The fingerprints of amateur wrestling can be found all over MMA, even when they’re not readily apparent. Case in point, this weekend’s UFC on ESPN card in Minneapolis. While you won’t find any super high-level wrestlers on this card (a rarity nowadays), if you look just a little bit closer you will find a host of world-class wrestling talent. Here are the mat men who have developed the wrestling skills of this weekend’s top combatants.
Main Event: Francis Ngannou vs Junior dos Santos
Though he is, and has always been, primarily a striker, Junior dos Santos has been lucky enough to have extremely high-level wrestling coaches. He has even showed flashes of wresting brilliance in the cage, even against guys with serious wresting chops (see his fight with NCAA Division II champ Shane Carwin). So far, dos Antos has been coached by the following wrestlers …
Though undersized and not wrestling until junior year of high school, sheer hard work netted him a spot on the team at Arizona State. After college he joined the U.S. Army, linked up with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club, and pursued the Olympics. The U.S. Army captain captured many prestigious domestic and international medals along the way but ultimately came up short of his wrestling goals. He then moved to MMA as a highly sought-after wrestling coach, training mostly Brazilian fighters. He currently coaches Henry Cejudo and Patrício Freire. Both hold two titles at the same time.
Pliev has wrestled all over the world. Born in the Russian Republic of Ossetia, he wrestled at home until relocating to the USA in high school. After a high school career that saw him become a bona fide blue-chip recruit, Pliev suffered a huge setback. A trip home to Ossetia saw him essentially get stuck in his native Russia due to politics and visa/citizenship issues. Pliev wound up in Canada where he made the 2012 Olympic team before relocating to Brazil to coach and pursue MMA and boxing. He was first introduced to MMA when he was brought in to help Anderson Silva train for his rematch with Chael Sonnen. He currently splits his time between Brazil and his native Ossetia-Alania in Russia.
Francis Ngannou has undoubtedly made a name for himself by knocking his opponents heads off their shoulders. And while he has been notoriously criticized for not working on his wrestling enough (not even leading up to a title fight against a Division I wrestler), he has been trained by at least one high-level wrestler, Kamaru Usman.
The current UFC 170-pound champion was born in Nigeria before moving to Texas at 8 years old. He took up wrestling in high school before becoming a national qualifier for William Penn University (NAIA) and three-time All-American for the University of Nebraska-Kearney (Division II). Usman then moved on to the U.S. Olympic Training Center after college to pursue freestyle wrestling. He notched a few medals domestically, defeating multiple NCAA Division I All-Americans in the process, and represented the United States at the University World Championships in 2010. He began MMA after failing to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Team Trials, first as a coach and training partner at Team Takedown in Texas, then moving to Florida to coach and pursue his own career.
Co-Main Event: Jussier Formiga vs. Joseph Benavidez
Easily one of the most successful flyweights in MMA history, Jussier Formiga’s bread and butter was always BJJ. This worked just fine until he got thoroughly beat down by lifelong wrestler Ian McCall in 2011. Formiga reinvented himself, relocating from Brazil to Florida to train with famed American Top Team. With his new team came a career resurgence, largely brought on by training with the following wrestlers …
This New Jersey native Mocco was a hugely successful wrestler on every level possible. One of the most successful high school careers in history led to one of the most successful collegiate heavyweight careers in history, and that was followed by an outstanding run at the senior level. After failing to make his second Olympic team in 2012, Mocco shifted his focus to MMA, and while his fighting career was a success (5-1 record), he has really shined as a coach for the world’s top MMA fighters. He has found a home in Florida at the main American Top Team location in Coconut Creek, training fighters and even starting a wrestling academy at the facility. Mocco is also the current wrestling coach for headliner Junior dos Santos.
Mike Thomas Brown
Before being the esteemed coach he is now, Brown himself was a world champion MMA fighter. A grinding, punishing wrestler with extreme strength and superb conditioning, Brown made his background work extremely well for him in the cage. Those skills were forged in Maine as a high schooler where he was state champ as a junior and runner up his senior year. After high school he wrestled for Vermont’s Norwich University (D III) where despite showing great promise, his wrestling career was derailed by a serious neck injury. He made his pro MMA debut in 2001 and unofficially retired in 2013. He is now one of the top coaches out there for MMA-based wrestling training, and functions as the second most senior coach at ATT, Coconut Creek.
