2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Wrestling is one of, if not the, strongest bases for MMA. The current wrestlers of today will likely be the dominant fighters of the next generation. This weekend USA Wrestling will host their Junior (under 18) national tournament affectionately known to wrestling fans as Fargo. The following looks at some of the MMA fighters who were able to place in the Junior division in freestyle during their prep days.
Josh Hendricks 4th at 220 and Chael Sonnen 8th at 178
After finishing seventh in 1994, Hendricks returned to Fargo and finished fourth at heavyweight. The winner of the weight class was eventual Iowa standout heavyweight Wes Hand. Hendricks would spend his collegiate days at Ashland where he was a two-time Division II All-American. He made his professional MMA debut in 2002 and made it to the UFC in 2008. In his lone Octagon fight, he lost to title challenger Gabriel Gonzaga. Hendricks last fought in 2014 and holds a 19-11 record as a professional.
Despite focusing mostly on Greco in terms of the international styles, Sonnen did place on the freestyle side at Fargo. Following an All-American career at Oregon, Sonnen did continue to wrestle on the Greco scene before eventually making his MMA debut in 1997. In 2009, he signed with the UFC for the second time and challenged for a title three times. However, he came up short all three times. In recent years, Sonnen has become a semi-ubiquitous talking head in the MMA space.
Mark Munoz 2nd at 178, Sean Salmon 3rd at 178 and Nathan Coy 8th at 154
After high school, Munoz moved on to Oklahoma State where he became a two-time All-American and won the NCAA title at 197 pounds in 2001. He turned to MMA in 2007 and made his UFC debut a little less than two years later. Munoz went 9-6 in the promotion before retiring from the sport in 2015. He holds the unique distinction of being part of the first-ever five-round non-title fight in UFC history. In that bout, Munoz bested Chris Leben via second-round stoppage.
MMA fans likely remember Salmon from the high-profile knockout he suffered against fellow wrestler Rashad Evans in his UFC debut. However, he was quite a wrestler before ever turning to MMA. After finishing third at Fargo, he continued to wrestle at Ohio State. He had a strong freshman season that saw him ranked at multiple points throughout the season. Salmon then dropped out of school. He turned to MMA in 2005 and won nine of his first 10 fights to earn a call from the UFC. Unfortunately, he lost both of his UFC fights. Salmon finished his career in 2013 on a 12-fight losing streak.
Coy went on to become an All-American at Oregon State and finished his collegiate career with an 85-42 record. In 2007, he made his professional MMA debut, and he fought in Strikeforce less than a year later. During his career, he faced off against fellow former wrestlers Tyron Woodley and Paul Bradley. In 2015 Coy finally made his UFC debut after competing on the 21st season of "The Ultimate Fighter." The 43-year-old fighter has not fought since 2017 and has a 15-7 professional record.
Daniel Cormier 4th at 220 and Nathan Coy 5th at 165
After a pair of junior college national championships, Cormier took his talents to Oklahoma State. There he was an All-American and finished second to Cael Sanderson at 184 pounds in 2001. Following college, he was a regular on the freestyle ladder and qualified for multiple World and Olympic teams.
In 2009, Cormier signed with Strikeforce for his MMA debut. He won his first seven bouts before entering the promotion's heavyweight tournament as a reserve fighter. Cormier surprisingly won the bracket over several more experienced fighters. In 2013, Cormier moved to the UFC and in 2015, he defeated Anthony Johnson for the light heavyweight title. Three years later, he vacated the belt and moved up to heavyweight and defeated Stipe Miocic. Cormier retired in 2020 after back-to-back losses to Miocic. He was recently inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Eric Larkin 1st at 132, Nik Fekete 1st at 191.5, Gray Maynard 2nd at 154, Jerrod Sanders 3rd at 132, Steve Mocco 4th at 275 and Gerald Harris 6th at 165
Larkin was one of the more decorated wrestlers to make the move to MMA, when he debuted in 2010. During his collegiate days at Arizona State, he was a four-time All-American. As a senior in 2003, he won the title at 149 pounds and brought home the Hodge Trophy. Seven years later, he made his MMA debut on a small regional show. After a pair of wins, he signed with Bellator that same year. He won his promotional debut, but lost a follow-up fight against Kenny Foster. Larkin never returned to the cage and finished his run with a 3-1 record.
