While MMA isn’t included in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England, fight fans can still get their combat fi x by watching these six wrestlers who have the best chance of taking home U.S. gold.
The American Freestyle Wrestling Team has captured an individual gold medal in every Olympics since 1972. However, with fewer weight classes and with second-string Russian monsters joining teams like Azerbaijan and Turkey, the 2012 Olympics could be the Stars and Stripes’ most diffi cult Olympics in more than 40 years.
GRECO-ROMAN: 66KG (145 LBS.)
Like 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, Ellis Coleman began training for his Olympic dreams right after graduating from high school. The Chicago-native moved to Northern Michigan where his athleticism quickly made him one of the most recognizable figures in U.S. wrestling. His “Flying Squirrel” was a viral video and was deemed one of the top three plays of 2011 on SportsCenter. Coleman will have one of the most diffi cult weight classes in the tournament, but if America has a young star, it’s Coleman—he’s shown a knack for fi nding the medal stand in almost every international tournament he’s entered.
FREESTYLE: 74KG (163 LBS.)
FREESTYLE: 96KG (211 LBS.)
The second-coming of Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson, Jake Varner is a 2011 World bronze medalist. He’s tough to take down and almost impossible to push out of the circle (one point in freestyle wrestling). Varner has been one of America’s most reliable wrestlers for years, and his defense will almost certainly earn him a medal, but it likely won’t be the gold. In May, Varner was demolished by Reza Yazdani of Iran at the 2011 World Cup. That loss was a wakeup call for the 26-year-old year California native. Although Varner and Sanderson will prepare for the Persian monster together, there is only a slim chance he can pull off the upset.
FREESTYLE: 84KG (185 LBS.)
A 2009 World silver medalist, Herbert failed to place in 2010 and didn’t even make the U.S. Team in 2011, losing to 2004 Olympic Champion Cael Sanderson at the World Team Trials. Sanderson, who went on to place fi fth in 2011, was testing the viability of an Olympic comeback but ultimately decided to sit out the London Games. Herbert fought through a tough American fi eld at the trials to earn his first Olympic birth.
Herbert, who trains with an elite team of freestylers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, under the tutelage of former U.S.A. Freestyle Coach of the Year Sean Bormet, has been kicking ass in overseas competition. He’s 3-0 against the two World Champions, even avenging his 2009 finals loss to the Azerbaijani.
A Pittsburgh native and close friend of UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis, Herbert has the potential to destroy every opponent he faces. More than any wrestler in the tournament, Herbert gets stronger as the competition progresses. On the other hand, he’s also known for being a slow starter. Should he find his flow in the first round, he’s a dangerous quarterfinal, semifi nal, and finals opponent.
JUSTIN (HARRY) LESTER
GRECO-ROMAN: 74KG (163 LBS.)
Don’t call it a comeback. Lester, a two-time World bronze medalist (2006, 2007) had been the gold medal favorite in Greco-Roman heading into the 2008 Olympic Games. It was supposed to be a cakewalk, but Lester suffered the biggest upset in U.S. Trials history when he lost to 18-year-old high schooler Jake Deitchler.
Pissed off at the qualification process—which he felt put too much emphasis on one match—Lester retired. He made his comeback before the 2011 World Team Trials as a member of the Army World Class Athlete Program. If recent results are any indication, things are really looking up for Lester. He defeated the 2011 World bronze medalist Manuchar Tskhadaia of Georgia at the Curby Cup in mid-May.
WOMEN’S FREESTYLE: 48KG (106 LBS.)
America’s first two-time women’s Olympic wrestler, the 31-year-old Hawaiian started her wrestling career as a judoka. She moved to the mainland in 1999 to wrestle, despite having never competed in a significant tournament. That decision lead her to Colorado Springs, where she knocked off 2004 bronze medalist Patricia Miranda in the finals of the Trials to make the 2008 Olympic Team. She didn’t place, but she was able to win the World Championship a few months after the Olympic Games. When Chun’s on (she stands roughly 4’11”), she can be one of the stealthiest wrestlers in the world. Gold is within her reach.
Some of the best mixed martial artists first made their mark as members of the U.S. Olympic Team. Here are five of the toughest and most accomplished athletes to give up their pursuit of gold for a chance at big riches and a championship belt inside the cage.
OLYMPICS: 2008 (DID NOT PLACE)
DISCIPLINE: FREESTYLE (74KG/163 LBS.)
MMA RECORD: 10-0
The funkiest man in wrestling has become the most smothering wrestler in MMA. He earned an Olympics birth two years after graduating from the University of Missouri, but realizing the financial potential for his gifts, Askren bolted to Bellator. Now, he utilizes the most suffocating wrestling game in the sport to defend his Bellator Welterweight Championship.
OLYMPICS: 1992 (10TH) AND 1996 (12TH)
DISCIPLINE: GRECO-ROMAN (82KG/180 LBS.)
MMA RECORD: 29-8
The MMA world knows Dan Henderson for having an indestructible jaw and the most dangerous right hand in history of the sport, but his start came as grab-and-throw Greco-Roman champion from California. Two-time Olympian, Pride Champion, and Strikeforce Champion—is UFC Champion next on his list of accomplishments?
OLYMPICS: 2004 (4TH) AND 2008 (INACTIVE)
DISCIPLINE: FREESTYLE (96KG/211 LBS.)
MMA RECORD: 10-0
The winner of the Strikeforce Grand Prix, Cormier has lifted, slammed, arched, and pressured all 10 of his opponents with his unmatchable upper-body skills. Although shorter than many heavyweights, no big boy in the sport has his type of wrestling acumen, as he recently showed by launching the much taller Josh Barnett from a high crotch position.
OLYMPICS: 2004 (9TH)
DISCIPLINE: JUDO (81KG/178 LBS.)
MMA RECORD: 13-1
Judo is a derivation of wrestling, adapted from traditional styles of jacket wrestling popular in Asia since 5,000 BC. Hawn has excellent MMA throws when he’s able to latch onto tight overhooks and underhooks. The Olympian’s best in-cage judo came when he arm spun Levon Maynard to the mat and then unleashed his ground-and-pound to secure the TKO.
OLYMPICS: 2004 (DID NOT PLACE) AND 2008 (BRONZE)
DISCIPLINE: JUDO (63KG/139 LBS. AND 70KG/154 LBS.)
MMA RECORD: 5-0
Ronda Rousey knows an armbar, and she has her judo background to thank for that. Her lastest victory over Miesha Tate, earned the relative MMA newcomer the Women’s Bantamweight Strikeforce Championship. At 17 years old, Rousey was the youngest judoka at the 2004 Olympics. In 2008, she became the fi rst American woman to earn a judo medal in the Olympics.