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Wrestling to MMA prospect: Danny Sabatello

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After a quick 6-0 start to his pro MMA career, can the former Division 1 wrestler capture his first major regional title?

Danny Sabatello Photo courtesy of Kevin Kleeblatt (@klxxblatt)

While the “Wrestling breakdown” and “Wrestling for MMA” series have been great for giving closer looks at the top, most accomplished athletes in freestyle and mixed martial arts today, they leave little room for recognizing the young, unheralded talents fans should have their eye on.

The “Wrestling Invasion” may be slowing

Every year, dozens of solid junior college, NAIA, Division 2 and Division 3 competitors make the jump, and a good proportion find success as they continue to rise through the professional ranks.

But at the Division 1 level, the pinnacle of folkstyle, we may be seeing fewer athletes headed into the cage post-grad than in the past. Wealth has always been the main motivating factor, and you’ve heard it time and time again - there is no money in wrestling. However, with the growth of the Regional Training Center (RTC) system, senior level athletes have the opportunity to train freestyle professionally without holding official coaching titles at college programs. As the sport continues to grow its infrastructure, you’ll see a greater proportion of the best wrestlers stay in wrestling. We’ll always have superstars like Bo Nickal and Kyle Dake teasing and potentially pursuing a switch to MMA, but the key wrestling to MMA prospects have always been lower profile All-Americans, with the rare national champion in the mix. That’s exactly the level of athlete MMA may start missing out on.

I badly want four-time Pennsylvania state champion and two-time Division 1 All-American Chance Marsteller in MMA, but I’m happy he’s able to make a living wrestling freestyle for the Lehigh Valley Wrestling Club. An athlete with his position on the ladder would not have had that kind of opportunity even a few years ago, without a coaching gig at least.

With that being said, plenty of college coaches have come out against the RTC model. RTCs aren’t technically part of the colleges they’re often housed at, they can receive and spend donor money freely. That means the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, the RTC with the largest endowment by far, can do things like outbid the Ohio RTC and bring three-time World and Olympic champion Kyle Snyder to Happy Valley. Potential recruits know if they can meet the criteria for resident athlete status, they’ll be able to train with the likes of Snyder if they go to Penn State. We recently saw Daniel Greg Kerkvliet, the nation’s hottest recruit, flip his commitment from Ohio State to Penn State almost immediately following this hire.

Given that most programs don’t have the donor base to fund RTCs, let alone support a star-studded stable of senior athletes, this is a huge disadvantage. Too many Division 1 programs are fighting to retain funding from their own schools, securing external boosters is a luxury they can’t afford. But without an alluring RTC, it’s going to be tough to land even one recruit that could turn things around.

It’s possible this system will disappear, or be adapted in the next few years.

But for now, the RTC model is in full effect. That’s why MMA fans have cause for celebration when a Division 1 standout opts for MMA rather than pursuing the international styles.

Trained by American Top Team, three-time NCAA championship qualifier Danny Sabatello made his pro debut in the summer of 2018 and has been perfect since.

Wrestling to MMA Prospect: Danny Sabatello

The Boilermaker Tradition

While they may not have the storied wrestling to MMA history of power programs like Oklahoma State or Arizona State, Big Ten program Purdue University does have a legacy to uphold in MMA.

For some time, Jon Fitch was the face of hard-working overachievers in MMA. His grinding, control-based wrestling style did little to ingratiate him to fans, but he turned back nearly every prominent welterweight of his generation, winning 21 of 22 fights in a seven-year span.

Fitch’s MMA career was built upon the momentum and improvements he earned as a walk-on wrestler for Purdue. His high school career hadn’t been strong enough to earn a scholarship offer, but Fitch battled his way into the lineup and finally posted a winning record his senior year. Wrestling to MMA transitions are often inspired by “unfinished business”, athletes chasing unrealized competitive potential.

While Illinois native Danny Sabatello has always been leagues above wrestlers of Fitch’s caliber, the spirit of a missing legacy is there.

A three-time state placewinner and two-time state champion with a 152-13 record, Sabatello was a top-15 recruit nationally at 125 pounds by the end of his senior year. “The Italian Gangsta” earned a reputation as a spirited competitor due to his high school rivalry with future Oklahoma State Cowboy Eddie Klimara. The underdog in each of their meetings in the state finals, Sabatello embraced “shock this world” as his own personal brand, handing Klimara his only two losses in state tournament competition. An Illinois high school wrestling rivalry might sound silly, but look at this message board heat.

