Top wrestlers have had a prominent place in MMA since the beginning. Now, in June of 2019, the headlines across the MMA world are full of names familiar to fans of collegiate and Olympic style wrestling. With Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo ascending to the very top of MMA’s biggest promotion, and wrestling prodigy/MMA super-prospect Aaron Pico suffering another crushing defeat in the world’s most famous sports arena, all in the last week, there is no doubt that wrestlers are getting more than their fair share of shine as staples of the mixed martial arts scene. It has not always been this way though.
Let’s take a look at 10 world-class wrestlers who inconspicuously entered MMA.
In 2005, a few years removed from a highly successful (and highly controversial) wrestling career, Cary Kolat ventured into a new facet of hand-to-hand combat. Possessing a resume that included items like four-time Pennsylvania state champ, Cadet world champ, four-time NCAA Division I All American, two-time NCAA champ, world silver medalist, world bronze medalist, World Cup champ, and Olympian, it’s easy to see why Kolat was encouraged to try MMA.
Training alongside fellow Sydney Olympian Matt Lindland and other wrestling greats who were now full-fledged MMA big shots like Dan Henderson and Randy Couture, Cary jumped right into professional MMA. His physical, aggressive, technical wrestling style lent itself well to MMA and Kolat impressed his peers at the respected MMA gym, Team Quest. Booked to fight for Sportfight, a promotion owned by Lindland and Couture, against the far more experienced Enoch Wilson, the stage was set for Kolat to begin his climb up the 155-pound rankings.
Things did not go as planned. Kolat performed admirably, impressing early on with his athleticism, clean technique, and wrestling prowess. He looked surprisingly at home in there and even showed some crisp striking, but a minute or so into the second round Kolat scored a takedown and shortly after found himself tangled up in a submission hold, ultimately tapping out to a triangle choke. Unfortunately, despite showing real promise, Kolat never fought again. He has been firmly entrenched in the wrestling scene ever since, as a coach, doing camps, running clubs, and putting out fantastic wrestling content via his website and YouTube channel.
When it comes to the conversation about the greatest American wrestlers of all time, you will almost always hear the name Kenny Monday brought up. A true to life legend, Monday owns a resume matched by few. Another four-time high school state champ, Kenny went on to win an NCAA Division I national title, an Olympic gold medal, an Olympic silver medal, a world gold, and a world silver. Oh yeah and he also made a third Olympic team in 1996, placing sixth at the Atlanta Games.
Less than one year later, Monday found himself in an MMA cage fighting a man named John Lewis. Even in 1997, Lewis was already an instrumental player in the development of MMA. He’d had five official fights on his record by the time he faced off against the debuting Monday, was a dangerous submission fighter, and had great coaches in his corner. Fighting on the same card as friend, teammate, and fellow Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson, Monday took the fight to Lewis and in the second round he unleashed a serious barrage of punches from top position and scored the TKO win.
The MMA scene was buzzing. Monday was expected to do big things in the sport, but it was not to be. Six months later Monday participated in the ahead-of its-time “Contenders” submission grappling event but was quickly tapped out via foot lock by MMA pioneer Matt Hume. Monday never fought or grappled again after this. However, he did remain in the MMA world to some extent. Over the years Monday has been a wrestling coach for prominent MMA fighters and has promoted MMA event “Battlegrounds MMA”. Kenny also remains a fixture in the USA Wrestling scene and serves as the head coach of the Tar Heel Wrestling Club at UNC.
In the early to mid-2000’s, Japanese MMA powerhouse Pride Fighting Championships was all about putting on the biggest and wildest shows possible, often attracting crowds numbering 50, 70, even 90 thousand. Putting on such spectacles meant booking all kinds of MMA matches that would appeal to the diverse Japanese fan base. If there’s one thing that the Japanese fight fans loved and respected, it was the Olympic athlete. And what better way to show your appreciation for your Olympic heroes than to match them up in a fight with a vastly more experienced opponent.
In 2006 at a Pride FC New Year’s Eve show, this is the position that Georgian freestyle legend Eldari Kurtanidze found himself in. Nearing the end of his prime of a hugely successful wrestling career that yielded two bronze medals at the Olympics, two world titles, two world silver medals, and a world bronze medal to boot, Kurtanidze was most likely enticed into the Pride ring via a well-known method utilized by Pride brass … a duffel bag full of cash.
