Menu

Top five MMA 'draft classes' ever

The pipeline between collegiate wrestling and MMA is not as direct as it is in other sports. Obviously, the two entities are in fact different sports, and there is nothing approaching a formal draft process. However, year in and year out some of the best fighters cut their teeth in the NCAA Division I ranks. The following looks back on some of the top five graduating classes as if there had been a draft. In order to be considered, the competitor must have gained All-American status at the Division I level. This of course leaves out several top fighters such as Frankie Edgar, T.J. Dillashaw and Urijah Faber, but there are always undrafted players who go on to greatness in other sports too.

1. 2007: Chris Weidman, Ben Askren, Johny Hendricks and Cole Konrad

The 2007 class was able to get it done on the wrestling mats and keep that momentum going in MMA. Chris Weidman (Hofstra), Ben Askren (Missouri), Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma State) and Cole Konrad (Minnesota) combined for 14 All-American seasons and six NCAA titles.

In 2013, Weidman challenged Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title. He came into the bout as a sizable underdog but managed to finish the fight in the second round. Weidman followed that up with three straight victories over former UFC champions. After losing three in a row, he recently got back on track with a third-round submission over Kelvin Gastelum at UFC on Fox 25.

Askren currently holds the One Championship welterweight title. He has announced that he will retire from MMA after his next title defense against former Dream and One lightweight champion Shinya Aoki. Askren was never given a chance in the UFC, but he was still a top ten fighter. He holds signature wins over former Bellator champion Andrey Koreshkov and current Bellator champion Douglas Lima.

In 2014, Hendricks defeated Robbie Lawler to claim the UFC welterweight title. He had previously fought then-champion Georges St. Pierre for the belt. Hendricks dropped a dubious decision and St. Pierre subsequently retired from the sport. Since losing the title in a rematch with Lawler, Hendricks has won only two of his last six bouts. However, he still reached the pinnacle of the sport and defeated the likes of Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit.

In only his seventh professional MMA bout, Konrad defeated Neil Grove to become the inaugural Bellator heavyweight champion. He retired and became a commodities broker following two more wins over Paul Buentello and Eric Prindle. Despite only having a less than three-year career, Konrad was able to win a major promotion title.

Mark Munoz and Daniel Cormier as teammates at Oklahoma State

2. 2001: Daniel Cormier, Mark Munoz and Chael Sonnen

The 2001 class produced Daniel Cormier, Mark Munoz and Chael Sonnen. In terms of college wrestling, Munoz was the most accomplished. During his time at Oklahoma State, he was a two-time All-American and won the 2001 NCAA title at 197 pounds. Cormier, a two-time junior college national champion, finished as the NCAA runner-up at 184 pounds his senior year. Sonnen reached All-American status in 1998 and never got back on the podium again, but he excelled in Greco Roman on the University level.

Cormier ended up spending his senior season in the same weight class as the only four-time undefeated Division I champion, Cael Sanderson. After finishing second to Cael in college, Cormier spent the better part of the decade representing the U.S. freestyle team at 96 kilograms. In 2009, he made his MMA debut. Three years later, he won the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix after entering as an alternate. In 2015, Cormier defeated Anthony Johnson for the vacant UFC light heavyweight championship. He defended the belt twice before losing to former champion Jon Jones at UFC 214. Cormier was awarded the title once against after Jones tested positive for a banned substance.

After only three professional fights, Munoz signed with WEC, and he spent the rest of his career under the Zuffa banner. He was never able to win the middleweight title, but he scored signature wins over fellow wrestling veterans Aaron Simpson and C.B. Dollaway as well as Demian Maia. Munoz also holds the distinction of fighting in the first five-round non-title fight in UFC history.

There is not enough space in this article to fully cover the contributions of Sonnen from a notoriety perspective. After an extensive MMA career, Sonnen fought Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title in 2010. After dominating the fight with his wrestling, he fell victim to a triangle choke. Since then, he has continued to compete with limited success.

