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  • Photo: Photo/John Sachs

    Photo: Photo/John Sachs

    Vision Quest MMA: Class of 2006

    Cain Velasquez battles with Cole Konrad in the semifinals of the 2006 NCAAs (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
    After one last clubbing forearm to the head, a familiar buzzer sounded. Cain Velasquez rose out of his wrestling stance and began to circle away. As his opponent pumped his right fist in the sky, the Arizona State wrestler completed his circle walk and returned to the center. He toed the line and performed the ceremonial match-ending handshake. The season was over. Velasquez finished his collegiate wrestling career with a fourth-place finish at the 2006 NCAA tournament. As he stood there on the mat, in his sweat soaked maroon singlet, he might have thought his athletic career was over. That could not have been further from the truth. A little over four years later, he would be the one getting his hand raised after defeating another former heavyweight wrestler for the UFC heavyweight title.

    This weekend Madison Square Garden hosts the 2016 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. 330 wrestlers will compete for 10 weight class championships. The top eight finishers in each weight class will earn All-American status. If history holds, the tournament will produce at least one All-American who will embark on an MMA career. Since 1979 every All-America team has produced at least one MMA competitor.

    Over the past 20 seasons, around six All-Americans from each tournament have entered MMA. This number will most likely rise as it usually takes a few years for wrestlers to trickle into the fighting ranks. However, one year in particular sticks out. 15 members, nearly 18 percent, of the 2006 All-American class have transitioned into MMA.

    Some of the members of this class have already earned legendary status, some have decided that it is simply not for them and some are still trying to make it in the combat sport.

    Chad Mendes (Cal Poly), sixth place, 125 pounds

    Mendes entered the tournament as the ninth seed. He fell in the championship bracket to future World Team regular Nick Simmons. He rebounded nicely in the consolation bracket to earn All-American status but dropped his last two matches to future Olympian Sam Hazewinkel and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott.

    Two years later, Mendes would return to the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed. He dominated his way to the finals before being upset by J Jaggers in a controversial final.

    Mendes made his professional MMA debut in 2008. He has built himself into a perennial contender in the featherweight division. He has fought for that division's UFC title three times but has never been able to capture the belt.

    Shawn Bunch (Edinboro), third place, 133 pounds

    As the returning NCAA runner-up and No. 1 seed, Bunch was considered a strong favorite to win the 133-pound tournament. He dropped a 9-2 match to Chris Fleeger in the semifinals and ended up finishing third. After college, Bunch became a regular on the international freestyle circuit. He won a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Championships and was a member of the 2009 U.S. World Team.

    Bunch signed with Bellator in 2012 after coming up one match short of qualifying for the Olympics. In his last fight for the promotion, he was submitted by Darrion Caldwell. The defeat dropped his Bellator record to 4-2. Bunch currently trains at American Kickboxing Academy.

    Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro), seventh place, 149 pounds

    Gillespie's seventh-place finish marked the first time a true freshman had become an All-American in Edinboro history. He would go on to finish his career in 2009 as a four-time All-American and one-time NCAA champion.

    The New York native did not transition into MMA right away. His struggles with addiction and injuries are well documented in a Sherdog Prospect Watch article. Since finally making his debut in 2014, Gillespie has gone 6-0 under the Ring of Combat banner. He recently scored a first-round knockout over Jose Mariscal at ROC 54.

    Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma State), first place, 165 pounds

    Hendricks entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed. In the finals, he defeated Michigan's Ryan Churella but not without controversy. Churella turned Hendricks with an inside cradle late in the second period. Many fans still claim that Hendricks was pinned, but the referee did not call the fall. Hendricks won the match 9-8.

    After winning a pair of fights in the WEC, Hendricks moved to the UFC in 2009. He won nine of his first 10 fights in the promotion to earn a title shot against then-champion Georges St. Pierre. Hendricks fell via dubious decision. He returned in his next fight and defeated Robbie Lawler for the vacant title. Since then, he has lost the belt and gone 1-2.

    Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov (American), third place, 165 pounds

    Abdurakhmanov is a three-time Uzbekistan national champion and a Junior World silver medalist. After a pair of junior college national titles, he joined the American University squad. He quickly became one of the most highly decorated wrestlers in the program's history highlighted by this third-place finish. His only defeat in the tournament was a 4-3 loss to Hendricks in the semifinals.

    After college, he became a training partner for Kenny Florian. In 2009, he split a pair of fights on regional shows in the Northeast. After falling via submission to Rene Nazare at FFP-Untamed 29, he never fought again. Abdurakhmanov has been an assistant coach for the Harvard wrestling team since 2008.

    Ben Askren celebrates after winning the NCAA title in 2006 (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
    Ben Askren (Missouri), first place, 174 pounds

    At this tournament, Askren won his first of two NCAA titles. In the finals, he defeated future World silver medalist and Olympian Jake Herbert. After college, Askren continued to wrestle for a few years. He represented the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics but failed to medal.

    About 20 months after making his MMA debut, Askren defeated Lyman Good for the Bellator welterweight title He currently holds an undefeated 14-0 record and the One Championship welterweight title.

    C.B. Dollaway (Arizona State), fifth place, 184 pounds

    Dollaway entered the tournament as the 10th seed. He was knocked out in the quarterfinals by the eventual runner-up Roger Kish. Dollaway then eliminated current Bellator fighter Paul Bradley in the consolation bracket and eventually finished fifth.

