World-class wrestlers-turned MMA fighters to watch: Part 2

Though the sport of mixed martial arts has always done a fair job of attracting their share of world-class wresters to the ring or cage, the recent growth of the sport on a global scale has only served to increase its pull on the world's best takedown artists. Earlier MMA promotions in the United States, Japan, Eastern Europe, Russia, and even Brazil have been prominently featuring some of the world's top wrestlers for years. But now, with the solidification of those existing markets and the proliferation of new, well-funded shows in places like Singapore, Poland, Nordic countries, and the Caucasus Russian Republics, we are seeing an unprecedented influx of wrestling talent from all over the globe.

Excited? Well, you should be. If you're a fan of wrestling you should really give these guys a watch inside the cage. They are so used to plying their trade against the very best wrestlers in the world, and because of this, seized advantages are often minute. Watching top wrestlers unleashed in the less-restrictive arena that is MMA, against opponents who aren't nearly as good at wrestling is a ton of fun. Plus, nowadays, with MMA shows the world over, and a lot of crossover amongst the wrestler and fighter populations, we get to see Olympic-level wrestlers unveil new skills with every fight. The days of the plodding, one-dimensional wrestlers are over.

The wrestlers featured herein are/were legitimate champions and medalists at the highest levels of wrestling. They have varying amounts of fights on their record, but all these men are expected to have their best fighting years ahead of them.

On to the list ...

Logan Storley

Undefeated (10-0) South Dakota native Logan Storley has been afforded privileges in his athletic development that few others can boast. Having very early access to fellow Webster High wrestler and eventual mentor Brock Lesnar, Storley had designs on fighting early on.

A superb high school wrestler, he won a state title every year from seventh to 12th grade. He also won a Fargo freestyle title, NHSCA Junior Nationals, and in 2011, won both the Junior Hodge and the Dave Schultz Excellence Award. The former presented to him by none other than his buddy Lesnar.

Like Lesnar, Storley attended the University of Minnesota where in addition to becoming a four-time Division I All-American, he was successful in freestyle. Taking second at UWW Junior Nationals (2012) and University Nationals (2013), he also qualified for the 2013 World Team trials at 84 kilograms by winning the Northern Plains Regional.

Storley forged useful relationships with more wrestlers-turned fighters while still in college. UFC champs Robbie Lawler and Benson Henderson, and top MMA coaches Duke Roufus and Greg Nelson have proven valuable allies as Storley's pugilistic progression has been seamless.

Since the beginning, Storley fought like a true MMA veteran. His measured aggression and well-roundedness are major forces to reckon with. He shifts effortlessly between punching in close, dumping foes on their heads, and ground-and-pounding them into a TKO. He is incredibly strong and near-impossible to reverse once on top. Currently climbing the Bellator MMA ranks and fighting out the Hard Knocks 365 camp with Robbie Lawler, Kamaru Usman, and others, Storley's future is as bright as they come.

Deron Winn

Missouri native Deron Winn was about as decorated a high schooler could hope to be. Four-time all-state with three titles, his lone loss at the state tournament came as a freshman to fighter Michael Chandler. He won five national titles, three in Greco and one freestyle at Fargo, and one at NHSCA Senior Nationals. Despite interest from most major Division I programs, poor grades and some fighting forced Winn to take another route. In doing so he became a two-time NJCAA national champ and an NAIA All-American (third place).

After college, Winn got to prove himself against Division I competition. Wrestling for the Cyclone Wrestling Club at Iowa State, and spending time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he defeated many top Division I wrestlers, including national champs Chris Pendleton, Jon Reader, Max Askren, J' den Cox, and others. Internationally he won an array of medals at the Dave Schultz and NYAC International/Bill Farrell Memorial, also taking home hardware in Ukraine and Cuba.

Initially having "little to no interest" in MMA, a 2015 trip to American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose to train with Daniel Cormier changed things. His original plan being to wrestle and fight simultaneously, Winn turned his focus to MMA after a 2018 World Team spot eluded him. Taking full advantage of his wrestling contacts, he's trained with the likes of Josh Koscheck in Fresno, Antonio McKee in Long Beach, and Cormier (and a host of others) in San Jose.

His God-given punching power now coupled with some technique and tact, and with a build that creates many challenges for opponents, thus far his fights have largely been short, violent affairs. However, in his last two outings he has proven his ability to win tough, three-round fights against UFC-caliber foes. His last fight, also his UFC debut, earned him a big win and $50,000 performance bonus.

Migran Arutyunyan (Photo/Tony Rotundo,

Migran Arutyunyan

Until recently, you'd be hard-pressed to find even one legit world-class wrestler from the Caucasus region who's entered MMA. We've had fighters from this region who could wrestle their rear ends off in the cage, but none were near the top of the ladder in their country. Luckily, that is changing, and Armenian-Russian Greco-Roman superstar, Migran "Maestro" Arutyunyan is proof of that.

