Cole Konrad was skeptical if not hesitant about MMA. | Photo: Dave Mandel
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- He came from humble roots in Appleton, Wis., so Cole Konrad worked for what he had in life and made the most of opportunities when they arose. As a high school wrestler, he admits his career left a lot to be desired, but a family tie landed him a spot at the University of Minnesota in 2004.
“I wasn’t a very good high school wrestler,” Konrad tells Sherdog.com. “I shouldn’t have been recruited at all. I got recruited because my second cousin, Garrett, was a heavyweight at [the University of] Minnesota at the time.”
The prestige of the Minnesota wrestling program meant something to Konrad, and he developed at a rapid rate under its umbrella. Because of the school’s emphasis on high-quality training for heavyweights, he came into his own at the collegiate level, where he followed in the footsteps of Brock Lesnar and became a four-time NCAA All-American and two-time national champion (2006-07).
“I knew [Minnesota] had a great program for upper weights. Lesnar had been there. I was able to develop as a wrestler. I did alright there,” Konrad says with a smile.
However, when it came to the idea of pursuing a career in mixed martial arts, Konrad was skeptical if not hesitant. It was Lesnar who pushed his fellow Golden Gopher into the sport.
“I was starting to train for the Olympics in 2008, at the time that Brock was getting into MMA,” Konrad says. “It’s hard enough to find good training partners and it’s a lot harder when you’re 300 pounds, so he called me up and asked me to come train with him. We were friends, and he started paying me. It was like my job. After a year of it, he basically told me I needed to fight. He kind of talked me into it, and I loved it. It’s developed from there.”
Through his association with the Death Clutch Gym in Minnesota, Konrad has had constant access to high-level training, including daily sessions with Lesnar. In addition, he works with wrestling coach Marty Morgan, two-time Mundials winner Rodrigo “Comprido” Medeiros, Combat Submission Wrestling head Erik Paulson, boxing guru Peter Welch and Minnesota Martial Arts Academy trainer Greg Nelson.
“I’ve been fortunate to be at the Death Clutch camp,” Konrad says. “They bring in so many great training partners and coaches. We have the best of the best of any area.”
Konrad (7-0), nicknamed “The Polar Bear,” has shown some submission prowess early in his MMA career. He polished off his first professional win with a neck crank on Gary Hamen in January 2010. In October, Konrad used a keylock to coax a tapout from UFC veteran Neil Grove, capturing the Bellator Fighting Championships heavyweight crown at Bellator 32.
“For the keylock, he was careless with his hands and I was able to attack it,” says Konrad, who, in the span of nine short months, had gone from MMA rookie to champion. “That is a position I was working in practice. Being in side control is so natural for a wrestler, so a lot of the submissions that I naturally gravitate towards are from that position.”
Though the submission game comes naturally to Konrad, like most other wrestlers who make the foray into mixed martial arts, his most significant weakness remains his striking. Sessions with UFC heavyweight and renowned kickboxer Pat Barry have aided in his development, but there can be no substitute for time and experience.
“I’m aware that [striking] is my weakest area,” Konrad says. “I’m really focused on it. I’m always working on my hands, and I’m always working on my kicks. It’s been coming along.
“I’ve wrestled for 20 years,” the 27-year-old adds. “When you see me fight and I go to my wrestling, that’s because I’ve been doing it for 20 years. If you’ve been boxing for 20 years and you get taken down, you’re going to look like a turd, too.”
Striking may be the most pressing hole in Konrad’s game, but the 6-foot-5, 265-pound heavyweight has no intention of letting his base skill become rusty in favor of another. Wrestling will always be his bread and butter, and he views it as unwise not to give it the attention it deserves.
“I’m about equal time [training wrestling and striking],” Konrad says. “I’m not going to let my wrestling slip so that my boxing can get better. That’s foolish. Why become mediocre at everything?”
Faced with the ever-present criticism of being tagged a “boring wrestler,” Konrad seems unfazed by those who wish to label him. While many in the sport have given in to the demand to become knockout-hungry entertainers, he has a more practical approach to competition.
“I’m out there to win. I’m not out there to see if I can hang with this guy on my feet,” Konrad says. “I’m a wrestler. You’re going to have to beat that to beat me. This is my job. I’m here to win. I’m going to do what I have to [in order] to win.”
Konrad shows particular vitriol for those wrestlers who decide to channel their inner Anderson Silva, insisting on going blow-for-blow with well-known strikers rather than using their base skill in an attempt to neutralize the advantage of their opponents.
“My biggest pet peeve is when a wrestler tries to act like a striker against a striker,” he says. “I don’t understand it. It blows my mind.”
In his latest outing, Konrad will paired with a well-known striker, as he takes on former UFC heavyweight title contender Paul Buentello at Bellator 48 on Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Bellator’s format and injuries have prevented Konrad from defending his championship since he won it against Grove in the Season 3 heavyweight tournament final at Bellator 32. Still green, Konrad needs consistent work and time in the cage -- a fact to which Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney readily admits.
“I’ve got to put super fights together in order to keep a guy like Cole Konrad busy,” Rebney says. “For the time being, you got to keep funneling the machine, keep guys fighting.”
In preparation for Buentello, Konrad understands the need to be aware of the 37-year-old’s propensity for drawing opponents into brawls. As his hands are still developing, Konrad realizes such an exchange could end with disastrous consequences.
“Obviously, he is a good striker,” he says. “He’s kind of erratic. It’s a difficult style because he’s all over the place and he likes to brawl. That’s always dangerous. I look for him to try to stuff my takedowns and try to knock me out [with] heavy overhands and maybe a few leg kicks.”
In terms of the tactical approach he will take with “The Headhunter,” Konrad keeps it simple: “I don’t think his ground game can hang with mine.”
Though his strategies against fighters like Buentello may be obvious, the same cannot be said of his plans for making a living once his MMA career comes to a close. As a second-year law student, Konrad goes about his life outside the cage in the same manner as he pursues success inside it.
“It’s a good fall-back plan,” he says with a wry smile. “I’ve always wanted to go to law school. I have some buddies who are attorneys. I just finished my first year. I took the [Law School Admission Test] in the fall of ’09. I got into a couple schools, but William Mitchell [College of Law] is the only one with a night program.”
Balancing his full-time MMA schedule with his law studies was not an easy feat, but like many other situations in Konrad’s life, he was up to the challenge.
“It was a pretty challenging first year,” he says. “Most people go to the office, and, then, when they need a break, they go work out. I kind of did the opposite. During the day, I was working out and coming back and studying and going to class. It takes up so much time; it’s pretty stressful. I’d rather have a complete full day than a lot of time off.”
Konrad aims to continue his studies while also maintaining a busy fighting schedule. In the short-term, he hopes to continue growing as a martial artist during his climb up the heavyweight ladder.
“I like to fight often,” Konrad says. “A few years from now, I hope to get several fights a year. I want to be the best at what I do. I don’t have any intention of going anywhere but up.”