The Factgrinder series has now produced an admirable body of analysis of the actual wrestling accomplishments of MMA stars. Unfortunately, it appears that this series no longer has an exclusive claim over the duty of putting wrestling credentials into perspective; this week, UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis did a little factgrinding of his own, and in the process may have opened the door for discussion on the best path a young wrestler should take when embarking on a mixed martial arts career.
Comparing wrestling backgrounds with UFC 172 opponent Anthony Johnson, Davis likened the difference between his NCAA Division I experience and Johnson's junior college (NJCAA) experience* to the difference between the National Football League and a short-lived novelty minor football league.
"Here's the thing. If a guy is pretty good in the XFL, what does that mean to a guy in the NFL? I say that with all seriousness," Davis explained to Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter. "I am not trying to be condescending. Division I is Division I. Anything else is not D-I. Junior college is not even D-II."
Though comparing anything to the XFL is cruel, Davis's comments are right on target. Even the best NJCAA wrestlers usually do not have the skills necessary to excel in Division I, college wrestling's top tier. Though it may sound like obnoxious conceit, Davis correctly recognizes that the magnitude of his wrestling achievements easily outstrips that of Johnson's.
Cleverly, Davis's dismissal of NJCAA wrestling performs double duty. Though he ostensibly aimed his comments at Johnson, they also clearly apply to UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who also only wrestled collegiately on the NJCAA level. Davis has done a good bit of direct jawing at Jones this week, and in this instance he continued to verbally lash out at the champion, only this time he did so using Johnson as a proxy.
Davis provides an accurate appraisal of the NJCAA's general level of competition relative to Division I, but he fails to recognize the existence of the many exemplary junior college wrestlers who transferred into a Division I program and enjoyed incredible success. Plenty of these wrestlers have fought in the UFC; Brock Lesnar, Matt Lindland, Daniel Cormier and Chris Weidman represent just a few athletes who parlayed stand-out NJCAA careers into high-level success in Division I wrestling.
Had Jon Jones matriculated to a Division I school instead of embarking on a fighting career, all signs point to the fact that he too would have fared very well on college wrestling's biggest stage. In fact, through high school and one year of college, Jones and Davis possessed strikingly similar wrestling resumes.
In high school, both Davis and Jones placed multiple times in elite wrestling states. Jones's finished as a state champion in New York, while fourth was the highest finish ever attained by Davis, though in the considerably tougher wrestling state of Pennsylvania. Both wrestlers earned the coveted title of Fargo All-American, and both achieved identical fourth-place finishes at the NHSCA Senior National Championships. Additionally, coming out of high school, each wrestler received attention from Division I college wrestling powerhouses. Davis signed with Penn State, and Jones looked poised to attend Iowa State, but had to make a detour to junior college.
During his first year at Penn State, Davis redshirted and only wrestled in open tournaments, notching high finishes at every event he entered. Jones, in a freshman campaign that saw him win an NJCAA championship Iowa Central, also produced good showings at a number of similar open tournaments. En route to a second-place finish at the 2005 Northern Iowa Open, Jones even beat future NCAA Division I champion Max Askren.
Judging from their highly comparable career arcs through their initial collegiate season, Davis's performance in his four subsequent years of NCAA wrestling could very accurately represent what could have been for Jones. Davis would start four years for Penn State, claim Division I All American honors four times and win a national championship.
Only one of Davis's final four seasons in college would prove sufficient for him to boast a wrestling pedigree superior to Johnson's or Jones's, as any meaningful accolade in Division I wrestling automatically outweighs its counterpart in the NJCAA. However, Davis probably didn't realize that initiating a comparison between his wrestling background and Jones's provides a unique opportunity to study what best prepares a combat athlete for a mixed martial arts career.
Through their teenage years, Davis and Jones had mirror-image wrestling careers. After that, their paths diverged, one kept wrestling, and the other started fighting. If the two meet up in a fight someday in the future, it will certainly provide great insight into the issue of the optimal time for a budding fighter to leave the wrestling mats behind, and ready himself for the cage.
*Anthony Johnson, just like Vladimir Matyushenko, was a NJCAA national champ for Lassen Community College in California. Quinton Jackson also briefly wrestled for Lassen.