The 20 Greatest Wrestling Matches Between Future MMA Stars, Part III: 14 and 13

Sarah Glenn

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.

14. Ben Askren vs Johny Hendricks- 2002 Wrestling USA Dream Team Classic

Every year the Dream Team Classic pits a team of national all-stars against the best wrestlers of a single state in a  wrestling dual meet. Unsurprisingly the national team always wins, but at least the event serves as a showcase for the outstanding wrestlers in a particular state. In 2002, the Dream Team Classic came to Wisconsin and at the 160 pound weight class, Team USA's Johny Hendricks faced Team Wisconsin's Ben Askren.

Both wrestlers had already achieved legendary status within their respective states' wrestling communities. Oklahomans, in particular were already starting to recognize Hendricks as one of the finest wrestlers Oklahoma, a state renowned for generating top-flight wrestling talent, had ever produced. The previous summmer, at the USAW Junior National Freestyle Championships in Fargo, North Dakota, high school wrestling's most prestigious tournament, Hendricks put on a display of absolute dominance which included wins over numerous future college wrestling stars, and in particular, blow out victory over Askren.

When Hendricks and Askren wrestled again at the Dream Team Classic, the Oklahoman won once again by a comfortable margin. [Note: the final score was actually 7-5, though it seemed more lopsided]

Askren could not keep up with Hendricks's relentless pressure and physically punishing style when they met as teenagers. Unfortunately, a very vocal contingent of Oklahoma wrestling fans still rely on these results to advance the theory that Hendricks would have defeated Askren had they met during the height of their college careers. Though such a matchup never took place, Askren's level of accomplishments, and dominance, in college and beyond considerably outstrip Hendricks's. Had they wrestled one another in 2006 or 2007, all signs point to an Askren victory.

As an additional bit of interesting information, also wrestling on Team Wisconsin for the 2002 Dream Team Classic: future former undefeated Bellator champion, Cole Konrad.

13. Rulon Gardner vs. Alexander Karelin-2000 Olympics Greco-Roman Super Heavyweight Gold Medal Match

Since the 2000 Olympics, two competing narratives vie for the status as the "true" telling of the story of Rulon Gardner's one to zero upset of Alexander Karelin in the Greco-Roman finals of the Sydney Games.  Both narratives fail pretty miserably.

The first, we will call the "Patriotic Underdog" narrative. As soon as the Star Spangled Banner played behind a laurel wreathed Gardner standing atop the medal stand, sports reporters, most with absolutely no knowledge of the sport of wrestling, began writing stories of the humble and unlikely American hero prevailing against all odds. This match instantly became David vs. Goliath, St, George vs. the dragon, the entire 1980 Team USA hockey team beating the Soviets condensed into a two rather large people. The simple, lovable, noble, pudgy American farm boy Gardner, a corpulent everyman, with a pocket full of courage and a never-say-never attitude, defeated the monstrously muscled Soviet soldier Karelin, a man who had not lost in more than a decade, more a scary machine than a man.

For a paradigmatic example of this, read here.

This narrative ignores several important realities. First, Gardner did not come out of nowhere, and he was neither unheralded nor average. Gardner, after an All-American career at the University of Nebraska, had to overcome one of the most loaded crops of Greco heavyweights ever assembled by a single country just to make the Olympic team. Other then Gardner, the U.S. stable featured Matt Ghaffari, a world silver medalist and runnerup at the 1996 Olympics, as well as Dremiel Byers, a future world champion, Olympian and three time medalist at the World Championships. Furthermore, Gardner already had a number of high profile wins over some of the world's top Greco wrestlers along with a fifth-place finish in the 1997 World Championships. Rulon's impressive career did not just begin with his win over Karelin.

Additionally, the years of training and competition had clearly worn on Karelin. Throughout the earlier rounds of the Sydney Olympics, he dominated but did not obliterate his opponents with his normal aplomb. At 33 (this age seems somewhat suspicious), he wasn't that old chronologically, but sometimes when a car has that sort of mileage on it the wheels just suddenly fall off. The fact that he never competed again after the Gardner loss suggests a pre-existing readiness to leave the sport behind.

So while history should view Rulon's defeat of Karelin as a major upset and a monumental achievement, it should not get so carried away. Also it should give Gardner a little more credit, yes, he was fat, but the guy could flat out wrestle.

The second narrative, a sort of reverse of the first, we will call the "Karelin Got Screwed, and Gardner Deserves No Credit" narrative. This version of the story simply states that Garder benefitted from a mere technicality in the then new wrestling rules, rendering his victory worthless. Furthermore, the wrestling rules hurt Karelin by design. FILA, or the IOC, or some alphabet-soup organization calling the shots wanted Karelin to lose.

This seems rather absurd. How would the sinister rule makers anticipate that Karelin, the greatest gripper and thrower of big flabby men ever to walk this Earth, would unlock his hands during the tie-breaking clinch and concede a point? Additionally, why would FILA, wrestling itself, want to deprive that sport's biggest star of his most noteworthy moment, a fourth Olympic gold medal? IOC president Juan Samaranch, himself, had deigned to visit the Sydney wrestling venue planning on presenting Karelin an award for the Russian's unprecedented quadruple gold, only to storm out of the building when an aide explained to him that Karelin inexplicably had lost to his tubby American opponent.

The second narrative lacks all credibility. Sports need tie-breaking procedures, even arbitrary and unpredictable tie-breaking procedures. If a team wins the World Cup in soccer by way of a penalty shoot-out, that championship still retains its validity. Gardner won a genuine victory by outperforming Karelin in the clinch, a stupid part of the rules that both had an equal amount of time to prepare for.

Samaranch's previously mentioned reaction reveals the real problem with Gardner and Karelin's match: the abominable rules in place for Greco-Roman wrestling. Now, since wrestling almost unthinkably lost its place in the Olympics, Samaranch's anger serves as an omen of what was to come. After watching the match between Garner and Karelin, the IOC's president's ire seems appropriate. First off, even to the trained eye, this version of Greco-Roman wrestling appears to consist of little more than two large men leaning on one another and jockeying for position. No one in their right mind would find watching this fun. Second, Gardner wins the match in overtime, but he scored the winning point a third of the way through the match, so the match entered a three minute period of added wrestling even though one wrestler had a point and one did not. What in the world was FILA thinking when it instituted this nonsense of a match structure? It defies belief.

[Author's Note: I believe the idiotic rule of the time stated that and aggregate of three points must have scored to avoid overtime.]

Anyways, the Olympic finals match in question appears below for those interested.

For those wondering how such a historically important match between such accomplished wrestlers could only receive a ranking of thirteen, both only had one MMA match, and Karelin's was a work against Akira Maeda in Rings in 1999. This "MMA fight" apparently earned a massive gate, and its proximity to the end of Karelin's career would give the impression that the Russian did not mind earning a little extra coin off of his fame before his body completely failed him. At least they worked in Karelin's legendary reverse lift about halfway through the fight, though the wrestling icon fails, or refuses out of fear for injury, to do anything impressive with it. When you watch the fight, you should notice the unconvincingly gentle manner in which Karelin enters into the wrestling exchanges.

Gardner's MMA bout took place in Pride in 2004 against 1992 Olympic Judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida. Gardner looked better than expected, and won, but nothing about the match bears recommendation to anyone

Join us next time for part IV of the ranking of the 20 Greatest Wrestling Matches between MMA Stars.

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