With the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled for Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sherdog.com staff and contributors sat down to put together hypothetical MMA Olympic teams for the following countries: United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Russia, England, Mexico, Poland, Australia and Sweden. This 10-part series will map out the yellow brick road to Rio de Janeiro for the men and women who call the cage home, Zika virus be damned.
Every four years, the global community gathers together in celebration of athletic competition in its purest form. In their 120-year history, the Olympics have provided the sports world -- people of all races, creeds and faiths -- with countless memories in which to revel. The United States has perhaps the richest history of any nation in the Summer Games. There was Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, destroying the Nazis’ view of racial superiority as Adolf Hitler looked on; there was Jim Thorpe ruling the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, Bob Beamon shattering the long jump record in 1968 and Michael Johnson’s breathtaking 200-meter run in downtown Atlanta in 1996; there was Cassius Clay in 1960, Mary Lou Retton in 1984, the Dream Team in 1992 and Rulon Gardner in 2000. Other Americans have etched their places permanently in Olympic lore: Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Janet Evans, Greg Louganis, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Bruce Baumgartner, Dan Gable, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Wilma Rudolph and Babe Didrikson Zaharias to name but a few.
Mixed martial arts remains an outsider at the Olympics, and considering the tight window in which the competition takes place, that seems unlikely to change anytime soon -- if ever. MMA may be too attritive an activity to be contained in a 16-day box. Injuries are inevitable, cuts and broken bones commonplace. While that reality can be harsh, it cannot stop the imagination of avid combat sports fans from wandering and wondering. What if MMA was an Olympic sport? What would a squad from the United States look like?
The selection process has been completed, and all factors were taken into consideration, from age, ranking and ability to career trajectory and head-to-head histories. The United States National MMA Team’s bags are packed, its plane pointed towards Rio de Janeiro International Airport: a head coach, five assistant coaches, a fighter in each of the 10 major weight classes and two alternates in each weight class. The team will be coached by AMC Pankration’s Matt Hume, a cerebral trainer, master strategist and former fighter who has overseen the development of Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson. He will be assisted by Greg Jackson, Duke Roufus, Robert Follis, Eddie Bravo and Bob Cook.
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2016 United States National MMA Team
• Heavyweight: Stipe Miocic
• Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones
• Middleweight: Luke Rockhold
• Welterweight: Robbie Lawler
• Lightweight: Donald Cerrone
• Featherweight: Frankie Edgar
• Bantamweight: Dominick Cruz
• Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
• Women’s Bantamweight: Ronda Rousey
• Women’s Strawweight: Rose Namajunas
HEAVYWEIGHT: Miocic completed his rise to the top of the division at UFC 198 on May 14, when he knocked out Fabricio Werdum for the undisputed championship in front of a hostile crowd of some 45,000 Brazilians in Curitiba, Brazil. It extended his current winning streak to three fights, all over upper-echelon opposition, and pushed his professional record to an impressive 15-2. Also working in the 33-year-old Euclid, Ohio, native’s favor: He is one of the heavyweight division’s most complete athletes. Miocic was a three-sport star in high school, won a Golden Gloves boxing championship, played college baseball and earned NCAA All-America honors as a wrestler at Cleveland State University. Alternates: Travis Browne, Ben Rothwell
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: For all his demons outside of competition, Jones has yet to meet his equal inside the cage. The Jackson-Wink MMA rep remains the sport’s pound-for-pound king and owns one of its most distinguished resumes, with wins over Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira and Daniel Cormier. Jones’ ledger would still be unblemished if not for a disqualification loss to Matt Hamill at “The Ultimate Fighter 10” Finale in 2009 -- a fight he was winning easily. The 28-year-old Rochester, New York, native has won 13 fights in a row since, most of them in one-sided fashion. His record sits at 22-1. Alternates: Daniel Cormier, Anthony Johnson
MIDDLEWEIGHT: His upset loss to Michael Bisping in their UFC 199 rematch notwithstanding, Rockhold remains the standard by which all American middleweights are measured. The American Kickboxing Academy rep has established his reputation as one of MMA’s most destructive offensive fighters, having left fighters like Bisping, Chris Weidman, Lyoto Machida, Ronaldo Souza and Tim Kennedy in his wake. A Santa Cruz, California, native, Rockhold comes from rich athletic bloodlines. His father played professional basketball, his brother a pro surfer. The 31-year-old has amassed a 15-3 record during his nine-year career. Alternates: Chris Weidman, David Branch
