The unbeaten MMA careers of four American wrestlers from the 2008 Olympic Games is as unlikely as it is unprecedented.
Keeping a clean slate in professional sports like football and soccer takes leadership, teamwork, and focus. In combat sports, the line between dominance and irrelevance can come at any second of a competition, and none more so than in MMA, where the process for remaining flawless is a complicated stew of unique talent and good fortune.
Floyd Mayweather’s 44 straight wins in the ring. Cael Sanderson’s 159 consecutive collegiate wrestling wins. Each stands as their sport’s most impressive unbeaten streaks, but those single discipline sports have serious competition coming from a group of wrestlers finding a new home in the cage.
All fighters know that one punch or a poorly blocked shin to the face can end your night and fill the loss column with the stain of imperfection. The variety of possible streak-ending errors that can occur in a 15- or 25-minute fight are infinite. However, four unbeaten MMA athletes knotted together by unique circumstance have created one of combat sports more statistically improbable and entertaining streaks.
Four members of the 2008 United States men’s Olympic freestyle team—Henry Cejudo, Ben Askren, Daniel Cormier, and Steven Mocco—are a combined 31-0 in professional MMA. Although they fight for four difference organizations at three different weight classes, and started at various times after the end of their wrestling careers, not a single one of them has eaten a KO-fist to the face or had their arm bent sideways by the snap-happy techniques of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt.
They’ve avoided the flash knockouts and quick submissions—and earned some of their own—on way to one of the most impressive unbeaten streaks in MMA.
Daniel Cormier is shrinking.
One of the most sought after fight commentators the UFC has on its roster, Cormier appears on camera several times a month to update the world on grappling techniques, matchup scenarios, and personal prognostications. But each week he shows up on camera, the once paunchy heavyweight appears to be reduced in size.
Cormier is one of the top-ranked heavyweights in the world, but he is dieting down from 245 lbs. to 205 lbs. in the hopes of facing UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones. The drop, and Cormier’s devotion to doing it healthfully (follow on getfitwithDC.com), stem from the kidney complications from cutting weight that kept him from competing at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
A successful drop would mean that Team USA’s unbeaten streak would face its most serious test.
“Man, I’m focusing on Roy Nelson right now,” says Cormier. “I just hope he ain’t that dude who ruins this streak for the rest of the guys.”
Although Cormier didn’t compete at the 2008 Olympics (he finished 4th in 2004), the former Oklahoma State All-American has become the most accomplished member of the team while inside the cage.
“Me an Mo Lawal used to sit at [USA Head Wrestling Coach] Kevin Jackson’s house and watch the fights,” says Cormier. “Jackson used to fight, and it was a cool thing to do. He loved it, and got us into it a little bit more.”
Mohammed “King Mo” Lawal was upset by 2008 Olympian Andy Hrovat in the 2008 World Team trials and failed to make the squad. Had he made the team, there would be no unbeaten MMA streak, on account of his three losses. In terms of the current streak, Lawal’s legacy is the successful recruiting of Cormier off his couch in Oklahoma and into the sun-drenched AKA headquarters of San Jose.
Like Cormier, Ben Askren also made a quick transition from grappling on the mat for free to grappling in a cage for money. The best wrestler in MMA didn’t waste much time jumping into the multi-discipline world of MMA. Askren took his first fight six months after the end of the Olympics, earning a first-round TKO in February 2009. By August, one year after the Olympic Games, Askren was 3-0 and set to enter the Bellator tournament in April 2010. Nine victories and four Bellator Welterweight Title defenses later, Askren is being shopped to the UFC as a possible opponent for current UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre.
“I love wrestling first,” says Askren, who will be the headliner in the inaugural AGON wrestling event on October 22 at the Rio in Las Vegas. “I knew that if I went right into MMA and I didn’t like it in six months, I could go back to wrestling.”
Askren, of course, stayed, and the smothering wrestler accounts for 12 of the groups’ 31 wins.
For Cejudo, the transition from the mat to the cage took longer and was complicated by his post-Olympic celebrity. One of the youngest Olympic Champions (21 years old) to emerge from the 2008 Games, Cejudo raked in book deals, endorsement offers, and sponsorships in the months and years following his gold medal performance. He stayed on the fringes of amateur wrestling, popping up on occasion to do press or discuss a new training location. Ultimately, with only a handful of matches in four years, he attempted to make the 2012 Olympic team, but fell short. From there, he entered the cage, where he’s 4-0, with all four wins coming by way of TKO. He recently signed with Legacy Fighting Championships and is being fast-tracked for the UFC’s bantamweight division.
“Henry’s had more experience than any of us coming into MMA,” says Cormier. “He was a boxer and messed around with plenty of other stuff throughout his life. He’s definitely the guy with the most preparation.”
Cejudo’s preparation has allowed him to fight with some ease, while Steve Mocco, the hulking 260-pound former two-time NCAA Division I National Champion, is left to win matches like the first wrestlers in MMA—via a generous smothering of takedowns and ill-intended shots from the top position.
Cormier, who trained with Mocco in the lead-up to the Beijing Games, think that Mocco is the rawest of the bunch, “But he’s the hardest working guy I know,” says Cormier. “He’ll be incredible in MMA, because he’s incredible at everything he’s ever tried to do.”
At 3-0 with a win over MMA veteran and former wrestler Lew Polley at RFA 9, Mocco seems positioned for a move into the UFC after another signature win. The UFC heavyweight division is thinning out, and a fresh face in the most powerful division is always a crowd pleaser, especially when other wrestlers like Cain Velasquez have found so much success.
“We didn’t plan this,” says Askren. “I think it just has everything to do with us being the first post-Olympic guys who could enter a variety of fighting organizations and make a living.”
Askren’s right. Although other former Olympians have taken to the cage, the 2008 class was the first to be recruited from the mat to the cage by friends and promoters who saw their earning potential. For the undefeated clan, their altruism in pursuing an Olympic passion seemed to alleviate them of the cross-training stresses some of the world’s finest wrestlers with an interest in MMA currently face. And for Askren, Cormier, and Mocco, the pain of not completing their goals on the mat has left them with the motivation to be exceptional in the cage.
Motivation, money, or a career of combat sports training—whatever the thread that connects these fighters—their streak has become one of the impressive feats in MMA’s short history.
MMA Record: 12-0
First Fight: September 25, 2009
Next Fight: October 19 vs.
2008 Olympic Performance: Did Not Compete
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: Two-Time NCAA All-American; National Finalist
MMA Record: 12-0
Organization: Free Agent (Bellator)
First Fight: February 7, 2009
Next Fight: tba
2008 Olympic Performance: 1-1
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: Two-time NCAA Champion; Hodge Award winner; 4x Finalist
MMA Record: 4-0
OrganizatioN: Legacy Fighting Championship
First Fight: October 11, 2013
Next Fight: tba
2008 Olympic Performance: Gold
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: None
MMA Record: 3-0
OrganizatioN: Resurrection Fighting Alliance
First Fight: November 2, 2012
Next Fight: tba
2008 Olympic Performance: 2-2, 9th place
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: 2x NCAA
Champion; 4x Finalist