Fekete went on to become an All-American for Michigan State in 2001. He won his first four fights before signing with Bellator in 2011. Fekete went 1-1 with the promotion. He then competed on the 17th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" but lost early in the competition. Fekete last fought in 2017 and has a 7-1 MMA record.
Maynard also spent his collegiate days at Michigan State where he was a multiple-time All-American. When he completed his eligibility in 2003, his 106 career wins ranked 11th in school history. Maynard turned to MMA in 2006 and won his first two fights before entering the fifth season of "The Ultimate Fighter" and joining the UFC. In 2011 he faced off against fellow former wrestler Frankie Edgar for the UFC lightweight title in a fight that went to a draw. After going undefeated through his first 12 fights, Maynard won only three of his last 10 fights and has not competed since leaving the UFC in 2018.
Sanders wrestled collegiately for Oklahoma State. After cracking the starting lineup in 2012 as a junior, he became an All-American in 2003 as part of the Cowboy's national championship team. Sanders made his MMA debut in 2010. He won 14 of his first 15 fights and signed with the UFC in 2014. He won one of his three fights with the promotion before leaving in 2016. Sanders last fought in 2018 and has a 16-4 record.
Mocco was a two-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American who split his collegiate time between Iowa and Oklahoma State. Following school, he competed on the international scene for years and represented the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics. Mocco got a late start in his MMA career as he made his debut in 2012. He went 5-1 and stopped competing after a 2015 victory. Mocco still coaches at American Top Team and can be regularly seen in the corner of several top fighters.
Harris spent his collegiate days at Cleveland State where he was a three-time NCAA qualifier and finished his career as the winningest wrestler in program history. He made his MMA debut in 2006 and signed with the UFC in 2010. Harris went 3-1 in the promotion that year before exiting. He continued to compete on smaller shows before signing with Bellator in 2018. He last fought in 2019 and has a 26-8-1 professional record. Harris has continued to be active in the wrestling world as he recently competed on the Masters level and wrestled in the main event of the second StaleMates Street League show.
Steve Mocco 1st at 275, Marcus LeVesseur 2nd at 143, Cole Province 5th at 132, Frankie Saenz 6th at 132
LeVesseur went on to wrestle at Division III Augsburg, where he became a four-time NCAA champion. He actually had an MMA fight in 2003 after winning his first collegiate title. After finishing school in 2006, he returned to the cage. LeVesseur competed mostly on small shows in Minnesota before signing with the UFC in 2012. He went 1-2 in the Octagon with a victory over Carlo Prater. LeVesseur last fought in 2012 and finished with a 22-7 record.
After this fifth-place finish at Fargo, Province went on to wrestle for Central Oklahoma on the Division II level. He won four-straight national titles. He has since been inducted into both the UCO and Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame. Province made his MMA debut in 2007 and won his first five fights before signing with WEC in 2008. He last fought in 2010 when he dropped a fight against title challenger Mike Thomas Brown. Province finished with a 6-2 record.
Saenz spent time at both Arizona State and Northern Colorado while in college. He transitioned to MMA in 2010. Four years later, he made his MMA debut. From 2014 to 2020, Saenz was a regular in the UFC's bantamweight division. He faced a pair of former WEC champions in Urijah Faber and Eddie Wineland and last fought in 2020. His professional MMA record currently stands at 12-7.
Steve Mocco 1st at 275, Jake Rosholt 1st at 178, Marcus LeVesseur 3rd at 143, Tyron Woodley 3rd at 165, Shawn Bunch 3rd at 114.5, Cain Velasquez 4th at 275 and Johny Hendricks 7th at 154
Rosholt's Fargo championship was a springboard to future college success. He was a three-time NCAA champion and a four-time All-American for Oklahoma State and a major contributor on multiple tournament championship teams. Following school, Rosholt signed with an innovative management group called Team Takedown that provided an early salary based on the anticipated future success. He joined the WEC in 2008 after only four fights on the independent circuit. The following year he signed with the UFC, but he went only 1-2 and was released. Rosholt continued to fight until 2012 and finished with a 12-5 MMA record.