Transitioning to college, Sabatello earned a winning record as a redshirt freshman, but failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Wrestling in the Big Ten, he would have to perform spectacularly to place at the conference championships to get a bid.

In his sophomore year, after bumping up to 141 pounds, Sabatello jumped levels. After qualifying for the NCAA championships, he earned Purdue’s “Most Improved” award post-season. He posted wins over ranked wrestlers like Lehigh’s Laike Gardner, as well as wins over All-Americans in Steven Rodrigues and Joey Lazor. Sabatello was matched early with highly ranked All-American Chris Dardanes of Minnesota at NCAAs, he was quickly dropped from the championship bracket.

Sabatello’s junior season marked the move from “Most Improved” to “Most Outstanding”. Not only did he qualify for the NCAA tournament at 133 pounds, he captured two victories before falling in the round of 16. That year Sabatello picked up his best career wins, defeating All-Americans in Jimmy Gulibon (Penn State) and Scott DelVecchio (Rutgers), as well as two-time All-Americans in Eric Montoya (Nebraska) and Zane Richards (Illinois). Later that year Sabatello competed at University Freestyle Nationals and took 4th, wrestling up at 65 kg.

As solid as Sabatello’s senior year was, he definitely fell short of where he was projected, based on the pace he’d been building at. He notched wins over the ultra-tough Anthony Abidin (Nebraska), as well as All-Americans Dan Neff (Lock Haven) and Tommy Thorn (Minnesota), but finished 1-2 at NCAAs. To be fair, his draw was rough. His first round match was against a similarly lanky Kevin Jack of NC State, the #3 seed. In the consolation bracket, Sabatello pinned a solid Robbie Mathers (Arizone State), then went out after an insane 10-12 match with future national champion Seth Gross (South Dakota State).

Despite holding wins over eight All-Americans, in addition to countless ranked wrestlers and national qualifiers, Sabatello finished his college career without standing on the podium in March.

Understandably dissatisfied with his career, Sabatello set his sights on the cage.

Wrestling Style

Danny Sabatello is an excellent representative for the Boilermaker approach to wrestling, a style defined by raw tenacity and physicality on the feet, and heavy top riding on the mat. It’s a shame Sabatello graduated before mat wrestling genius AJ Schopp came on to coach at Purdue, as he would have likely been a great complement to Sabatello’s already-superb leg riding game.

Let’s start with his game from neutral. Sabatello has always been fit, and certainly strong for his lanky frame, but he’s never been the most agile or explosive wrestler at his weight. A bit of a bruiser on the feet, Sabatello rarely relied on pure finesse, either.

However, this does not mean he didn’t have his technique and process down pat.

To get to the legs, Sabatello relied on chaining attacks, continuous offense. He was a solid handfighter, at times he could score purely from short offense, hitting drags, shrugs and slide-bys from the collar. Now and then he had a tough time getting more physical opponents completely out of position to score clean. Instead, he would drag his foe into grueling collar tie battles, bide his time, then burst out of the ties to a head-outside single.

If he had the space or positioning, Sabatello could stand and kick out the supporting leg, but more often he was chasing the far ankle or working from the seatbelt while fighting for the single. It’s an exhausting style, but it worked for him. His mat wrestling talent meant that he could likely outmaneuver and outlast anyone in a prolonged scramble for a takedown, and he was mean enough to create openings to begin those sequences.

Sabatello knows how to make the most of his physical gifts. The benefit of his longer frame comes in handy in these scrambling situations. Even if his opponent whizzered to defend the single, he could often step across the back and put a boot in with his right leg. As his career progressed, you could see Sabatello’s methodology getting more technical. In the above clip, you can watch Sabatello work step by step through finishing his singles, to great effect. But, above all, Danny Sabatello kept reattacking and kept fighting for his takedown no matter what, he was uniquely tenacious.

His takedowns were hard-fought and difficult to come by against the elite. That’s where his top game and mat wrestling came into play.

MMA commentary teams like to talk about the differing control styles of wrestlers, noticing how many prefer to control with more traditional wrist rides from turtle rather than looking to put their hooks in.