Kurtanidze was matched up with fellow amateur wrestling stud and MMA veteran Kazuyuki Fujita, who has already amassed 18 fights by the time he faced Kurtanidze. The fight went as most expected, with Kurtanidze advancing clumsily in search of the tie up/takedown and with Fujita punching him in the face. Two minutes and 9 seconds into the first round Fujita stuffed a takedown attempt from Kurtanidze and landed one punch too many on the wrestling legend. Kurtanidze returned to wrestling a few months later and continued to perform well until retiring in 2014. Needless to say, he finished his MMA career 0-1.
On New Year’s Eve 2006 in Japan, right about the time Eladari Kurtanidze was experiencing his first MMA fight in a Pride ring in Saitama, Greco-Roman wrestler Istvan Majoros was in Osaka being welcomed to MMA under the K-1 banner. Keeping in line with the Japanese MMA tradition of feeding debuting wrestlers to the wolves right out the gate, Majoros was matched up with fellow wrestler, a wrecking machine known as Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto.
Two years prior to this momentous occasion Majoros had reached the apex of amateur wrestling when he won the gold medal in the 55-kilogram weight class at the Athens Olympics. He followed that up with a world bronze a year later. To his credit, the Hungarian Greco-Roman wrestler went in there to fight, taking it to “Kid”. Surprisingly, Majoros eschewed the clinch positions and instead opted to pursue easily defended leg attacks on his Japanese adversary. Yamamoto picked the much lesser experienced Majoros apart with straight punches and counter knees, eventually having mercy on the Hungarian at 3:46 of Round 1, letting the ref move in and stop the fight. Majoros, the 2004 Hungarian Sportsmen of the Year, did not return to MMA or wrestling after this match.
If you followed USA Greco-Roman legend Dennis Hall’s career then you know the guy is a fighter. He wrestled with such tenacity and developed a reputation as one of the hardest training athletes out there who would actively seek out the best wrestlers to train with. The approach paid off handsomely with Hall winning a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics preceded by a world gold in 1995 and a world bronze in 1994.
In 1998, a year after trying out submission grappling at the same “Contenders” event that saw Kenny Monday lose, Hall was headed to Japan to try out MMA. Greatly respected MMA coach and a USA Wrestling great in his own right, Rico Chiapparelli was happy to take Hall on to his RAW Team (Real American Wrestlers). Hall debuted in the legendary Japanese promotion, Shooto. His opponent? Noboru Asahi, a Japanese MMA veteran with an 18-2-3 record heading into Hall’s debut. Hall fought well for a neophyte. He landed hard right hands and scored a slick double leg on his crafty opponent. His success was short-lived, however, and when Asahi got back to his feet he fed Hall a steady diet of low kicks that changed the trajectory of the fight. In Round 2 Asahi countered a Hall takedown attempt with a nasty low kick that enabled him to take the three-time Olympian down and secure a dominant position. Hall fought off the submission valiantly but ultimately succumbed to the armbar. Hall went right back to wrestling and never fought again. He’d go on to make two more world teams, an Olympic team, and win the Pan American Games. Today, Hall still trains USA’s top Greco-Roman wrestlers.
Apparently having debuting world class wrestlers fight established MMA buzz saws is not entirely a Japanese custom. In 2002, already a two-time NCAA All American and Dave Schultz International champion, Greco specialist Lindsey Durlacher took his first MMA fight. Standing opposite him on fight night was lighter weight MMA pioneer and fellow Midwesterner, Miguel Torres. Already 20 fights into his then undefeated MMA career, Torres was beginning to really pick up steam and was a proven finisher. Lethal with both his strikes and especially his submissions, there is no doubt that Torres was the favorite.
What wound up happening was a dogfight. A war of attrition that to this day Miguel Torres counts amongst his toughest. The wrestler pushed forward for the entirety of the fight. He scored takedowns off both leg attacks and from the clinch and somewhat amazingly was able to maintain top position for much of the fight without becoming entangled in Torres’ long-limbed submission attacks. In the end, it was Torres’ sweeps from bottom, active guard and submission attempts, and striking that won him the unanimous decision victory. Durlacher would fight again a few months later and again in 2005, winning both bouts, but he would go on from the Torres fight to do the best wrestling of his career, winning two more Schultz titles and a bronze medal at the 2006 World Championships. Sadly, Durlacher passed away June 4, 2011, from complications following a surgery to repair a broken sternum. He was 36 years old.
While all-time great wrestler Alexander Karelin did participate in a worked, MMA-like fight in the Japanese promotion, Rings, Polish Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler Andrzej Wroński owns the impressive distinction of being the only two-time Olympic gold medalist wrestler to ever fight in MMA. He won world gold in 1994 as well.