After a boxing loss to YouTube personality Jake Paul, Woodley's fighting career appears to be nearing the end. However, he certainly had his high points after an impressive wrestling career at Missouri where he was a two-time All-American. Woodley signed with Strikeforce in 2009 after making his MMA debut earlier that year. He started his career with 10-straight wins and signed with the UFC in 2013. In 2016, Woodley defeated Robbie Lawler to claim the welterweight title and defended it four times before dropping it in 2019.
Bunch went on to become a two-time All-American at Edinboro and made the finals in 2005. He continued wrestling on the freestyle circuit and was a member of the 2009 world team. In 2012, Bunch made the transition to MMA and made his debut in Bellator. In two different stints with the company, he went 8-4 with a victory over former world champion Joe Warren. The 39-year-old wrestler fought twice earlier this year, as he split a pair of bouts for Khabib Nurmagomedov's Eagle FC promotion.
Velasquez is perhaps one of the most successful former wrestlers on this list. After a stint at junior college, he transferred to Arizona State where he became a two-time All-American in an era stacked with top heavyweights. Less than a year after his collegiate wrestling career ended, Velasquez made his MMA debut. He signed with the UFC after only two professional fights. In his ninth fight, Velasquez defeated Brock Lesnar for the heavyweight championship. He won the belt back from Junior dos Santos in 2012. Velasquez retired from MMA after dropping a fight against current heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in 2019.
Hendricks was a two-time champion and a four-time All-American at Oklahoma State. He joined fellow teammate Rosholt as a founding member of Team Takedown. Hendricks made his MMA debut in 2007 and signed with the UFC in 2009. He won 15 of his first 15 fights and earned a title shot against legend Georges St. Pierre in 2013. Despite seemingly doing enough against "GSP", he dropped a decision. Hendricks would bounce back and defeat Robbie Lawler for the vacant title in his next bout. However, after winning the title, Hendricks went 2-6 to finish his career and last fought in 2017.
Steve Mocco 1st at 275, Johny Hendricks 1st at 165, Cain Velasquez 2nd at 275, Jake Rosholt 3rd at 191.5, Marcus LeVesseur 4th at 154, Ben Askren 4th at 165 and Cole Konrad 4th at 275
Askren was a four-time finalist and two-time NCAA champion at Missouri. He continued to compete on the freestyle scene despite having a seemingly folkstyle-based approach. Askren earned a spot on the 2008 Olympic team. He then made the move to MMA in 2009. After three victories on small shows, he joined Bellator in 2010. After long stints in Bellator and One Championship, Askren signed with the UFC in 2019 with an undefeated 19-0 record. In his UFC debut, he defeated former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. However, Askren then dropped his last two fights and retired from MMA. He came out of retirement to box Jake Paul and suffered a knockout in less than two minutes.
Konrad's rivalry with Mocco was one of the best in heavyweight history. The Minnesota wrestler finished his career as a four-time All-American and two-time champion. Konrad made his professional MMA debut in 2010 after Brock Lesnar had previously brought him in as a training partner. In his seventh fight, Konrad became the inaugural Bellator heavyweight champion. However, he chose to retire after two more fights to focus on becoming a commodities broker. Konrad finished his career with an undefeated 9-0 record.
Cole Konrad 1st at 285, Ben Askren 1st at 171, Johny Hendricks 1st at 160, Phil Davis 8th at 189 and Chad Mendes 8th at 119
Despite never winning a state championship in high school, Davis went on to become a four-time All-American at Penn State. As a senior in 2008, he broke through and won the NCAA title at 197 pounds. Later that same year, he made his MMA debut and signed with the UFC in 2010. Davis went 9-2 with the promotion before leaving and signing with Bellator. In 2016, he defeated Liam McGeary to claim the company's light heavyweight title. Davis dropped the belt against fellow wrestler Ryan Bader in his next fight. He remains active and picked up a victory over Julius Anglickas this past March. His professional record stands at 24-6.
Mendes was a two-time All-American and one-time finalist for Cal Poly. He finished his collegiate eligibility in 2008 and made his MMA debut later that year. Mendes quickly established himself as one of the top featherweights in the world and fought for the UFC featherweight title on three occasions. He remains under UFC contract, but he has not fought in the Octagon since 2018. Earlier this year, he had a bare-knuckle boxing match against a rapper named "Famez" and won by fourth-round knockout.