Perennial flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez, himself a New Mexico state champion wrestler in high school, wrestled a single season at William Penn University (NAIA) before jumping over to MMA. His destination? The mecca of lighter weight wrestlers entering MMA, Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Calif. After spending years in Sacramento, Benavidez jumped ship to Elevation Fight Team in Colorado before relocating again to Las Vegas where he currently resides. Along the way he has had access to more high-caliber wrestlers than anyone else on this weekend’s card. Some of those wrestlers are …
Growing up in the wrestling hotbed state of Ohio, Palmer completed one of the most successful high school careers in the state’s history and then moved on to the NCAA’s Division I, making an immediate impact for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2006. Competing in perhaps the toughest weight class in NCAA wrestling (149 pounds), Palmer was a fantastic collegiate wrestler. And although he came up just short of reaching the top, his body of work serves him extremely well inside the cage. Palmer and Benavidez first linked up at Team Alpha Male and still train together today despite both fighters moving on to other gyms. Today he is known as one of the best fighters not signed to the UFC, recently winning a featherweight tournament and a cool million dollars in the Professional Fighters League.
Colorado wrestling royalty both as a competitor and a coach, Bowling has been around the wrestling scene just about his whole life. Completing his high school wrestling career with a record of 154 wins and just 2 losses (setting a few state records in the process), Leister headed to Nebraska to wrestle successfully for the now defunct Dana College (NAIA). After college, he dabbled in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling a bit, but it didn’t take long to find his niche as a coach. While coaching at the Division I level (University of Northern Colorado), Bowling began working with fighters from nearby Grudge MMA Training Center. After a while he devoted himself to coaching MMA exclusively, heading up the cutting-edge Elevation Fight Team before retiring in 2017.
Co-Main Event: Damian Maia vs Anthony Rocco Martin
Always a phenomenal submission grappler and a very successful MMA fighter, UFC welterweight Damian Maia is perhaps the poster child for fighters upping their focus on wrestling with the interest of being a better fighter. After reaching a title fight in which he was unsuccessful as a 185-pound UFC fighter, Maia dedicated himself to wrestling, cut some weight, and emerged a reinvigorated welterweight hybrid grappler with some of the best wrestling in the UFC. The wrestlers responsible for making Maia such an outstanding wrestler are…
Arguably the most decorated wrestler on this entire list, Herbert grew up wrestling in perhaps the strongest wresting state in the country, Pennsylvania. Though he was a very successful high school wrestler both in Pennsylvania and nationally, he experienced a drastic rate of improvement once in college. Wrestling for Northwestern University, Herbert established roots in the Chicago area which is how he has crossed paths with several top MMA fighters looking to improve their wrestling, most notably, Damian Maia. Herbert trained Maia at the Overtime School of Wrestling in Chicago and although he is still involved with wrestling today, he stepped away from the sport as a competitor after the 2016 Olympic Team Trials.
Establishing himself as one of the top coaches in the MMA, grappling, and club wrestling arena, New Jersey’s Dave Esposito has also been a successful wrestler himself. After enjoying a career that saw Esposito wrestle extremely well in high school, Division I (Lehigh), and beyond in freestyle (ranked as high as fifth on the senior level), he dipped his toes into MMA, scoring one big emphatic victory and then focused on coaching. Now heading up the prestigious Edge Hoboken School of Wrestling, Esposito has essentially created a combat sports utopia where wrestlers, submission grapplers, MMA fighters, and other combat athletes can exchange skills and ideas. He has personally coached Damian Maia and other UFC guys for several years now.
Surging UFC welterweight Anthony Rocco Martin didn’t grow up a wrestler (wrestled one season) and he isn’t particularly interested in taking his opponents to the ground. However, in an effort to climb the rankings, Martin trains almost obsessively in another facet of wrestling, takedown defense. To do that he has enlisted the help of fellow American Top Team fighter and lifelong wrestler Colby Covington and so far, the approach is paying off in the form of a four-fight winning streak. Though he has Covington as his main wrestling partner, as an ATT fighter, Martin trains with wrestling studs Will Brooks, the aforementioned Mocco, and BJJ black belt/Brazilian freestyle champ Gleison Tibau, regularly.
Born in California, Covington grew up largely in Oregon where he became one of the top high school wrestlers in the state. He would go on to successfully wrestle collegiately at three different colleges (including the legendary University of Iowa) before entering the grappling arena and eventually MMA. Along the way he picked up many impressive accolades, finishing his wresting career in 2011 and entering MMA in 2012.
These are just a few of the many elite wrestlers who have gone on to compete and coach in the mixed martial arts arena. Stay tuned for more wrestling/MMA content to come.