Representing Russia and then Armenia, Arutyunyan enjoyed a fantastic career. He medaled at Worlds and Europeans in the Junior division before taking second and first at Russian Nationals in 2011 and 2012 respectively. He then picked up several prestigious medals for Armenia on his way to the 2016 Games. He beat two world champs heading to the finals where he was denied a gold medal due to passivity calls. Furious, and close to quitting, he decided to pursue MMA and will take another crack at gold in 2020.

Thus far Arutyunyan's MMA career has great support and his credentials afford him a plethora of resources and options. He's enlisted Russian boxers Ilez Yandiev and Svetlana Andreeva and has Sambo world champ Ayvazyan Zhora for grappling. Also spending time in the USA, he's trained with UFC vets and fellow Armenians Gegard Mousasi and Manny Gamburyan at Hayastan MMA and SK Golden Boys Wrestling Club in California.

As for his actual skills, Arutyunyan has shined in 2 pro fights. Unsurprisingly his wrestling is amazing, but he has a grasp on the finer points of cage-fighting that belies his inexperience. Setting up takedowns with punches, using the cage to help control an opponent, and clever baiting tactics while grappling are hallmarks of a seasoned fighter. Skilled and exceptionally strong, he should be lots of fun to watch, and being with the same management as many UFC fighters, he can fight where he chooses. It also means he may be fast-tracked to the top. Only time will tell.

Aaron Pico

Aaron Pico

Never in the history of MMA have we seen a prospect so thoroughly prepared for the sport as Aaron Pico. Making his fighting intentions known at a very young age, the buzz he generated in the combat sports world has been rather remarkable.

A phenomenal wrestler growing up, Pico was also active and successful in both boxing and pankration, a form of grappling-heavy, watered down MMA. In high school he won pretty much everything. He won a California state title as a freshman, five Fargo titles (three in freestyle, two in Greco), USA Wrestling Folkstyle Nationals, and Cadet Worlds. Successful on the senior circuit as well, Pico came painfully close to making the 2016 Olympic Team, narrowly losing to Frank Molinaro on criteria before moving to MMA.

Leading up to his debut in Bellator MMA, people were lining up to train Pico. He spent time at AKA with Daniel Cormier and company, Team Bodyshop with Antonio McKee, he boxed with Freddy Roach, and still trained wrestling with the best in the game. Rumors of him destroying top fighters in training were coming from everywhere and his coaches raved about him.

After a disastrous debut against a bigger, older, much more experienced fighter, expectations simmered a bit. Showing great resolve and maturity, Pico handled defeat like a champ. Then, in his next four fights, we saw his incredible talent on full display when he scored four dazzling first-round knock outs. He was indeed for real. But MMA is a cruel game, and despite every aspect of Pico's skill being top-notch, he lost his last two fights in devastating fashion. Pico is at a bit of a crossroads, and there is much speculation as to where his future lay. His immense skill set will always make him dangerous, but perseverance and maybe even some lucky breaks may be in order if he is to reach the top of the MMA world.

Bekzod Abdurakhmanov

In 2013, I had been serving as a strength and conditioning coach for a fighter who took a fight at Sherman Cage Rage, a small but solid Pennsylvania MMA show. Watching the fight before his from backstage, he noticed a certain confidence of one of the fighters as they made their walk to the cage. The fight began and inside of a round the noted fighter had violently TKO'd his opponent. Everyone in attendance knew they had just witnessed an extremely high-level athlete. That athlete was Bekzod Abdurakhmanov.

A star young wrestler coming up in Uzbekistan, Abdurakhmanov had his entire career mapped out until an incident involving him knocking out an opponent on the mat caused a diversion.

Luckily his older brother Muzaffar had previously relocated to the USA and assisted Abdurakhmanov in doing the same.

A very interesting story, the next few years were a whirlwind that saw Abdurakhmanov become a three-time college wrestling All-American (two NJCAA, one Division I), join his brother on the coaching staff at Harvard, return to Uzbekistan to wrestle, and start an MMA career. He performed well on the senior scene, placing in the top eight at most tournaments, all while winning five amateur and six pro fights inside of 18 months. He was looking like one of the most promising MMA prospects in history until in 2014 he broke through in wrestling, taking second at the Dave Schultz and winning bronze at the World Championships. This changed things. All of a sudden an Olympic gold medal seemed possible.

Abdurakhmanov put fighting on hold, spending the next few years collecting wrestling medals. He won the Asian Games and Asian Championships several times, he tech falled Jordan Burroughs in Rio, and won another bronze at the 2018 Worlds. What lands him on this list is the fact that he quietly took another fight late in 2017. He's also been seen in famed MMA coach Mark DellaGrotte's MMA and Muay Thai gym in Boston again. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Abdurakhmanov stops wrestling after the Tokyo Games to focus of MMA.

Tune in to future installments where we will cover a Russian/Azeri Olympian who is winning fights with spinning wheel kicks, a possible future UFC heavyweight champion, and one of the best NCAA wrestlers in history.


Login or Register to post a comment