Cold War, you beat the Soviet and, congratulations,  you have overcome most of the world's combined wrestling talent. After the end of the Cold War, spectators at world-level wrestling tournaments would often see medal stands populated exclusively by wrestlers from former Soviet republics.

As the commonly-told story goes, the newly independent nations around the Caspian and Black seas, once the USSR fell, could finally field their own homegrown talent in international competition, and thus world and Olympic championships became harder to win because a more diverse mix of wrestling nations brought their talent to the table. This, however, only tells part of the truth.

To this day, the lion's share of world/Olympic medal caliber wrestlers originate from the semi-autonomous Russian regions of Dagestan, North Ossetia, Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria. The splintering of the Soviet Union into myriad different states now allows promising wrestlers from these parts of Russia to relocate to former Soviet nations, and occupy places on their national team lineups. North Ossetian wrestlers can immigrate to Uzbekistan, Belarus and Ukraine for spots on those wrestling teams, while Dagestanis can move across their southern border and wrestle for Azerbaijan. The dissolution of the USSR hasn't led to proliferation of national origins among the competitive wrestlers at world-level events; they still mostly come from the Russian side of the Caucasus mountains, just like they always have, now they just have more countries to wrestle for.

For reasons not readily apparent, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the great tournament in Tblisi also soon found its final resting place in the dustbin of history. The spirit of Tblisi would live on, however, in the form of the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix (since Yarygin's death in 1997, sometimes known as the Ivan Yarygin Memorial Tournament). The Ivan Yarygin, held in the Ivan Yarygin Sports Palace, and named after the Russian two-time Olympic gold medalist and national team coach, has brought some of the world's best freestyle wrestlers to the Siberian capital of Krasnoyarsk since 1990.

Kevin Jackson, two-time world champion in freestyle wrestling, Olympic gold medalist and winner of the UFC 14 middleweight tournament, wrestled at the Ivan Yarygin in the early 1990s, but he never added its championship to his resume. One reason for this lies in the abilities of an internationally unheralded Belarusian wrestler by the name of Valdimir Matyushenko. Matyushenko, who would one day win a silver medal at the European championships, compete in the world championships for the Belarusian national team and, like Jackson, fight for the UFC light heavyweight belt, was a relative unknown when he defeated Jackson in their wrestling match at the Ivan Yarygin.

As legend would have it, the task of mopping the mats before the tournament fell to a shabbily clothed Matyushenko. American team member Dave Schultz teased Jackson after his defeat, saying he lost to "the Russian janitor". Schultz, the USA's de facto wrestling ambassador, then informed Matyushenko of his new nickname, who to his credit, found it quite funny. Matyushenko took the moniker "the Janitor" with him throughout his MMA career.

The astute reader should notice that no date accompanies the discussion of this match in Krasnoyarsk. When asked, the participants in this match only confirmed that it happened but not when. In an interview, Matyushenko claimed that he beat Jackson while only eighteen years old, and that Jackson had already won a world championship. However, Jackson won his first world championship in September of 1991, eight months after Matyushenko's listed eighteenth birthday, but the Ivan Yarygin takes place in January, so this makes Matyushenko's claim impossible. Compounding the problem of pinpointing a date for this match, results lists and brackets from twenty year old Siberian wrestling tournaments do not enjoy the amount of on-line accessibility that one might think. Best guesses put the date of Jackson's and Matsyushenko's match in the 1990-1992 range.

At some point in the years after their initial meeting at the Ivan Yarygin, Jackson would wrestle Matyushenko again and avenge himself, winning by pin, though where and when remains shrouded in mystery. No video footage remains of their match wrestled so many years ago in Siberia, though fortunately and surprisingly, a recording of Matyushenko's European championship finals loss to Russia's Soslan Fraev lives on, and appears below.


Matyushenko can also claim a wrestling victory over another UFC veteran and American wrestling great, Royce Alger. During their college days, Kevin Jackson and Alger wrestled in the championship match of the NCAA tournament. Part II of these rankings conclude with the first part of this match.


Next up, the third installment of this nine-part series and ranking numbers 14 and 13.

[Updates and corrections: Chael Sonnen finished third in line for the 2000 Olympic spot. Though he finished third in the Olympic Team Trials Challenge Tournament, he beat runner up Kenny Owens of the United States Marine Corps in a "true second" match, pinning him and ending a lengthy run of futility against the rugged leatherneck.

In 1991, an A. Matyushenko of the USSR won the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix at 82kg, the only weight Kevin Jackson ever wrestled at internationally. This was also the year Dave Schultz won Yarygin. All signs point to the likelihood that A. Matyushenko is Vladimir, and he beat Jackson at the 1991 Yarygin.]

[Another Update: Kevin Jackson confirmed the match he lost to Matyushenko took place in 1991]

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