The goal of every amateur wrestler is to qualify for the NCAA Division I tournament. There’s a lot to that goal: wrestling for a Division I team, finding your way into the starting lineup, and qualifying from your conference tournament. Once the tournament begins, the goal turns to becoming a National Champion or All-American. The multi-year, individual commitment in college wrestling culminates in one winnertake- all tournament, which is the type of talent-meets-pressure venue that has led many of its participants to reach the upper echelon of MMA.
More than 20,000 fans pack into the arena to watch as 332 athletes vie for 80 podium spots. Characters emerge from schools as small as Edinboro University and as large as Arizona State and feature unique matchups between Big Ten badasses and Ivy League tough guys. While Division II wrestlers have found some success in MMA, it’s the Division I tournament and the unique blend of amateurism, pressure, and showmanship that makes its championship event a strong litmus test of future MMA success.
“The NCAA tournament is a grueling three-day, high-pressure event,” says Randy Couture, three-time All-American for Oklahoma State. “Both team and individual results hinge on every match.”
By mid-afternoon on Thursday the stands are filled with a charged-up bevy of fans, decked out in their respective school colors. The prearranged masses of monochromatic support divvies into V-like sections of loyalty around the arena.
“There are so many people and camera flashes going off everywhere,” says Matt Hughes, two-time All-American for Eastern Illinois. “The stadium is totally packed. It was amazing to see guys like Dan Gable and other wrestlers who are featured in magazines right there on the mat.”
The floor is lined from exit-to-exit with wrestling mats—an assortment of greens, reds, blacks, and blues. Once the action starts, 20 wresters begin scrapping, which creates loud cheers and boos, appeals for referee calls, and coaches excitedly bouncing along with the action as the scoreboard tallies takedowns, escapes, and back points. Soon, triage will begin at mat side: cauliflower ears are drained, split eyebrows are butterflied, and white athletic tape holds knees together.
“It’s a grind, and only the tough will make it through this tournament,” says Josh Koscheck, NCAA Champion and four-time All-American for Edinboro University. “You can have so many ups and downs with this tournament. It is so difficult because you have the best wrestlers in the nation gunning for the biggest and hardest prize in NCAA sports.”
The grapplers will battle for six hours on Thursday, with individuals wrestling anywhere from two to four times. By the end of the first day, the original 332 participants are whittled down to 250, many of them having not won a match.
Friday starts with 7 a.m. weigh-ins. Unlike MMA, wrestling fans don’t see the scale, only a disjointed herd of competitors running around the arena floor, desperate to shed their remaining weight. By mid-day Friday, even more wrestlers have been eliminated. Some have won three matches, but it’s not enough to place in the top eight (All-American honors), and they’ll be sent home on Sunday with nothing more than a few bruises and the promise of another summer spent in training. To maximize the drama of the tournament, the mats are pruned from 10 to six. With their disappearance comes the emotional climax of the tournament for the 120 remaining wrestlers.
The All-American round is a nexus of collegiate sports drama. Twelve wrestlers compete for the final eight spots and a trophied validation to their year-round training. Fighters such as Urijah Faber, Frankie Edgar, and Gerald Harris aII suffered their final collegiate losses in the All-American round. In 2003 Harris lost for the third straight year and walked off the mat, through the arena exit, and to his hotel room. He was wearing nothing but socks and a half-drawn singlet. His hotel room was three miles away.
With each hour, each bout, and each devastating loss comes progress—the emotion-filled elimination of more wrestlers. At the end of Friday, the final eight remain and all that’s left to do is filter out their final placing, including the top spot of National Champion.
“It really is a science to be able to compete at the top level for the NCAA tournament,” says Gray Maynard, three-time All-American for Michigan State. “It’s all about work ethic, metal toughness, focus, and preparation.
The night before the final session, fans morph from regionalized supporters to atheistic wrestling prognosticators. Inside local barrooms, fans discuss rounds of wrestling while drinking beer—the tournament is also a party. With the tension of the day’s drama behind them, fans desperately forage the Internet and rely on insiders for information about injuries that might affect Saturday’s final matches.
Once fans recover from a night on the town, they return to their seats on Saturday with a renewed fervor. Their energy is intensified as the wall of sounds close in on the competitors. The arena, once a fractured collection of school alliances, reconnects with a patriotic boom of applause for the event and the remaining competitors. There’s no Disneyland theatrics or eccentric entries. No light show or flyovers; no cheerleaders or team band. All that lies in front of fans and competitors is a raised mat at center stage and 20,000 sets of eyeballs.
The Division I National Finals are televised on ESPN and have become the newest stage for many of MMA’s rising stars.
“I’m used to competing in front of fans at the highest level of a sport,” says Phil Davis, recent UFC signee and NCAA Champion in 2008 for Penn State. “I don’t even hear the crowd anymore in MMA.”
Johny Hendricks, undefeated UFC talent and former two-time NCAA Champion from Oklahoma State, was perhaps last decade’s most reviled and villainous national finalist. Gifted and extremely confident, Hendricks seemed to attract, if not lure, hatred from opposing fans. He was mocked so mercilessly that even the typically benign ESPN commentators show- ered him with criticism. Today, you won’t find many wrestling fans willing to doubt his ascension in MMA.
“Johny was the heel in college,” says Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal,” All-American at Oklahoma State and teammate of Hendricks. “Fans hated him. If fans in wrestling and MMA don’t relate, they’ll just hate on you. MMA fans love Johny now. He deserves it.”
The list of those who have missed out on a championship but have distinguished themselves as All-Americans is much longer: Randy Couture, Muhammed Lawal, Matt Hughes, Aaron Simpson, Ryan Bader, Gray Maynard, and dozens more fighters in the UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce.
“Everybody gears up for this one tourney. It’s like the Super Bowl,” says Rashad Evans, two-time qualifier for Michigan State. “It’s all about how you compete that one day. The UFC is the same proving ground. The fighters you meet in the UFC fight like it’s the Super Bowl.”
The tournament creates focused, jacked-up competitors. Grapplers learn to deal with the jeering of fans, immense personal pressure, and rampant brutality of their body.
“The NCAA tournament helped me for MMA because it reminded me of a lot of different things,” says Urijah Faber, two-time qualifier for UC Davis. “The difference between a guy who is considered the very best and the guy that isn’t is very minute and it’s motivating to know you can be so close and so celebrated and just a lot of times it comes down to having a great day and believing in yourself. The PAC 10 was a big deal, but Nationals is televised an
d it’s got a huge audience and it’s really the first time you feel as if you’re in something that’s big.”
Many Division I wrestlers are past the dreams of international stardom on the wrestling mat—they have no use for continuing to be poorly compensated for their hard work when they can join their new idols and earn a hefty paycheck. While MMA is a different beast, the NCAA wrestling tournament prepares its graduates on a stage that few others have the chance to be on.
“I learned many valuable lessons competing for Okie State—how to train hard and win, but more importantly, how to put losing in proper perspective,” says Couture. “I lost in the finals two times. I believe that lesson made me a better athlete and certainly a better person as I transitioned to becoming an MMA athlete.”