Brandon Halsey 6th at 215, Jake O'Brien 7th at 215 and TJ Dillashaw 7th at 112
Halsey originally signed with Fresno State coming out of college, but transferred to Cal State Bakersfield after the Bulldogs dropped their program. At the new school, he finished seventh at the 2009 NCAA tournament to become an All-American. Halsey made his MMA debut in 2012 and signed with Bellator the following year after a pair of victories. In his eighth professional fight, he defeated Alexander Shlemenko to become the promotion's middleweight champion. He last fought in 2018 and dropped a fight against current UFC light heavyweight champion Jiri Prochazka. Halsey might still be looking for some competition as he entered the U.S. Open in freestyle this year at heavyweight.
O'Brien spent one year in the starting lineup for Purdue, but he was unable to qualify for the NCAA tournament. He made the transition to MMA in 2005. O'Brien earned a call-up to the UFC in 2006 after building an undefeated 7-0 record. He won his first three fights in the Octagon including an upset over former Pride FC fighter Heath Herring. However, O'Brien would win only one of his next four fights and exit the promotion. He last fought in 2012, but during his career, he did face three UFC champions including Jon Jones, Andrei Arlovski and Cain Velasquez.
Dillashaw was a three-time NCAA qualifier, but he failed to win a single tournament match in those three trips. A year after finishing his collegiate career, Dillashaw made his MMA debut in 2010. After four victories, he entered "The Ultimate Fighter" and made the finals before coming up short against John Dodson. Despite the loss, he earned a spot in the UFC. In 2014, he defeated Renan Barao to become the UFC bantamweight champion. After losing the belt two years later, Dillashaw bounced back in 2017 and won the belt again from Cody Garbrandt. Dillashaw returned last year from a drug test suspension and put himself back in title contention.
Henry Cejudo 1st at 112, Brandon Halsey 1st at 215, Jared Rosholt 2nd at 215 and Gregor Gillespie 4th at 145
Cejudo never wrestled in college, but he did make the 2008 Olympic team four years after this Fargo medal. He surprisingly fought his way through the field and brought home a gold medal at the age of 21. Cejudo eventually made his MMA debut in 2013 and signed with the UFC the following year after going 6-0 on smaller shows. Two years later, Cejudo faced off against Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title but came up short. He fought his way back to the title and bested Johnson for the belt in 2018. In 2019, Cejudo moved up in weight and defeated Marlon Moraes for the vacant bantamweight title. After one defense, he retired from MMA and has been focused on coaching. However, it seems likely he will return to the sport in the near future.
The younger and larger Rosholt followed his brother to Oklahoma State and then into MMA. At the college level, he was a three-time All-American and a one-time finalist. He turned professional in MMA in 2011 and signed with the UFC in 2013. Rosholt went 6-2 in the promotion, but was released following a loss to Roy Nelson in 2016. Since that release, Rosholt has entered multiple PFL tournaments, but he has not fought since falling against former European Championships gold medalist Ali Isaev in the finals of the 2019 PFL heavyweight tournament.
Gillespie was a four-time All-American and one-time champion at Edinboro. He finished his collegiate career in 2009 with a fourth-place finish at 157 pounds. After dealing with some personal issues, Gillespie returned to active competition and made his MMA debut in 2014. He won his first seven fights and received an invitation from the UFC. Gillespie has been a regular competitor in the Octagon, and his scrambling wrestling style has helped him win seven of his eight UFC fights. He has not fought since defeating Carlos Diego Ferreira in 2021, but reportedly remains signed with the promotion.
Boris Novachkov 1st at 98, Jared Rosholt 2nd at 285, Lance Palmer 3rd at 140, Darrion Caldwell 4th at 135 and Sonny Yohn 4th at 189
Novachkov was a three-time finalist for Cal Poly. He ended his collegiate career with a third-place finish at the 2012 NCAA tournament. Following school, he chose to represent Bulgaria on the international scene where he won a silver and bronze medal at the European Championships. He made his MMA debut for Bellator in 2019 but dropped a decision. He bounced back with a pair of victories in 2021 on smaller shows.