That’s why it’s always refreshing to see fighters like Gregor Gillespie and Danny Sabtello, noted leg riders in college who continue to proudly ride with boots in MMA. Before he was allowed to choke and punch from back control, Sabatello was still a monster on top.

Favoring techniques that utilized his length, Sabatello typically put at least one leg in and often rode cross body, locking his hands around the opposite leg for a banana split variant. It’s really encouraging to see Sabatello get to his top attacks right off the whistle, or directly after a takedown. You see zero hesitation Sabatello hitting his tilt from a tight waist directly off his double leg, a trait that would have served him well in freestyle.

Sabatello’s supreme confidence in his ability on the mat has translated beautifully to MMA.

While his strength was definitely as a volume shooter and top rider, Sabatello was no slouch in upper body positions or on the counter.

It speaks well to his awareness and athleticism in open exchanges that he was able to respond quickly and effectively to these attacks.

MMA Career

Right after college, Sabatello went home to Chicago and began preparing to fight, but he was admittedly unfocused.

In this interview with MMA News, Sabatello revealed that he was mostly partying and didn’t take his training seriously.

He had set out to become a world champion, and he knew this approach wasn’t going to cut it. Sabatello plainly puts it that one day he woke up, hungover, looked himself in the mirror and thought, “If I’m gonna be UFC champion, I’ve got to do something big, why not go to the best gym in the world?”

Shortly thereafter, Sabatello moved to South Florida and joined American Top Team. Coached by Mike Brown and legendary wrestler Steve Mocco, Sabatello crafted his game.

From July of 2018 to August of 2019, Sabatello fought six times, going undefeated with five first-round finishes, three in under two minutes. Considering his wrestling style, it was no surprise that Sabatello was manhandling bantamweights on the ground, but no one expected that he’d be scoring flashy head kick knockouts in only a few months time.

Fight footage is hard to come by, but from Sabatello’s one minute and 41 seconds in Titan FC, we can already draw a few conclusions about his fighting style.

Conceptually, there are parallels to his wrestling. Rather than applying a series of steady stimuli to open up a larger opportunity to attack, Sabatello bides his time, waits for his moment than explodes into a flurry.

As always, Sabatello is relentless from that moment on. 5’8 at bantamweight isn’t a huge height advantage, but Sabatello’s long limbs will continue to serve him well to keep pressure on the head of his opponent and control posture during his assault.

Refusing to turn down the pressure and pace, Sabatello keeps his hands on but disengages from sticking positions, stacking in guard and preferring to float on top as he drops a relentless barrage of hammer fists, straight punches and long elbows. In the above clip we see Sabatello transition to a front choke, then switch back off to a collar tie to continue his high-velocity pressure attack.

Sabatello understands that his fitness and physicality are weapons, he prioritizes extending exchanges and keeping the pace moving. If the choke isn’t tight, he moves on. His undersized and overmatched opponent conceded increasingly disadvantageous positions until the referee had seen enough.

Titan FC Bantamweight Title

On Friday, December 20th on UFC Fight Pass, Sabatello takes a tremendous step up in competition when he faces Hooft-trained Irwin Rivera at Titan FC 58.

While Rivera’s 8-4 record doesn’t jump off the page, his first-round knockout over a then-streaking Lazar Stojadinovic is certainly impressive, especially considering the striker vs. striker clash in that matchup.

Rivera hasn’t been legitimately defeated since 2017, and every second the still-green Sabatello spends on the feet puts him at risk for a swift destruction.

I wager we’ll learn a lot about Danny Sabatello in this Titan FC five-round title bout. It’s still early, but I see Sabatello fitting into a similar stylistic mold as Khabib Nurmagomedov, at least as a wrestler in MMA. His entries aren’t the cleanest, but he knows how to force wrestling situations and his finishes are physical and procedural. Once on the mat, he looks to be a handful.

It’s an approach with serious drawbacks, but Sabatello’s cardio and naturally chaotic feel make it a better fit for him than most. Typically you’d like to see a fighter at least contend with their opponent on the feet to get to opportune wrestling entries, but in this case it’s a good thing that Sabatello can essentially dive on a leg and work from there.

He’ll face some adversity, but it’s likely that Danny Sabatello emerges as a champion after this weekend. Still only one year into his pro career, he needs time to grow, but you never know when the UFC may come calling.