Fans, pundits, and commentators love throwing around the term “world class” when describing the skill level of mixed martial artists. However, the phrase is misused too often when discussing the wrestling chops of MMA fighters. A “world-class” wrestler earns the distinction by competing on the international circuit and finding a level of success. As good as they are at launching unsuspecting victims and shooting double-legs, even NCAA Champions like Josh Koscheck, Johny Hendricks, and Phil Davis don’t meet such lofty criteria.
Here are seven active fighters who are “world class” on the mats and in the cage.
7. Joe Warren
MMA Record: 8-3
Wrestling Chops: World Championships gold medalist, Pan-American Championships gold medalist, NCAA All-American
One of only two Greco-Roman stylists on this list, the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” is nothing if not ambitious. After winning the World Championships in 2006, Warren was the favorite to win gold in the 2008 Olympics. However, a failed drug test for marijuana kept him from competing in China for the Games (see, it’s not just MMA fighters). With his Olympic dreams on hold, the Michigan Wolverine started fighting with the goal of becoming a dual MMA Champion and Olympic Champion. He won the Bellator Featherweight Title in 2010 but failed to make the 2012 Olympic team—still, it’s probably better than whatever you accomplished in the last three years.
6. Alexis Vila
MMA Record: 11-3
Wrestling Chops: Two-Time World Championships gold medalist, World Championships silver medalist, Olympic bronze medalist, Pan-American Championships gold medalist
A Cuban import, Vila won the World Championships in freestyle wrestling in 1993 and 1994. He turned pro in MMA in 2007, reeling off 11 straight wins, nine by stoppage. In his debut bout in Bellator, he made history by stepping into the cage with Joe Warren, marking the first time two wrestling World Champions faced off against each other in high-level MMA. “The Exorcist” starched Warren by brutal knockout and made it all the way to the finals before losing to current Bellator Bantamweight Champion Eduardo Dantas.
5. Sara McMann
MMA Record: 6-0
Wrestling Chops: Olympic silver medalist, World Championships silver medalist, two-time World Championships bronze medalist, two-time Pan-American Champion
Yup, the girls can wrestle too. McMann came into her own as the international female wrestling scene started to blossom. She turned her attention to submission grappling, finding great success in both FILA and the ADCC. After a 6-0 start to her MMA career, McMann made her UFC debut against German Sheila Gaff at UFC 159 on April 27. It’s widely thought that McMann’s world-class wrestling may serve as the best style to defeat the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey. Since Rousey has an Olympic medal of her own in judo, it would mark the first time two Olympic medalists faced off in the UFC.
4. Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal
MMA Record: 9-2-1
Wrestling Chops: Pan-American Championships gold medalist, Krasnoyarsk World Cup silver medalist, NCAA Division II National Champion, NCAA Division I All-American
Lawal was the favorite to represent the US at 84kg in 2008 until Andy Hrovat narrowly beat him for the spot. Wrestling’s loss was MMA’s gain, as King Mo immediately jumped from the wrestling mats to the cage. The Oklahoma State Cowboy competed at heavyweight in Japan before signing with Strikeforce and winning the Light Heavyweight Title from Gegard Mousasi in a fight Lawal dominated with his wrestling. Lawal hit a rough patch with a loss to Rafael Cavalcante, a failed drug test in his bout with Lorenz Larkin, and a knee injury with recurring infections that required several surgeries and threatened the loss of his leg. Now, his current home is on Spike TV where he balances fighting for Bellator and professional wrestling with TNA.
3. Ben Askren
MMA Record: 11-0
Wrestling Chops: Pan-American Championships gold medalist, 2008 US Olympian, Two-Time NCAA Division I National Champion
In the discussion of the greatest college wrestler, Askren stands near the top, boasting four trips to the NCAA wrestling finals, winning twice, and holding the NCAA pin record. After the 2008 Olympics, the Wisconsin native stayed close to home to train at Roufusport in Milwaukee. No other wrestler has converted his style of wrestling better to fit MMA. Askren has taken down every fighter he’s faced and wins with grueling top position and unorthodox grappling that he adapted from his “funky” college wrestling style. Not only is he undefeated and the reigning Bellator Welterweight Champion, but he also doesn’t mind calling out promotional rival Georges St-Pierre on Twitter.
