by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
For many wrestlers who previously ended their college careers on the mats of the NCAA Championships, the only obvious choices were to hang up their shoes and move on to coaching, or continue in the world of wrestling and hope to make a national team and go all the way to the Olympics.
There is a new option for many successful college wrestlers now, and it’s taking them from the mat to the cage.
Wrestlers have had a longstanding history with mixed martial arts, all the way back to champions like Mark Coleman and Randy Couture to Olympian medalists like Matt Lindland. Now the path is becoming a direct course for many wrestlers who want to stay active, stay competitive, but wrestle no more.
2009 NCAA heavyweight champion Mark Ellis, from the University of Missouri, says that when his college wrestling days were done, he was done with wrestling and had his mind set on a whole other type of competition.
“I’m just a fan, and I watch it. I like it and just rolling around with some different people, I just think I could have some success doing it. I love to compete. I’m not done competing and I didn’t want to continue to wrestle and obviously you can make more money fighting. I just figured I could have some success at it, so we’re just going to go for it,” Ellis told MMAWeekly.com recently.
Ellis recently signed to begin training at the American Kickboxing Academy, alongside several other NCAA champion wrestlers such as Phil Davis and Josh Koscheck. At six feet three inches tall and 265 pounds, Ellis will also serve as a major training asset for Cain Velasquez as he prepares for his October showdown with Brock Lesnar.
Make no mistake, the wrestling room is filled with a lot of chatter, but Ellis admits that MMA is becoming a common subject matter among many of the athletes.
“It’s talked about a little bit I guess, obviously some people decide to go ahead and continue to wrestle, but I’ve never told anybody I wanted to. It’s always kind of been when I was done, my goal was to win a national title and I won it, and I wanted to move on. So the last couple years, I’ve kind of just had it in the back of my mind I was going to fight, and when somebody would ask me I would tell them I was going to do that,” Ellis commented.
Ben Askren, the two-time NCAA champion who served alongside Ellis at Missouri, made his mind up before he even graduated that he was going to fight at some point. Ellis says the two talked about it, and both had ideas even back then that they would one day call the cage their home.
Ellis is of course just the latest heavyweight champion to move into the world of MMA. Three of the NCAA champions in that division over the last 10 years have made their way to MMA including Cole Konrad, a two-time champion, and current UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
The 197-pound weight class has moved just as many and just as rapidly. Two out of the last three champions are now competing in MMA with Phil Davis currently fighting in the UFC, and Jake Rosholt also making his rounds in the MMA world.
The competitive side of wrestlers has never been denied, but the financial upswing and edge that many wrestlers come in with has a lot of them deciding to try their hands at fighting.
Lance Palmer, the 2010 NCAA runner-up at 149 pounds, will be heading to Sacramento, Calif., in the next couple of weeks to begin his MMA training with Urijah Faber. He says it’s the foundations of wrestling that will give him his biggest edge from day one doing MMA.
“I think it’s the thought that you can actually make a surmountable amount of money doing it if you’re good enough at it, and whether people like to believe it or not, wrestling is dominating MMA,” Palmer said when appearing on MMAWeekly Radio.
“Anybody that’s anybody in wrestling knows that’s the dominant part of MMA right now, and you see guys like Mo Lawal, he won his belt strictly on takedowns. Those are wrestling takedowns that he used, and he won the Strikeforce belt, and props to him for that. Some people are hating on wrestling, but it’s just because it’s the most dominant thing in MMA.”
While Lesnar, Lawal, and fellow wrestler Frankie Edgar rule the roost with title belts, several other former NCAA standouts pepper the top of the rankings including Chael Sonnen, Cain Velasquez, Rashad Evans, and Josh Koscheck.
For Palmer the lightning that struck him to get into MMA came in the form of meeting a fighter while in college, and it immediately got him interested in the sport as a future occupation.
“It first started my sophomore year of college. Actually, Urijah (Faber) came up to our wrestling room back when he was sponsored by Cage Fighter for a photo shoot, and that’s kind of when I first started talking to him about it,” Palmer explained. “That’s when I first started getting serious about the thought of actually getting into MMA.”
The seed had already been planted in Palmer’s mind just because of the history of the school he attended. Ohio State University has had several national champions in wrestling, but two in particular had an influence on Palmer’s MMA roots.
“It’s always been two guys that I’ve looked up to,” said Palmer about fellow OSU alums Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman. “Because at Ohio State they were each national champs, and Randleman was a couple time national champ, so they’re big names just at Ohio State wrestling. When they went to MMA they did an amazing job so they’re always going to be legends from Ohio State.”
The influence that MMA is having over wrestling may one day be looked at as a hindrance on the Olympics because many of the best the United States has to offer are now taking their skills to the cage, but they aren’t forgetting about their wrestling pasts either.
Joe Warren, who recently won the Bellator Fighting Championships featherweight tournament, has stated that he plans on fighting until it comes time to make it onto the 2012 Olympic team. Other wrestlers have expressed the same interest to represent their country in the Olympics, but fighting is still the competition they want until then.
The wrestling room has always produced those interested in doing MMA, but now it appears that the best on the mats are destined to be the best in the cage.