Olympics afford MMA fans opportunity to scout future stars
MMA fans should follow wrestling, judo, boxing and taekwondo during the Olympics
Wrestling has proven the true Olympic breeding ground for future MMA fighters
Jordan Burroughs is one to watch, but he says he wouldn't move to MMA till 2017
There's no UFC event this weekend, and no Strikeforce or Bellator fights, either. So what are mixed martial arts fans supposed to do with ourselves? Well, it's a prime opportunity for us to settle in front of a TV and scout for future stars.
The Summer Olympic Games, which officially launch Friday with opening ceremonies London, are obviously much more than an MMA farm system. But several elements of the fight game -- wrestling, judo, boxing and taekwondo -- are among the 26 sports to be contested over the next two weeks. So fight fans can dream, can't we?
The most famous Olympian to step into a cage actually didn't compete in a combat sport at the Games. Herschel Walker, the ageless college football Hall of Famer and NFL star who in his 40s turned to MMA and had two high-profile fights in Strikeforce, was a member of the U.S. two-man bobsled team in the 1992 Winter Olympics. But a more realistic place to look for the cage fighters of tomorrow will be on the wrestling or judo mat. Judo competition begins Saturday, wrestling a week from Sunday.
Before Ronda Rousey became a Strikeforce bantamweight champion and nekkid ESPN the Magazine cover girl, she competed as a judoka at two Olympiads, finishing ninth in 2004 at age 17 and capturing the bronze medal four years later. The judo competition at the 2004 Games also gave us Rick Hawn, who in May won Bellator's Season 6 lightweight tournament to earn an as-yet-unscheduled shot at champion Michael Chandler, and Rhadi Ferguson, a heavyweight who also was an alternate at the 2000 Olympics and went on to three pro MMA fights. A black belt in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Ferguson now coaches fighters and other athletes in south Florida and also happens to be the cousin of Kevin Ferguson, whom you might know by his street fighting name, Kimbo Slice.
It's not just American judokas who've taken to the cage. Just last weekend we saw Hector Lombard, a member of Cuba's 2000 Olympic team who went on to become Bellator middleweight champ, ride a 25-fight unbeaten streak into his UFC debut. And several Japanese Olympians have switched sports, among them gold medalists Satoshi Ishii (2008) and Hidehiko Yoshida (1992). They actually met in Ishii's MMA debut in 2009, with Yoshida winning by decision. Ishii went unbeaten in his next five bouts before being knocked out in the first round by Fedor Emelianenko last December. He recently signed with an MMA promotion in India, the Super Fight League.
The most abundant Olympic breeding ground for MMA fighters, however, is the wrestling mat. Ben Askren and Daniel Cormier were teammates on the US freestyle team at the 2008 Games, and Cormier also finished just short of the medals podium in 2004. Now Cormier is the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion, with a fight coming up in September against Frank Mir that could earn him a shot at the UFC title. And Askren owns the Bellator welterweight belt. Both are 10-0.
Perhaps the success of his 2008 Olympic teammates is what has inspired Steve Mocca to get into the game. The two-time NCAA Division 1 champion signed with the Resurrection Fighting Alliance this summer and expects to make his MMA debut in the fall.
Also in the midst of new cage careers are a couple of female Olympians. Sara McMann, who in 2004 became the first American woman to secure an Olympic silver medal in wrestling, is 5-0. And 2008 bronze winner Randi Miller won her pro debut in April at the first Invicta Fighting Championships all-women event.
New names aside, Olympic wrestling and MMA go way back. The 28-year-old Randi Miller was just nine months old -- and UFC champions Junior dos Santos, Jon Jones, Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz weren't even born yet -- when Mark Schultz captured gold for the United States in the 1984 Games. More than a decade later, at age 35, the freestyle wrestler fought at UFC 9, beating Gary Goodridge by doctor's stoppage. Schultz would not compete again in MMA, although he did train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a legend in the discipline, Rickson Gracie.
Another one-fight MMA wonder with an elite wrestling past was Rulon Gardner, who at the 2000 Olympics stunned the Greco-Roman world by winning the gold-medal match against Alexander Karelin. The storied Russian had been unbeaten for 12 years and hadn't even given up a point in six. Four years later, Gardner fought his only MMA bout, winning a decision over a fellow gold medalist, the judoka Yoshida, at a Pride event in Japan.
For more MMA staying power among US Olympians, we can look to 2000 Greco silver medalist Matt Lindland, who had 31 fights in the UFC and Strikeforce, among other promotions, as well as a trio of 1992 wrestlers who found their way into the UFC. Freestyle gold medalist Kevin Jackson won the promotion's old-school middleweight tournament at UFC 14 in 1997 and retired the next year after six fights. Mark Coleman, who also competed in freestyle at those Barcelona Games, won heavyweight tournaments at UFC 10 and UFC 11 and in '97 beat Dan Severn to become the first UFC heavyweight champ. He later would win a Pride open-weight title in a 26-fight Hall of Fame career that ended in 2010.
Then there's the third 1992 Olympian, a Greco-Roman wrestler whose fight career is still going strong. Dan Henderson went on to compete again in the '96 Games before launching an extraordinary MMA career. He won the middleweight tournament at UFC 17 back in 1998, later held both the middleweight and welterweight titles at the same time in the Pride Fighting Championships and in 2010 became Strikeforce light heavyweight champ. In September, at age 42, he will challenge Jon Jones for the 25-year-old's UFC light heavyweight belt.
So which 2012 Olympians might have an MMA future in them? Not Michael Phelps, although he surely would be capable of taking opponents into deep water. Not Usain Bolt, either, despite the fact that there's not a fighter alive who could keep up with his footwork. The place to look, as always, is on the mat.
Jordan Burroughs, the 24-year-old reigning world champion from New Jersey, would seem to be the big catch. But MMA might be on a long fishing trip, as Burroughs said in an interview last year with the MMA Nation radio show that while he does have plans to enter the cage, it won't be until 2017. He still has goals in wrestling, beginning this summer in London. "John Smith from Oklahoma State was the greatest American wrestler of all time. He was a four-time world champ and two-time Olympic champ," said Burroughs, who competes at 163 pounds. "So for me, in order to catch him or surpass him, I'll have to wrestle every Olympics and every world championship from now to 2017. And that's the goal: to win all of those, and once I'm done with that, to try and get into MMA."
Judo also might have a 2012 US Olympian to offer. Kayla Harrison, who four years ago traveled with Rousey to the Beijing Games as a training partner, is considered America's best hope at a medal in the sport. The 22-year-old is the reigning world champion at 78 kilograms. That actually brings up a hurdle Harrison would face if she were to follow her friend Ronda's footsteps into an MMA career, as 78 kilograms is around 172 pounds. The divisions in women's MMA currently top out at 145 pounds. Harrison has said she could make 155. But she still has doubts about whether MMA is for her.
"Fans don't really wanna see us big girls out there," Harrison told BleacherReport.com. "It doesn't matter what I have to offer as an athlete; part of the gig is that I'm also pretty and good in front of a camera and marketable. It's up to the MMA gods to decide that."
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.
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