The fight for the Olympics: 6 of the best wrestlers in MMA history


Well, I missed all of your ugly faces (ignore the fact I can’t see you).

I know you’ve missed my ramblings and semi-insane opinions in the past few months, but life beckoned for a while. Continuing my education (please hold the laughter), caring for a miniature human that is my son, and contributing to Lowkick (on top of the regular 9-5) simply was a bit too much at first (as well as one too many words beginning with the letter “C”). However, Anton and the gang were cool enough to keep my spot open so I’m back to rile the masses.

When, thinking about the various stories that can be expounded upon in MMA at the moment many come to mind, but the current struggle wrestling faces is a glaring beacon I will not ignore. The IOC (The International Olympic Committee) saw fit last week to cut wrestling from the Olympic games in 2020 over incredible sports like the Modern Pentathlon (the sport most thought to be on the chopping block), Tae Kwon Do,  and . . .   walking. This decision reeks of idiocy, corruption, and nepotism (the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., is the son of former IOC president and long time councilman the late Juan Samaranch) at the highest levels of amateur sport.

Some of the most accomplished fighters in MMA have a strong wrestling background. Demetrious Johnson and Matt Grice both accomplished a lot in High School. Former bantamweight title challenger Scott Jorgensen competed at the division 1 level for Boise St. University.  Kid Yamamoto was a three time state champion in the United States, and was in the middle of an Olympic bid for Japan when he injured his knee. Johny Hendricks and Ben Askren both won multiple National titles for Oklahoma State and Missouri, respectively. Wrestling is ingrained into the fabric of MMA. The mindset, conditioning, and toughness drilled into the soul of a person who has been competing on the mat most of his life are invaluable when entering the fires of fistic combat. Below are just 6 of the best combatants to compete in mixed martial arts thus far with a wrestling background. They are in no particular order, and are not necessarily the only men worthy of this list.
(Note: Fighters like Georges St. Pierre and BJ Penn each dabbled in wrestling somewhat before their careers in MMA began, but since it was not at the extent of other disciplines they followed I excluded them from this list.)

Dominick Cruz
The current UFC bantamweight champion (although injured) has used wrestling to propel himself to the #1 spot at 135 lbs.  “The Dominator” first achieved his status in 2010 when he defeated then titlist Brian Bowles. Since then, he reeled off three straight wins against the top contenders in his division. What makes Cruz’s story so improbable is that he happened upon wrestling looking for a separate sport. In 7th grade he was searching for a place to sign up for soccer, but ended up wandering in to the wrestling room instead. The coaches took a look at him, and asked him how much he weighed. He advised them again that he wasn’t looking for soccer sign ups, but they just told him “you’re a wrestler now”.  After some High School success his collegiate career was derailed by torn ligaments in his ankle. However, he’s still outwrestling his opponents today in MMA.

Matt Hughes
He’s a legendary former Welterweight champion used to be looked at as one of the best PFP fighters in MMA. His mixture of great wrestling skill, unreal strength for his size, and usage of positioning when rolling made him close to unbeatable in his prime. He cut through names like Royce Gracie and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai like a hot knife in butter, and only lost his spot as the best 170 lb(er) in the world when the beast known as “Rush” came along.
Matt’s accomplishments in wrestling don’t match his dominance in MMA, but he was extremely decorated none the less. He was an undefeated state champion in his final two years of High School, and was awarded All-American status in all four years of college.

Kazushi Sakuraba
Kazushi is a man who is most responsible for crushing the first family of Vale Tudo into a million little pieces, Sakuraba picked off each member of the vaunted group one by one. He blended his immense wrestling talent with submission grappling to become possibly the most feared person on the mat in the world at the beginning of this millennium. Sometimes referred to as the “IQ wrestler”, Kazushi was known for his incredibly fast paced grappling aided by some of the best single leg takedowns you will ever see in a fight. To this day, his fight with Carlos Newton is one of the best grappling displays in a MMA contest.
“Saku” was a standout wrestler in his High School years, and continued competing in college. He wrestled at Chuo University, and won the East Japan Championships his freshman year. Sakuraba once defeated future Olympic Bronze Medalist, Kat Ota, in an All-Japan competition.

Dan Henderson
The destructive force known as “Hendo” mostly uses his wrestling to keep the fight standing these days, and it pays off in the near decapitation of each of his opponents. Danny Henderson (as Randy Couture refers to him) is the only man in MMA history to hold two titles simultaneously. He’s destroyed Michael Bisping, Fedor Emelianenko, and Wanderlei Silva. Not too shabby for a guy who used to have the nickname “Decision Dan”.

Dan was a standout wrestler in High School, but in college he always seemed to come up short. It wasn’t until he moved on to the Greco-Roman style in International competition that he began to make his mark.  Henderson represented the United States for both 1992 and 1996 in Greco-Roman wrestling at 82 kilograms. He finished 10th in 92’.

Jon Jones
Jon is a mixed martial artist of the highest quality. He has blended incredible athleticism with a great work ethic, and he’s turned in to the marquee fighter of MMA’s marquee division because of it. Jon has trounced Ryan Bader, and Vladimir Matyushenko with his grappling. He’s steam rolled Shogun Rua and Lyoto Machida on the feet.  Each opponent he’s faced has gone up against a man that continues to improve in every fight, and is already one of the 4 best fighters in the world. Oh yea, and he’s only 25.
Jon’s wrestling background probably would have been a lot more decorated, and might even be still be ongoing, had he not gotten his then girlfriend pregnant when he was about to transfer to Iowa from Morrisville State College (where he was transferring from Iowa Central Community College ). Jones won multiple titles before his MMA career got underway; he was a New York State champion in High School, and won a Junior College National Championship at Iowa Central.

