After a brief hiatus, this ranking of the 20 greatest wrestling matches between future MMA stars continues with the much-anticipated fourth installment.
11. Johny Hendricks vs. Charlie Brenneman-2004 NCAA Championships, Round of 12.
I've written about it before, and I'll write about it again: the evening session of the second day of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships is the greatest spectacle in sports.
This session, which falls on Friday, features action on six different mats. On the center two mats, each weight holds its semifinals, the winners of which wrestle Saturday night in the championship match. The four peripheral mats host the blood round, the round of 12 in the consolation bracket. Wrestlers in the blood round have already lost one match; if they win, they continue on to the Saturday morning session along with the semifinal losers, if they lose, their tournament, season and possibly even their career, is over.
Those few who find themselves competing on the Saturday of the NCAA championships, roughly a quarter of the initial field, have already secured a finish in the top eight of their weight, a distinction also known as All-American status. The losers of the blood round, on the other hand, finish in a four way tie for twelfth, receiving no ceremony, and no special recognition.
An impressive array of future UFC fighters wrestled their final college match in that blood round: Rashad Evans, Urijah Faber, Scott Jorgensen, Frankie Edgar, Kenny Robertson and Charlie Brenneman. Out of all of those, Brenneman is the only one to lose in the blood round to another future mma standout. In the 2004 round of 12 in the 157 pound weight class of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, Brenneman lost to current UFC title-contender Johny Hendricks.
Brenneman wrestled for Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, which despite an unfortunate recent history, has long enjoyed the status of a mid-major power in college wrestling. Despite coming into the tournament unseeded, and losing in the first round, Brenneman fought back to the round of 12, and the precipice of All-America. Unfortunately, Hendricks, an Oklahoma State redshirt freshman looking to achieve college stardom after a legendary high school career, proved too much for the Lock Haven wrestler, winning 11-1. Brenneman, a senior, had wrestled, and lost, for the final time. Hendricks went on to place fifth, and would win the following two NCAA championships at 165 pounds. In fact, after 2004, Hendricks's only other loss in the NCAA tournament came in his final collegiate match in 2007, where he fell to Iowa's Mark Perry in the gold-medal finals.
10. Daniel Cormier vs. Steve Mocco- 2007 Dave Schultz Memorial International
Imagine if Jon Jones fought, and beat, Cain Velasquez. The amount of buzz and news coverage would be massive; there would be no bigger achievement or story in mixed martial-arts for years.
In 2007, Daniel Cormier pulled off a feat similar to Jones beating Velasquez, only he did it in freestyle wrestling. That year in the freestyle finals of the Dave Schultz Memorial International, the biggest international wrestling tournament in the USA, Cormier competed at 120 kg and defeated current WSOF fighter Steve Mocco for first place in a close, six-minute match.
Cormier, unable or unwilling to make his normal weight of 96 kg, wrestled up and bested Mocco, the man who would represent, and almost medal for, the United States at 120 kg in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. From 2003 to 2008, Cormier owned the American freestyle 96 kg slot at four different World Championships and two Olympics. With his win against Mocco, Cormier showed he would have been the favorite to make the 2008 USA Olympic team at two different weights. Considering that the Beijing Olympics only featured seven weights in freestyle wrestling, that's pretty darned impressive.
[Note: In the semi finals of the 2007 Schultz, Cormier beat Tommy Rowlands in straight periods. Rowlands was a two-time Olympic trials runner-up, and once place fifth in the world at heavyweight. In the quarterfinals he beat Pat Cummins in a lop-sided two-period match. Cummins, a current MMA prospect, once claimed a win at heavyweight over world bronze-medalist Tolly Thompson.]
During his wrestling heyday, Cormier asserted complete dominance over domestic competition. If another wrestler wore a Team USA singlet, it seemed as if Cormier could not lose to him. The two-time Olympian could crush his countrymen, yet he only yielded one world-level bronze medal in six tries, seemingly unable to maintain a consistent level of excellence on the world's biggest stage.
While I believe Cormier performed well at the 2004 Olympics, narrowly missing a medal in an absurdly stacked weight class, I have to theorize that the underwhelming nature of some of his later results, including medically defaulting out of the 2008 Olympics, was primarily due to his weight. Between competitions, Cormier ballooned up massively, and did not strip the excess mass until dangerously close to the scheduled weigh ins.
In support of my theory, I offer an episode of the 2008 television documentary series A Shot at Glory, which chronicles some of Cormier's preparations for the 2008 Games. One of the big topics discussed in the episode is Cormier's struggles with his weight. At one point, Cormier steps on the scale and the camera captures this image.
I conferred with my colleagues over zoomed-in photos of the scales' digital readout, and while we can't make out the entire number, we all concur that Cormier's weight reads at over 240 pounds. Based on the air date of the documentary, Cormier had to lose over 30 pounds only a few weeks before competing in the 2008 Olympics (he had to make 96 kgm which is around 211 pounds). Knowing this, we should not experience surprise at the fact that Cormier's weight cut took a tragic turn, requiring hospitalization and keeping him from taking the mat in his second Olympics.
Current weigh ins at UFC fights, as well as his physical appearance, lead me to think that Cormier has turned over a new leaf, and embraced a more mature, responsible approach to weight management. Cormier had the talent to beat anyone in the world as a wrestler, but his weight got in the way. Now if he can make 205 pounds as a mixed martial artist in a healthy disciplined manner, expect remarkable results.
We don't have a video of Cormier vs. Mocco, but we have the first part of a weird cash-prize wrestling match in Canada between Mocco and Mo Lawal, which I guess, in a manner of speaking, is the next best thing.
Join us next time for part VI of this ranking of the 20 greatest wrestling matches between future MMA stars.