Is Oklahoma State wrestling star Jordan Oliver eying MMA or something else? | Photo: John Weible
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The blossoming love affair between mixed martial arts and collegiate wrestling may have been greatly exaggerated.
At the 46th Annual National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic on Sunday, talk of what MMA fighters do when locked inside a cage was muted. However, while designed to spotlight 20 of the country’s finest wrestlers prior to the NCAA season, the yearly NWCA has a rich tradition of showcasing future MMA standouts.
Inside Arizona State University’s Wells Fargo Arena, a sparse crowd of wrestling devotees showed up to support the All-Star Classic. The straightforward presentation of what is considered the sport’s premier preseason event stood in stark contrast to the typical MMA show, which crams every bell and whistle possible into a single evening’s festivities. This event was about a tradition dating back to 1967 and an organization founded in 1928; for perspective, MMA’s preeminent promotion just celebrated its 18th birthday.
The crowd of just fewer than 1,000 included MMA luminaries and ASU wrestling alumni C.B. Dollaway and Aaron Simpson. A former All-American, Simpson spent nine years as an assistant coach at ASU before transitioning to MMA in 2007. Dollaway knew prior to his senior campaign as a Sun Devil that he wanted to become a fighter, and he holds out hope that MMA and college wrestling will see more crossover stars in coming years.
“It’s hard to go and make the Olympics with so little income coming in when you could go fight and possibly change your life,” Dollaway told Sherdog.com. “I really respect those guys who put in that amount of work to make it to the Olympics and go on to place or win it. The amount of work you have to put in for the payoff doesn’t compare. You really have to work your butt off. They’re not going to see much return as far as dollars go, but you will hold that title of being an Olympian. If you want to make money or need to make a living, you’re going to see a lot of wrestlers go into fighting.”
On Sunday, the star who drew the most attention from MMA and wrestling fans alike was 2010 All-Star Classic competitor and 2011 ESPY Award winner Anthony Robles. A self-professed fan of MMA, the 23-year-old ex-Sun Devil had a positive outlook on how the two sports can coexist.
“I’ve trained MMA at numerous places out here -- Lion’s Den, Power MMA -- and a lot of the coaches say wrestling is one of the best backgrounds to start for MMA. It’s kind of like the wrestler’s NFL. That’s where a lot of them want to go now,” said Robles, who won the 2010 NCAA individual title at 125 pounds. “I’d have to guess that the majority want to go into MMA. Quite frankly, there is no money in wrestling. We’re tired of being the broke college kids.”
For years, the on-mat action at the NWCA All-Star Classic has provided MMA talent scouts the chance to drool over the in-cage potential of college wrestling’s elite. Five years ago, the 2006 lineup boasted current fighters Jake Rosholt, Cole Konrad, Paul Bradley and Johny Hendricks. More recent editions have featured top-shelf MMA prospects Lance Palmer of Ohio State (2009) and Bubba Jenkins of ASU (2010).
For the event’s 2011 incarnation, a pair of Oklahoma State Cowboys jumped on the mats with an aggressive wrestling style. One of them, top-ranked 133-pounder Jordan Oliver, was the most talked-about wrestler at the event. With a repeat NCCA championship performance as well as Olympic aspirations in his sights for 2012, Oliver picked up an 8-7 decision over third-ranked B.J. Futrell of Illinois.
Oliver is a transcendent talent, but one who has thus far shown little interested in a future MMA career. When approached by Sherdog.com on Sunday, Oliver declined to be interviewed and offered a simple “no comment,” further confirming that his goal lies in acquiring multiple NCAA titles before becoming a key cog in Team USA’s Olympic medal hopes.
Oklahoma State assistant coach Zack Esposito put in perspective his team’s current view towards MMA.
“To tell you the truth, the guys on our team are Olympic-made and coaching-made,” Esposito said. “Right now, it’s not likely [for them to transition to MMA]. We are pushing our Olympic hopes and we want them to reach that goal before they make that choice whether they want to go on or not.
“We encourage our guys, ‘don’t forget your childhood dreams.’ This thing [MMA] is new and appealing, but don’t forget your dreams. And then, after that, don’t forget your decision.”
Perhaps rivaled only by ASU, Oklahoma State has been a factory for churning out MMA fighters over the last several years. Strikeforce stars Mohammad Lawal and Daniel Cormier, brothers Jake Rosholt and Jared Rosholt, and current UFC fighters Hendricks and Shane Roller have lead the invasion of former Cowboys who have transitioned into successful mixed martial artists.
“I think Lawal and Cormier did it the best way you possibly could without forgetting your Olympic dreams,” said Esposito. “It seemed in their blood to be able to [fight].”
Reigning two-time Big 12 champion Jamal Parks could be the next Oklahoma State wrestler to ease his way into MMA if he elects not to grind away on the international circuit. Currently ranked No. 2 at 149 pounds, Parks nabbed a 17-4 major decision over late replacement Joel Smith of ASU.
“I’ve thought about it. Not as hard as some people. I would do it. I really want to promote wrestling more, but I am a big advocate and supporter of MMA,” Parks explained. “I plan on getting to that Olympic stage, world team stage, and do that for a while. MMA will always be there.”
At 197 pounds, two wrestlers not only made their fighting aspirations known, but also held their current MMA training exploits badges of honor. From the former stomping grounds of current UFC welterweight Josh Koscheck, Chris Honeycutt of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania made the loudest impressions on and off the mat.
Honeycutt’s opponent was two-time national champion Byron Tate of Division III Wartburg College. The first DIII to compete at the All-Star Classic since 1989, Tate has cut his teeth in MMA training with Team R.O.C. in Waterloo, Iowa, and made no bones about his post-graduation plans.
“They go hand in hand for me. My wrestling will be a big base for me. I think I will convert over pretty easy,” Tate said. “Striking I’m kind of green at still, and I’m pretty good at jiu-jitsu, so I think I should fare well in the sport.”
In the lone fall of the night, Honeycutt made quick work of Tate with a pin at the 32-second mark. Fresh off a three-week summer vacation in Northern California, Honeycutt not only trained with Koscheck at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, but also put in work with UFC welterweight Jake Shields. The Edinboro senior saw parallels between MMA and wrestling, but when asked if the two had a good relationship, Honeycutt did not hesitate to say “no.”
“I think between the sports, probably not, but they do go hand in hand. The problem is that people want to fight instead of go to the Olympics. If you’re a great wrestler, you should want to represent your country if you have the ability to,” Honeycutt said. “This is an Olympic year and, after the season, all my efforts are going to go towards that.”
With MMA turning a healthy profit and college wrestling seemingly always in the red, money is the force which could drive the sports toward a mutually beneficial partnership. It could also keep the two sides at odds as athletes pick and choose how to spend their allotted time once they leave the college campus.
“I think a lot of us want to do [MMA], but I don’t know how many people will want do it to their fullest extent,” Honeycutt said “You have to like to get hit on the face. If I was a Harvard graduate, I wouldn’t want to do MMA. I’d want to make money elsewhere.”
Tommy Messano is the editor-in-chief of ULTMMA.com. You can contact him on Twitter at @ULTMMA.