Darrion Caldwell and Bubba Jenkins wrestled in the 2008 NCAA semifinals at 149 pounds (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

3. 2011: Bubba Jenkins, Colby Covington, Darrion Caldwell and Justin Gaethje

In time this draft class might turn out to be the best in MMA history. Bubba Jenkins (Arizona State), Colby Covington (Oregon State), Darrion Caldwell (NC State) and Justin Gaethje (Northern Colorado) left school in 2011 with a combined two NCAA titles and six All-American finishes.

After winning an NCAA title in dramatic fashion during his senior season, Jenkins made his MMA debut in December 2011. He won his first three bouts before signing with Bellator the following year. He went 8-3 in the promotion but left the company following a second loss against Georgi Karakhanyan in 2016 over a contract dispute. Since leaving Bellator, Jenkins has split a pair of bouts under the ACB banner.

The least accomplished wrestler in this class might turn out to be the first one to fight for UFC gold. Gaethje lorded over the World Series of Fighting lightweight division from 2014 to 2016 before signing with the UFC earlier this year. In his Octagon debut, he put on a "fight of the year" contender with Michael Johnson and finished the bout in the second round. In December, he will return to action against Eddie Alvarez. With a victory, the former Northern Colorado wrestler might earn a title shot.

Covington flew all the way to Macau for his UFC debut. On that night, he ended up defeating Anying Wang in the first round. He holds a 7-1 record in the company. In his last fight, the former Oregon State wrestler scored a decision over veteran Dong Hyun Kim to inch closer towards the title picture. He is scheduled to fight Demian Maia on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 119.

In his last fight, Caldwell scored the biggest win of his career. He defeated Eduardo Dantas to claim the Bellator bantamweight title. Since turning professional in 2012, the former NC State wrestler has won 11 of 12 fights. His only loss came via flukish submission against Joe Taimanglo last year. Less than six months after the defeat, Caldwell avenged it with a one-sided decision victory.

4. 2008: Chad Mendes and Phil Davis

What the 2008 class lacks in depth, it makes up for with high-end talent. Chad Mendes (Cal Poly) was a two-time All-American and one-time runner up. The other member of this class, Phil Davis (Penn State), was a four-time All-American and finished up with a national title his senior season.

After leaving the UFC in 2015, Davis won the Bellator light heavyweight title in his fourth fight for the promotion. To claim the belt, he took a dominant decision over former champion Liam McGeary. Unfortunately for Davis, he lost the title to fellow wrestler Ryan Bader in his first title defense. However, he has still earned high ranking in the light heavyweight division, and he holds victories over the likes of Muhammed Lawal, Glover Teixeira and Lyoto Machida.

Davis will return to action against grappler Leo Leite. The bout will be part of Bellator 186, which takes place Nov. 3 at the Bryce Jordan Center the campus of Penn State.

For a multiple-year period, Mendes was considered the second-best featherweight in the world behind only UFC champion Jose Aldo. From 2008 to 2015, the former Cal Poly wrestler went 17-2 and picked up wins over Cub Swanson, Ricardo Lamas and Clay Guida. In 2015, he earned a last-minute shot at Conor McGregor for the interim featherweight title. Mendes looked solid with his wrestling early and then faded. Following the loss, he only fought once and tested positive for a banned substance.

5. 2006: Shawn Bunch, Muzzaffar Abdurakhmanov, C.B. Dollaway, Eric Bradley, Jake Rosholt, Ryan Bader, Steve Mocco, Cain Velasquez and Paul Bradley

Unlike the 2008 class, the 2006 edition makes the top five due its astonishing depth. The 2006 graduating class ended up producing nine MMA fighters. Of the nine fighters, two have gone on to be major promotion champions. In 2010, former Arizona State wrestler Cain Velasquez captured the UFC heavyweight title for the first time. His fellow Sun Devil, Ryan Bader recently won the Bellator light heavyweight title with a decision over Davis.

Comments

Login or Register to post a comment