In one of the more intriguing stories mentioned here, Wroński decided in 2011, at the age of 45, seven years removed from competitive wrestling, to take an MMA fight in his native Poland. The man facing Wroński would be fellow Polish Olympic and world champion judoka Pawel Nastula. Somewhat ironically, six years earlier Nastula himself had been given the privilege of facing a dangerous MMA veteran for his first fight in……you guessed it, Pride Fighting Championships.
Unsurprisingly, Wroński was overmatched against Nastula, who had spent the previous six years honing his craft as a full-time MMA fighter. Once the fight began it was quickly evident that the contest would be short, and it was. Roughly a minute into Round 1 Nastula knocked out the legendary wrestler and retired him from combat sports for good. This could’ve been a very intriguing matchup had it taken place years earlier, but as is often the case in MMA, compelling fights materialize late or never.
World-class heavyweight talent is among the most coveted of commodities in the MMA game. When a heavyweight wrestling big shot makes the jump over to MMA it is often a big deal, even if the athlete in question is older. For this reason, it will probably come as a surprise to many that NCAA legend Carlton Haselrig actually spent over a year from 2008 to 2009 fighting in the cage. At 42 years of age, after a long and storied athletic career that included becoming a six-time NCAA champ and a Pro Bowl-level NFL guard, the big man was taking up a new vocation.
Haselrig’s wrestling career is the stuff of legend. After winning a Pennsylvania state title in high school despite his school not having a wrestling team, he went on to enroll in NCAA Division II’s University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Back in those days the Division II national champ was entitled to wrestled in the Division I championships that followed, and Haselrig won both titles in three consecutive years. Haselrig also dabbled in Olympic style wrestling, competing successfully in both freestyle and Greco-Roman, but a variety of circumstances prevented him from winning any medals beyond the Junior division. Haselrig actually took MMA seriously, and he faced a good quality of opposition, but he had racked up too many miles on his body by that point and exited the sport after five fights, going 3-2. Haselrig has since been inducted as a distinguished member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Heading back to Japan for this next entry, we have another extremely decorated wrestler debuting against another extremely dangerous Japanese opponent. Alan Fried, successful as he was, might have had the most untapped potential he was never able to fully unleash due to injuries. A very successful wrestler in both freestyle and folkstyle, Fried has most of the titles you set out to win as an aspiring wrestler. Multiple high school state titles in the super-tough state of Ohio, three-time NCAA Division I finalist (champ in 1994), Pan Am champ, Dave Schultz International champ, and world champ in the 20 an under division (then known as Espoir).
Despite being such a high-level wrestler, in summer of 1997, still in his wrestling prime, Fried took a fight in Shooto against none other than Rumino Sato, Mr. Flying armbar himself. In what was Sato’s 10th fight, the Japanese MMA pioneer was on a tear, racking up eight submission victories and a single draw against the aforementioned John Lewis. Sato was a strong wrestler with fantastic athleticism and dangerous striking to go with his nasty submissions. Fried came out in Round 1 aggressively, but was ultimately overmatched by a superior foe. He submitted to an armbar 59 seconds into Round 1, sustaining an injury that still ails him to this day. This was Fried’s only MMA fight. He returned to the wrestling scene and resumed winning titles and coaching.
American wrestling royalty Stephen Abas had a relatively quiet run in MMA from 2010 to 2011, taking three fights and winning them all. After failing to make the 2008 Olympic team, Stephen decided to pursue MMA despite having sustained a few significant injuries. Still pretty young at 32 years old, Abas brought with him to MMA three California state titles, national high school titles in folkstyle and freestyle, three 3 NCAA Division I titles, multiple World Cup and Schultz International titles, a Junior world title, and an Olympic silver medal.
Not only were his credentials obviously world class, he also teamed up with several top coaches and training partners who could round out his skills nicely (namely Joe Warren, KJ Noons, Diego Sanchez, Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, etc). Things were moving along nicely for the California native as he was taking fights and getting in cage time, but injuries and the considerable opportunity afforded to a wrestler of his caliber drew Abas back to wrestling. He was willing to come out of retirement in 2013 to fight his wrestling rival and then MMA hopeful Henry Cejudo, but the promoters for Galdiator Challenge say that Henry “refused.” Abas returned to wrestling in 2015 to pursue another Olympic team spot but suffered a few losses before gaining any momentum. He still coaches wrestling today.
These are just a few of the world-class wrestling talents that have given MMA a shot over the years, with most of these stints taking place largely under the radar. Nowadays, with the MMA world keenly aware of what a high-level wrestler can do, a debuting wrestler entering the MMA ranks receives much more attention, and rightfully so.
Stay tuned for more coverage of wrestlers in mixed martial arts.