    "The Doberman" would launch his UFC career on the seventh season of "The Ultimate Fighter." He reached the season title match but submitted to Amir Sadollah on the finale card. Over the course of his UFC career he has picked up victories over the likes of Joe Doerksen, Daniel Sarafian and Jason "Mayhem" Miller.

    Eric Bradley (Penn State), eighth place, 184 pounds

    Early in his college career, Bradley suffered a rather serious back injury that threatened to end his time in the sport. During his time away, he took up boxing and won a National Collegiate Boxing championship in 2003.

    For most of his senior season, Bradley was ranked No. 1 at 184 pounds. However, a series of late season losses pushed him down to the eighth seed. After defeating Paul Bradley, he fell to the No. 1 seed Josh Glenn in the quarterfinals.The Penn State wrestler managed to earn All-American status in the wrestlebacks.

    In 2007, Bradley became one of the first fighters to sign with management group Team Takedown, which also represented Hendricks, Jake Rosholt and Shane Roller. He began his career with a 2-1 record including a victory over Mikey Gomez on the undercard of EliteXC "Street Certified." Bradley was then arrested alongside collegiate teammate Patrick Cummins for theft and burglary.

    Bradley's last fight on his record came in 2012. The following year he was a cast member of "Fight Master: Bellator MMA." He defeated A.J. Matthews and Joe Williams to reach the semifinals of the reality show competition but ultimately fell to Mike Bronzoulis and was eliminated.

    Jake Rosholt (Oklahoma State), first place, 197 pounds; Phil Davis (Penn State), second place, 197 pounds; Chris Weidman (Hofstra), sixth place, 197 pounds; Ryan Bader (Arizona State), seventh place, 197 pounds

    Four of the eight All-Americans at 197-pounds went on to become MMA fighters. Weidman, who was unseeded, knocked off the No. 1 seed Wynn Michalak. He then defeated Bader in the quarterfinals. Rosholt, Davis and Weidman all reached the semifinals. There, Rosholt defeated Weidman and moved onto the finals. Davis advanced in his side of the bracket but fell to Rosholt via a 10-3 score. Weidman ended up finishing sixth, while Bader finished seventh.

    Rosholt began fighting in 2007. He made his UFC debut after only five professional fights. The former Cowboy wrestler went 1-2 with his lone victory coming over Chris Leben before the UFC released him. He continued to fight on the smaller shows but ultimately retired after falling via knockout to Anthony Johnson in 2012.

    Davis won his first five fights in the UFC before running into former champion Rashad Evans. He left the promotion last year after going 9-3 in the promotion. In Bellator, Davis won the promotion's one-night light heavyweight grand prix. He will face Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal in a bout which will determine a No. 1 contender at Bellator 154 in May.

    Weidman shocked the world when he scored a second-round knockout of Anderson Silva and took home the middleweight title. He defended the belt twice over former champions Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort. In his last outing, Weidman fell for the first time to Luke Rockhold. The two are scheduled for a rematch at UFC 199 in June.

    Bader won the eighth season of "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2008 and has been fighting in the UFC ever since. He had recently won five fights in a row to put himself into title contention. However, his momentum was stopped when he was finished in the first round by Anthony Johnson at UFC on Fox 18.

    Cole Konrad (Minnesota), first place, 285 pounds; Steve Mocco (Oklahoma State), second place, 285 pounds

    Mocco vs. Konrad is one of the best rivalries in the history of college wrestling. In 2005, Mocco went undefeated and picked up an overtime win over Konrad in the NCAA finals. The following year, Konrad stopped Mocco's 85 match unbeaten streak with a pin in the finals of the National Duals. The two rematched in the 2006 NCAA final with Konrad taking the overtime victory. After Mocco's graduation, the Minnesota wrestler won another NCAA title in 2007.

    Konrad began his MMA training as a partner for fellow Minnesota alumnus Brock Lesnar. He made his professional debut in 2010. Later that year, he won Bellator's Season 3 heavyweight tournament to claim the promotion's inaugural heavyweight championship. He fought two more times against Paul Buentello and Eric Prindle before retiring with an undefeated record to become a full-time commodities broker.

    Mocco would go on to compete on the international freestyle circuit. He represented the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics. In 2009, he won a pair of prestigious international tournaments: the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix and Alexander Medved Tournament. After failing to make the 2012 Olympic team, Mocco began training with American Top Team. He has gone 5-1 with his last two bouts coming under the World Series of Fighting banner.

    Cain Velasquez (Arizona State), fourth place, 285 pounds

    Velasquez was unlucky that his career coincided with great heavyweights Mocco and Konrad. In his two years at Arizona State, he was knocked out of the championship bracket in the semifinals by Konrad both years. Their 2006 match was about as close as it gets. Konrad won a 2-2 match on tie breaker.

    Velasquez made his MMA debut later in 2006. He joined the UFC two years later after only two fights. He won first six fights in the promotion to earn a title shot against Lesnar, which he won. After dropping the belt to Junior dos Santos on the first FOX show, Velasquez won it back in 2012. He defended it twice before submitting to Fabricio Werdum last summer.

    Other notes from 2006 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships:

    Former Bellator champion Michael Chandler (Missouri), Scott Jorgensen (Boise State), Paul Bradley (Iowa) and Kenny Robertson (Eastern Illinois) all came up one match short of All-American status.

    UFC veteran Dave Herman (Indiana) went 1-2 in the heavyweight bracket.

    Current WWE wrestler Jake Hager (Oklahoma), who wrestles under the name Jack Swagger, finished seventh at heavyweight.

    Richard Mann currently runs the data-driven MMA blog StrikeScoreMMA.com.

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