Bubba Jenkins (top): Jeff Sherwood | Sherdog.com
FRESNO, Calif. -- I am not in-the-know when it comes to college wrestling, but I was assured by those who are that the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic is a pretty big deal.
“The greatest pool of possible future MMA talent under one roof,” I was told. “It’s like the Pro Bowl and All-Star game of wrestling. Someone at this event will be a MMA star.”
Naturally, I was excited to be at the Selland Arena in Fresno for its 45th iteration.
In the last 25 years, the event has hosted 17 athletes who went on to become Zuffa veterans, either of the UFC, WEC or “The Ultimate Fighter,” including Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, Matt Hughes, Josh Koscheck, Matt Lindland, and unbeaten prospects Johny Hendricks and Phil Davis. That list doesn’t include the non-Zuffa notables, such as Cole Konrad, “King Mo” Muhammed Lawal, Ben Askren, and others right on down the line to Tom Erikson.
One event! All That talent!
And yet, the place is a ghost town. For an event that features some of the greatest college athletes in the country, there is very little public interest. I suppose there is a reason that there is currently such a strong grassroots movement to “save” collegiate wrestling in California. Then again, in the last 20 years, the event has only drawn a crowd larger than 5,000 spectators twice, both times in Iowa, where over 8,000 turned up. Typically, it’s a 2,500-3,500 spectator affair, and this day is no different. Yet, for those in attendance, the excitement is obvious. The line-up lists a who’s who of top-ranked wrestlers, meeting one another in head-to-head exhibition match-ups to really kickoff the young 2010-2011 wrestling season. The match-ups do not count toward wrestlers’ season records; only bragging rights are on the line.
Just as impressive as the talent on the mat is the talent sitting around watching: Josh Koscheck, Urijah Faber, Phil Baroni and Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas were all there. Team Thirsty compatriots Mo Lawal and Daniel Cormier conversed in a corner. I spot two-time NCAA national champion and Bellator welterweight ace Ben Askren. I hoped he might have some info on wrestlers planning to compete in MMA in the future and could help me in my story-writing pursuit. “Flip a coin,” he muses. “They’re not going to talk about it now. They’re focused on wrestling. But, half these guys could be MMA stars in five years.”
He is right. A decade ago, the NWCA All-Star Classic might feature one future MMA fighter, maybe two. In recent years, it seems every year has multiple notables. For instance, in 2006, Hendricks, Konrad, Rosholt and Paul Bradley all competed. A few coaches clue me in on which wrestlers they think I should talk to. Zack Bailey, the No. 3 ranked 141-pounder out of Oklahoma, says maybe he will consider fighting one day after the Olympics. Meanwhile, Clayton Foster, the fourth-ranked 197-pounder from Oklahoma State -- whose coaches assured me is one of the toughest dudes ever -- says he isn’t sure of an MMA future and had no plans beyond wrestling.
Fortunately, the one athlete who professes an immediate future in MMA turns out to be perhaps the day’s finest competitor.
“After I win this national championship, I’m in MMA. I’m not really looking to be an Olympic champion or anything like that. I kinda want to knock some folks out and make some entertainment,” boasts Bubba Jenkins, the fourth-ranked 157-pounder out of Arizona State.
Jenkins was a surprise runner-up for Penn State in the 2008 NCAA national tournament, losing to Brent Metcalf, who won that year’s Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate wrestler. Jenkins finished his career with a .973 winning percentage, tied for fourth all-time in NCAA history. He has also tasted success in international wrestling, having captured gold in freestyle at the 2007 Junior World Championships.
Jenkins’ 2008 breakout run didn’t portend greater success: ankle and back injuries led him to not even place at the 2009 tournament, and then forced him to redshirt his next year.
When new coach Cael Sanderson -- an Olympic gold medalist who never tasted defeat in his college career -- came to Penn State, he and Jenkins were at odds with one another. With one year of eligibility left, Jenkins transferred to Arizona State.
That’s not to say all his ties with the Nittany Lions are severed. Here to support him is former Penn State national champion-turned-light heavyweight prospect Phil Davis. Davis is not even 24 hours removed from his second-round submission of Tim Boetsch at UFC 123 in Auburn Hills, Mich. He has not slept yet. After the post-fight festivities, Davis boarded a plane out to Fresno to watch his friend and former teammate compete.
On the mat, Jenkins takes on the 157-pound division’s top-ranked wrestler, Adam Hall of Boise State, a team soaring high on the mats and not just the football field. Watching the match, you could never guess who the No. 1 was.
Almost immediately, Jenkins shoots a powerful double-leg which Hall defends. Jenkins springs up, gets a front headlock and snaps him down in the blink of an eye. The moment Hall is on the mat, Jenkins rips him over for a near fall with a cement mixer. In MMA, it might have been an anaconda choke instead. The fight could’ve been over in 30 seconds. When all is said and done, Jenkins earns a major decision over the top dog in his weight class with a score of 12-4. It was never even competitive. The only comparable performance on the day is Jenkins’ teammate, fifth-ranked 125-pounder Anthony Robles, who dominated No. 3 Zach Sanders of Minnesota to a 20-2 technical fall. Robles, a congenital amputee, was born without his right leg.
With Jenkins’ remarkable athletic ability and energetic personality, he has the skills and marketability to become a huge star in mixed martial arts, not unlike his former teammate Davis. His goal -- after winning the national title, of course -- is to get a coaching job and start training for MMA immediately.
“I am thinking of getting on staff at Arizona State next year where I have a steady income,” he explains. “Take some classes in a grad program, and then pick up an MMA training program."
“There are a lot of great gyms [in Arizona]. I love wrestling, but I’m ready to go on to the next step,” he continues. “I already started boxing when I started wrestling. I got quick hands and I’m pretty good on my feet. After I win this national championship, I'm boxing, I’m jiu-jitsu’ing, I’m MMA’ing.”
Arizona State is an appropriate place for Jenkins. Few universities have given as much to MMA: Dan Severn, Don Frye, Dan Henderson, Cain Velasquez, Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway and Aaron Simpson all came from the Sun Devils' program to MMA prominence. Arguably the greatest Sun Devil wrestler ever, Eric Larkin, is now signed with Bellator and looks to be a serious featherweight prospect.
In May 2008, ASU cut their wrestling program, only to reinstate it 10 days later due to public outcry. During an era in which many college wrestling programs are fighting to survive, and a time in which MMA is putting a greater emphasis on the college mats, it seems fitting that the reborn Sun Devils line-up is led by a future fighter.
“I love wrestling, but I think I'm gonna leave my shoes on the mat at my last match. I'm ready to go on to the next step,” Jenkins says with confidence.
That next step is toward a path marked by great footprints -- footprints that also mark the mat at the NWCA All-Star Classic.