Randy Couture
Captain America (only in the cage according to Dana White) is possible the most famous “wrestler” in MMA’s short history. His grinding, mauling performances against men like Tito Ortiz, Tim Sylvia, and Chuck Liddell have reached legendary status. He’s held titles in two different weight classes, beat men half his age, and literally spanked an opponent in the cage. His name is synonymous with toughness, and his will and work ethic are second to none. And he got the better of Dana/Zuffa, one of only few in the last decade. That puts him over the top (Stallone style).
Randy’s wrestling career lasted about as long as anyone on this list. After a very good High School career, he moved on to plying his craft for the military. When he got out he competed for the international team in the Greco-Roman style, and for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. In college, he was a three time All-American and two-time runner-up.  His senior year he was the runner-up at 190 lbs where he lost to future MMA stand-out, Mark Kerr.

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  • Evan you should probbaly change the title to "The best fighters in MMA history with a wrestling background" because from the title it seems like it should either be people like GSP with no background who are great at wrestling or people like Askren and DC who are the most decorated.

    It's had to argue this list, there are some guys I think need to be put in it but at the same time I struggle to remove any of the great fighters you listed.

    Instead I'll give some of my notable mentions:
    Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar, Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson, Jon Fitch, Frankie Edgar, Ben Henderson, Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson.

    • I thought about that Keith, but I wanted to keep it involved with MMA and the Olympic discussion as much as possible (so I wanted each of my entries to have that actual background).

      The hardest choice I had for somebody to leave off was Chuck, with Urijah being the next choice and Tito being after that. Fitch has a lot of wins but not the accomplishments or popularity of the men above. Ben, Frankie, and Cain simply haven't been going as long/have the level of domination any of the men above enjoyed. Although, I wouldn't be surprised if they did enough to enter my personal list one day.

      • Good article. Dont let Ripstick see this, he'll attack Americans again 8D

      • meanwhie you have sakuraba up there.

        • Sakuraba was possibly the most famous, and best fighter in MMA's dark era.

          • this article is about wrestling based mma fighters, not the most famous right?

          • Yes?

            Did you just get in to MMA a few years back?

          • yea just a few years. i could care less if you were into mma "before it was cool." i know who sakuraba is and i just dont think that he was as successful in mma or amateur wrestling as some other guys. ben askren is a chump and i effin hate hate him but i would be forced to put him in this list before sakuraba.

          • I didn't mean to demean your knowledge at all.

            Sakuraba was the PRIDE "draw" for the first 3 or 4 years (basically until Wanderlei destroyed him the second time). He was because of his success against the Gracies, Jackson, Mezger (although the bout was more than controversial), and Belfort.

            Not only that, but he was basically outweighed by +20lbs in each of these fights.

            I love Askren, and his style from wrestling. But him being basically a scrambler on the ground I would have to favor Saku in a match between the two. Depends on if it was free or folkstyle though.

          • i know sakuraba (in his prime) would prolly get the sub of askren, but what im trying to say is that he didnt have the best wrestling credentials to his name. which is why i was surprised to see him on your list of successful wrestlers. but straight up grappling yea he owned newton in that fight and newton was a beast!

          • Ah, I was actually talking about wrestling too. His credentials are comparable in the Japanese sense to Askren, as he was the equivalent of an all-american in College every year he was there. Plus he was pretty good on the international level (although admittedly never was a national champion and never represented Japan in the Olympics). I just would give him the edge because of the styles in wrestling.

            This was more about how they did in MMA though. Its why I didn't put, say, Kevin Jackson or Hendricks on here. Like, if Henderson were to have more success at LW he could make this list, and his record wasn't good at all in college (and he was NAIA).

          • idk whats the equivalent to all american in japan,but all i see for his amateur wrestling that stand out is runner up in high school wrestling. it just seemed weird to me thats all

          • Their tourney's in college go on more of a regional status for freshmen. He won a few of those, and in HS was a National runner up (much better than say a State champ here). CLub wrestling is also very big there, and he was on what is looked at as the best in the country (at the time). He was quite good.

            It's hard to compare the two though because the systems are so different.

    • how about keith jardine and dan the beast savern?

  • What? No DC. How about Mark Coleman. They actually competed in the olympics. Chael, Severn both olympic alternates. Askren, Kos, Lesnar, div.1 all americans with records comparable to Hughes? No you got Jones and Cruz?

    • If your read the article or my first comment you would see the article is about the best fighters with an MMA background, not the fighters with the best wrestling credentials.

      • Pretty much what Keith said (thanks KF).

        Although just change this "you would see the article is about the best fighters with an MMA background…" to this "you would see the article is about the best fighters with a wrestling background, not just the best credentials of fighters in MMA."

  • I love wrestlers because of:
    1.Style ( I love clinch work I train BJJ but clinch makes everyone look silly and bad fighter after fans bitchin about)
    2. Ground and pound I prefer boring ground fight rather toe to toe striking. I mean for me watch striking its basicly the same as watch ping pong.
    3.American mma wrestlers fights anyone, friends, team mates, villains and in the end of the day shows no bad feelings, thats mentaly inspires me.

    • Not the casual fans preference, but I dig it.

  • Wrestling is a great sport and i have started taking a wrestling class once a week in addition to my boxing and bjj classes, so i know its a big mistake to get rid of it from the olympics. But, are you really mocking the modern pentathlon? its 5 skill sets (shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running) to resemble a 19th century soldier for survival!

  • Think its worth mentioning GSP was rumoured to be offered a spot on Canadas olympic team. not that canadas famous for wrestling or anything.

    • Would be after that Lurker 8))