Palmer was a four-time All-American at Ohio State. As a senior in 2010, he made the finals before dropping a bout against rival Brent Metcalf. Palmer made his professional MMA debut in 2011. After going 6-0 on small shows he signed with the World Series of Fighting, which is now known as the Professional Fighters League. He has held the WSOF belt twice and won a pair of PFL tournaments. This past June, Palmer defeated kickboxer Sheymon Moraes.
Caldwell famously upset Metcalf in the finals of the 2009 NCAA tournament. After a redshirt year, he returned to the tournament in 2011 but bowed out with an injury. He finished his career at North Carolina State as a two-time All-American. In 2012, he made his MMA debut and signed with Bellator in 2014. He won 13 of his first 14 fights and claimed the Bellator bantamweight title in 2017. However, since winning the title, Caldwell has gone only 4-5 and is currently riding a three-fight losing streak.
Yohn was a three-time All-American for Minnesota during his collegiate days. He made his professional MMA debut in 2016 and currently holds a 3-2 record. Yohn has not fought since scoring a second-round submission over Omar Acosta in 2017.
Jamal Parks 1st at 135, Boris Novachkov 2nd at 112, Sonny Yohn 2nd at 189, Lance Palmer 3rd at 140, Colby Covington 4th at 171, Deron Winn 4th at 189, Darrion Caldwell 5th at 152 and Jamelle Jones 6th at 189
Parks finished fifth at the 2011 NCAA tournament to become an All-American. He then made the move to MMA in 2013. He started his career with five-straight wins, but he has not fought since dropping a fight against Raoni Barcelos in 2015. Of course, this is likely due to issues outside of the cage.
Before he was one of the most polarizing fighters in the world, Covington was a top wrestling prospect. After winning a junior college national championship at Iowa Central, Covington transferred to Oregon State, where he finished as an All-American in 2011. He made his MMA debut the following year. In 2014, he signed with the UFC and quickly made a name for himself with three wins in a row. In 2018, Covington won the interim welterweight title over Rafael dos Anjos, but he has been unable to claim the full version of the belt. Covington has faced off against former Division II wrestler Kamaru Usman, but dropped both fights for the title.
Winn started his collegiate wrestling career at the junior college level where he was a two-time champion. He then finished his career with an NAIA All-American performance for Lindenwood in 2011. Winn remained in the wrestling world for multiple years and made the freestyle national team. He made his MMA debut in 2017 and signed with the UFC in 2019. He has gone 2-3 and is coming off a loss against fellow wrestler Phil Hawes.
Much like Winn, Jones was an NJCAA champion before transferring to Campbellsville where he was an NAIA All-American. He currently holds a 12-8 record in MMA. He recently entered the PFL heavyweight tournament but dropped his first fight against Renan Ferreira.
Sonny Yohn 1st at 189, Boris Novachkov 2nd at 125, Cody Yohn 2nd at 171. Tyrell Fortune 3rd at 215 and Jarod Trice 4th at 285
Cody Yohn, like his brother, was also an All-American for Minnesota. He made his professional MMA debut in 2016 and surprisingly lost his first fight. However, he bounced back with four-straight victories. Despite the winning streak, Yohn has not fought since defeating Mike Jones by a split decision in 2017.
Fortune was a two-time NJCAA champion at Clackamas and eventually won an NCAA Division II title at Grand Canyon. He was a regular on the freestyle ladder for a few years until signing with Bellator for his MMA debut in 2016. Fortune has spent his entire career with the company and currently holds a 12-2 record. This past April, he picked up a first-round knockout over Rakim Cleveland at Bellator 277.
Like Fortune, Trice also signed with Bellator before ever having an MMA fight. The former Central Michigan All-American made his debut with the company and won his first four fights. Despite the wins, the promotion released him following a 2018 victory. Trice returned to action on a smaller show last year and bested Tommie Britton by decision.
Tyrell Fortune 1st at 215
Niko Bogojevic 3rd at 285*, Alex Polizzi 4th at 215 and Johnny Eblen 8th at 189
This one might not count since professional wrestling is only real to a select group of people. Bogojevic wrestled collegiately for both Augsburg and Colorado State Pueblo but mostly focused on Greco Roman. He is currently performing with WWE as Otis.
