Shawn Bunch's focus is the Olympics, but his future might be in MMA. | Chris McGuigan/Sherdog.com
NEW YORK -- In the never-ending quest to find the next big prospect, MMA fans and pundits alike have turned their attention to the wrestling mats. The NCAA National Wrestling Championships have become a must-watch for fight fans, and international FILA events have been met with new-found interest. The latest of those came on May 5, when the “Beat the Streets” gala hit Times Square.
Highlighted by a freestyle dual meet pitting Russia against the U.S., the American roster sported a few names which MMA fans have hopes of seeing cross over. Coming into MMA with a strong wrestling background is like already having two of the numbers for the Pick 3 lottery drawing. It does not guarantee success, but you are on your way. Henry Cejudo was a 2008 Olympic gold medalist at 121 pounds. Brent Metcalf was a two-time NCAA Div. I national champion at Iowa. Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs recently finished his senior season undefeated, a national champion at 165 pounds and winner of the prestigious Dan Hodge Trophy.
Shawn Bunch, a former U.S. National and Pan-American champ, is a bit further along than some of his teammates.
The 28-year-old had the opportunity to enter Bellator Fighting Championships’ inaugural bantamweight tournament in 2010, but extensive experience in wrestling was not enough to earn a spot in MMA for the Kansas native. It was not the only time Bunch was hurt by his lack of cage time.
“I talked with Dream and Sengoku,” Bunch told Sherdog.com during the meet. “I had deals with those guys where they wanted me to fight, but it didn’t go through because of timing, making the world championships and all that, so all of that kind of fell through.”
The delay in getting into MMA hardly left Bunch distraught. In fact, it allowed him to turn his attention to a more immediate goal: winning gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“I’m on the top of my game in wrestling,” said Bunch, who competes at 132 pounds. “I started very young. I’ve worked my way up. I’m so close to being the best in the world. I just need to work on a few other things. I just need to keep working and win the gold medal.”
It is hard for Bunch to take his focus away from the mat: on this day in NYC, he loses to Russia's Rasul Murtazaliev on points, 3-0. He knows that if he wants gold in London, MMA must wait.
Bunch’s Olympic aspirations mirror those of current Bellator featherweight king Joe Warren, a former Greco-Roman world champion. A two-year suspension stemming from a positive drug screen for marijuana derailed Warren’s hopes for Olympic gold in 2008. Now, the self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet” is training as both an Olympic hopeful and an MMA champion.
Instead of splitting his time, Bunch -- who has wrestled since the age of 8 -- decided to set his focus solely upon London.
“I probably have some stuff on the forefront, but I just don’t want to throw away being on the top of my game in wrestling just yet,” said Bunch.
“I don’t want to give up and then just always look back, like, ‘What if I hadn’t stopped?’ Would I be able to do what I do right now? MMA, I know, is going to be there. [The Olympics is] probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I’m going to do what I need to do in wrestling. MMA isn’t going anywhere, so I could always wait.”
Delaying the move to MMA until after the 2012 Olympics could carry repercussions, especially in a sport that emphasizes immediacy. Bellator champs Joe Warren and Ben Askren juggle both wrestling and MMA. Why can’t Bunch do the same? Bunch does not have to look far for advice on such a decision.
One of the founding members of Team Thirsty, Bunch is part of a group of elite wrestlers who are making or have made the move to MMA. The team also includes Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Daniel Cormier, Jamill Kelly and former Michigan State Spartan Rashad Evans.
“He can do both at the same time,” Evans said of Bunch. “In order to do MMA, you do have to train your wrestling. He would just focus more on his wrestling. But, at the same time, if you’re going to go for one sport and really give everything, you really need to give your full focus to one thing if you want to be at that top, elite level.”
The former UFC light heavyweight champion also echoed Bunch’s sentiment that the focus on Olympic gold could help when Bunch eventually makes the jump to MMA.
“You could take your time getting better for MMA, because there are so many aspects you need to get better for before you just go in there and make a splash,” Evans explained. “All this time he’s wrestling, he could be working on his hands or working on his jiu-jitsu. He won’t have to transition for [that] when he does make the move, so he could make a big splash.”
The clout that comes with an Olympic gold medal goes far beyond merely having won whatever competition it is you’re good at. It’s why Warren says he will take time off from his MMA career for a run at an Olympic medal. It’s why Bunch is waiting to fight until after 2012. But don’t interpret Bunch’s move as his being any less interested in the sport.
“You could definitely reach bigger heights in MMA,” Bunch stated. “In wrestling, you have the Olympics -- that’s it. It’s not like a professional thing. In MMA, it’s pro. It’s a professional thing, so I have to go MMA. If you’re at the top of MMA, you’re a world champion professional athlete. [Wrestling] is still [part of] amateur sports, so there are bigger heights in being a professional athlete than being an amateur athlete. But being an Olympic champion is one of my goals since I was younger, so I don’t want to give up on that.”
As Bunch prepares for the Olympics and an MMA debut in the not-too-distant future, a logical transition from wrestling to MMA will take place.
Many wrestlers making the move to MMA have fallen back on their wrestling base for a while until their entire game developed adequately. But wrestling in MMA is not the same wrestling they knew on the mats.
“The toughest challenge for me was just certain positions that were good in wrestling were not good positions for MMA,” said Evans. “I would give my arm a little bit too long or get my neck out of position or just get to the point where I’m holding a position where, in wrestling, it would be good, but in MMA is not too good.”
For Bunch, the education in the cage is only part of the learning curve. He may not have much control in the other part of his development. Evans made mention of the necessity for Bunch to “get the right matchups.” He will certainly do what he can to help his Team Thirsty teammate along.
“Once he makes that move, I would like to help him out as much as I can,” said Evans. “There’s nothing more that I love than to help coach people and share some of the knowledge that I have and help him out so he can do better than I did.”