2. Daniel Cormier
MMA Record: 11-0
Wrestling Chops: World Championships bronze medalist, Pan-American Championships gold medalist, two-time Olympian, NCAA Division I runner-up
The former Team USA captain came one win away from an Olympic medal in 2004, and he was a medaling favorite in 2008 until a botched weigh cut led to kidney failure and his dismal from the Games, which is still a sore subject in the wrestling community. The Oklahoma State Cowboy found MMA powerhouse team American Kickboxing Academy and turned pro in 2009. Currently undefeated, the charismatic fighter won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix—after coming in as an alternate—by dominating veteran Josh Barnett in the finals. The Louisiana native defeated former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir at UFC on Fox 7 on April 20. Don’t be surprised if this heavyweight decides to drop a weight class. He has his eyes set on UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones.
1. Dan Henderson
MMA Record: 29-9
Wrestling Chops: Two-Time Olympian, Pan-American Championships gold, silver, and bronze medalist
Was there even a question? “Hendo” has consistently been one of the top fighters in the world in a career spanning three weight classes and countless fights against top competition. The Californian entered MMA in 1997 with nearly unparalleled wrestling skill, but he soon discovered his knack for knocking opponents unconscious with his potent right hand. The only man to hold two major titles in different weight classes simultaneously has defeated the likes of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Fedor Emelianenko, Michael Bisping, and Wanderlei Silva. This Greco-Roman wrestler is the gold standard for crossover wrestlers entering MMA.
By Michael Riordan
Olympic wrestling has not yet dropped into sporting oblivion, but its weight is suspended over that ignominious abyss only by the thinnest of filaments. When the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met in February and announced its intention to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games, it took the first step toward dropping wrestling into the endless expanse of irrelevance.
The board’s decision to exclude wrestling from the Olympic program of 25 core sports served as a formal proposal. This proposal still needs to be presented and finalized by the IOC for approval. In this process, Olympic wrestling faces two extremely crucial decision points where the IOC will determine the sport’s fate.
The first decision point comes in the late spring of 2013. The IOC executive board will meet in May to add the second and final part to this proposal. The board must determine which additional non-core sport(s) will be deemed worthy of consideration for inclusion in the 2020 games. From a wide-ranging list, the board will make up to three selections. If wrestling is not one of these selections, its life as an Olympic sport will be effectively ended then and there. If the board chooses wrestling, then the sport survives, at least until the fall of 2013.
In the second decision point, the executive board will present a proposal for the sporting agenda of the 2020 Olympics—including 25 core sports and the three potential added sports—before the entire IOC when all 114 members assemble in September. At this assembly, the IOC will also separately vote on both parts of the executive board’s proposal: the modified 25 core sport program, and the final sport added from the board’s three recommendations made in May.
If wrestling makes it this far, the sport will hope that one of two doom-averting possibilities will come to pass. The first and highly unlikely possibility would be a decision to reject the new 25-core sport program set. In this scenario, the Olympics would continue with the 2012 program (where wrestling is included), and the whole affair will have seemed like a fever dream.
The second path to salvation lies in the assembly’s vote on the final sport added to the 2020 program. The assembly will select one of the three sports forwarded by the executive board in May as an addition to the 2020 program. The added sport must receive a simple majority of the assembly’s votes. If wrestling makes it to this point, its chances of final selection seem promising, as the assembly has resisted the addition of new sports in the past. Wrestling has a long tradition on its side, and if it is presented before the IOC assembly for addition to the 2020 program, it will not have to fight any of the possible prejudices against unfamiliar sports.