Polizzi was a three-time NCAA qualifier for Northwestern, who finished his collegiate eligibility in 2015. He made his professional MMA debut in 2018 and won his first five fights before signing with Bellator. In his first fight with the promotion, Polizzi defeated former middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho. In his last fight, he took a step up in competition and last via third-round knockout against Olympic silver medalist wrestler Yoel Romero.
Eblen was a multiple-year starter at Missouri. As a senior in 2015, he won the MAC conference championship and qualified for the NCAA tournament. In 2017, he made his MMA debut. After four wins on the independent circuit, he signed with Bellator. Ebeln continued the winning streak in Bellator and earned a shot against middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi last month. Eblen shocked the world by dominating the fight and taking the middleweight title.
Logan Storley 1st at 171, Edwin Cooper 2nd at 140, Mark Grey 5th at 125, Mike England 5th at 171, Alex Polizzi 6th at 215 and Kyle Crutchmer 6th at 160
Storley was a four-time All-American at Minnesota. He finished his career with a fourth-place finish at the 2015 NCAA tournament. Later that year, Storley made his professional MMA debut. After starting his run with five-straight victories, he signed with Bellator in 2017. He has won nine of his 10 bouts in the promotion. In his last fight, Storley defeated Michael Page to claim the interim welterweight title. The bout sets up a rematch against full champion Yaroslav Amosov who took time off to help with the national defense of his native Ukraine. Amosov has handed Storely his only MMA loss to date.
Cooper won an NJCAA title and finished second at the NCAA Division II tournament before joining the Iowa program in 2014. He qualified for the NCAA tournament as a senior in 2016. Cooper made his professional MMA debut in 2018. He currently holds a 6-1 record. In his last fight, Cooper scored a unanimous decision on the PFL challenger's series but was not awarded a contract with the promotion.
Grey was a three-time NCAA qualifier during his time at Cornell. This past April, he made his professional MMA debut and scored a third-round stoppage over Hector Iglesias. Grey had won four-straight amateur bouts before turning professional.
England started his collegiate career at Iowa State before transferring to Missouri. At the new school, he was a multiple-time NCAA qualifier and made the round of 12 in 2015. England made his professional MMA debut in 2020 and currently holds a 6-1 record. He is set to return to action this July against Lucas Batista. England has not strayed too far from his wrestling roots as he is also a regular on the StaleMates Street League shows.
Crutchmer was a two-time All-American for Oklahoma State. He exhausted his eligibility in 2017 and moved to American Kickboxing Academy to train under fellow former Cowboy Daniel Cormier. Crutchmer turned professional in 2018 and won four-straight fights for an Oklahoma-based promotion before signing with Bellator in 2019. He has gone 5-1 with the promotion. In his last fight, Crutchmer scored a decision victory over Michael Lombardo at Bellator 277.
Pat Downey 1st at 171, Jarred Brooks 2nd at 112, Edwin Cooper 2nd at 152, Mark Martin 4th at 160 and Kyle Crutchmer 4th at 171
Downey spent time at multiple colleges during his colorful career. He won an NJCAA title for Iowa Central and finished fifth at the NCAA tournament while attending Iowa State to become an All-American. Downey has competed extensively on the freestyle scene and represented the U.S. at the 2019 World Championships. He was set to make his professional MMA debut this past April but was reportedly forced to pull out with "red skin syndrome." Downey is now scheduled to make his debut at Bellator 284 on August 12.
Brooks never really wrestled on the collegiate level, but he has relied on his wrestling background in MMA. He made his professional MMA debut in 2014 and currently holds a 19-2 record. He went 2-2 in the UFC from 2017 to 2018 before being released. At times during his career, Brooks has been considered the top strawweight (115 pounds) fighter in the world. However, many of the top promotions don't sponsor the weight class. Brooks recently won a One Championship title shot and is expected to fight for the belt later this year.
Martin was a multiple-time NCAA qualifier during his time at Ohio State. He finished his eligibility in 2016 and made his professional MMA debut the following year. Martin currently holds a 7-2 record and recently earned a shot in the PFL. However, the bout did not go as planned, and Martin suffered a devastating eye injury in the bout against Dilano Taylor and will likely need time to recover.
Kyle Crutchmer 1st at 170