WELTERWEIGHT: Death, taxes and violence from Lawler. These have become certainties in life. In the middle of a career renaissance, Lawler has become the measuring stick at 170 pounds. He made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in 2002, left the organization two years later and captured titles in the Icon Sport and EliteXC promotions before returning to the UFC in February 2013. Lawler, 34, has gone a remarkable 8-1 in nine appearances since, avenging his only defeat in that timeframe -- a unanimous decision loss to Johny Hendricks at UFC 171 -- while putting together back-to-back “Fight of the Year” performances, first in his rematch with Hendricks in 2014 and then in his gory battle with Rory MacDonald in 2015. The San Diego native’s five-round classic with Carlos Condit looks like the frontrunner for 2016. Lawler’s 27-10 professional record has been highlighted by 20 knockouts. Alternates: Stephen Thompson, Ben Askren
LIGHTWEIGHT: Cerrone, 33, embodies the Wild West gunslinger in modern MMA. The man will fight anyone at any time at any price, regardless of the stakes involved. While a major mixed martial arts championship has thus far eluded Cerrone, he has put together a run of sustained excellence that cannot be overlooked. Included on his resume are wins over Charles Oliveira, Jeremy Stephens, Evan Dunham, Adriano Martins, Edson Barboza, Jim Miller, Eddie Alvarez, Myles Jury and Benson Henderson. “Cowboy” has also pocketed 11 post-fight performance bonuses, good for fourth all-time behind Nate Diaz, Anderson Silva and Joe Lauzon. A Denver native who trains out of the Jackson-Wink MMA stable in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Cerrone owns a 29-7 professional record, with 21 finishes. Alternates: Tony Ferguson, Eddie Alvarez
FEATHERWEIGHT: Edgar was not necessarily viewed as a future hall of famer when he entered the UFC as an unbeaten prospect in 2007. Nearly a decade later, “The Answer” has carved out a place among the all-time greats. Edgar has enjoyed success in multiple weight classes, having claimed the UFC lightweight championship with an upset of B.J. Penn in 2010. He retained the title on three subsequent occasions before surrendering his spot on the 155-pound throne to Benson Henderson. After losing to Henderson in their rematch, Edgar switched gears and found a home at featherweight. The 34-year-old Toms River, New Jersey, native has rattled off five wins in six appearances since -- a run that includes a third victory over Penn, a unanimous decision over Team Alpha Male patriarch Urijah Faber and finishes on Cub Swanson and Chad Mendes. Still in pursuit of 145-pound gold, Edgar seeks to join Penn and Randy Couture as the only fighters to capture UFC titles in multiple divisions. Alternates: Max Holloway, Cub Swanson
BANTAMWEIGHT: If not for a rash of injuries, some of them career-threatening, Cruz would likely have an argument as the top pound-for-pound fighter in MMA. Even so, the Alliance MMA cornerstone has cemented himself as the greatest bantamweight of all-time. Cruz is on a 13-fight winning streak that stretches back nine years and finds himself in possession of a near-pristine 22-1 record. The only defeat on the 31-year-old San Diego native’s resume -- a guillotine choke submission to archrival Urijah Faber under the World Extreme Cagefighting banner in 2007 -- has been avenged twice. “The Dominator” is a two-time UFC champion at 135 pounds, his resume buoyed by victories over such contemporaries as T.J. Dillashaw, Takeya Mizugaki, Joseph Benavidez (twice), Ian McCall and Demetrious Johnson. Alternates: T.J. Dillashaw, Urijah Faber
FLYWEIGHT: No fighter in MMA history has been more dominant at his or weight than Johnson. The man they call “Mighty Mouse” has still never experienced defeat at 125 pounds, and he has all but cleaned out the UFC flyweight division since winning the title in September 2012. Johnson has become so dominant in fact that cries for a super fight with bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz have grown louder in recent months. A protégé of AMC Pankration frontman Matt Hume, the 29-year-old Madisonville, Kentucky, native has few discernable flaws. Johnson has won 10 consecutive bouts since his encounter with Ian McCall ended in a draw four years ago. Henry Cejudo, Joseph Benavidez (twice), John Dodson (twice), John Moraga and Kyoji Horiguchi have all been victimized by his all-around brilliance. Alternates: Joseph Benavidez, John Dodson
WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT: An Olympic bronze medalist in judo at 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Rousey took the MMA world by storm upon debuting in 2011. She laid claim to the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship and later the UFC bantamweight crown, as she started her career with 12 straight wins, all finishes. The armbar was Rousey’s weapon of choice, but she also mixed in knockouts against Sara McMann, Alexis Davis and Bethe Correia. None of them lasted longer than 66 seconds. Rousey’s aura of invincibility cracked in her stunning loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193 but did nothing to conceal the previous success she had enjoyed, including a pair of submission victories over reigning UFC women’s bantamweight champion Miesha Tate. Alternates: Miesha Tate, Holly Holm
WOMEN’S STRAWWEIGHT: The ceiling for Namajunas appears abnormally high. At just 23 years old, the Grudge Training Center export has already established herself as one of MMA’s best at 115 pounds, her case strengthened by recent wins over Tecia Torres, Paige VanZant and Angela Hill. Namajunas first appeared on the radar in April 2013, when she pulled off a 12-second flying armbar against Kathina Catron under the Invicta Fighting Championships banner. Other strawweights were immediately alerted to her presence. The Milwaukee native reached “The Ultimate Fighter 20” final a little less than two years later, a rear-naked choke submission loss to Carla Esparza denying her bid to become the first UFC women’s strawweight champion. Namajunas has not lost since, showing rapid development in all phases, and she seems destined to fight for the 115-pound title again in the not-too-distant future. Alternates: Tecia Torres, Angela Hill