Chris Gonzalez wrestling Pat Smith in the finals of the U.S. Open (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
As the final seconds ticked down, Chris Gonzalez found himself in an unfamiliar position. He was well on his way to winning his Bellator MMA debut in only his second professional fight, but he was also trapped in a triangle choke. His surprisingly game opponent Charlie Radtke, a Midwestern bison herder, had locked in the submission hold and rolled into the top position as part of a desperate attempt to steal the fight late. It has become almost cliche at this point to say that the grating slog of wrestling prepares fighters for adversity, but Gonzalez became the latest convert to handle that challenge and survive to the final bell. In the process, the 2016 Greco-Roman World Team member also improved to 2-0 as a professional MMA fighter.
"I think in a few years we are going to look back and be like, 'It was crazy that we were matched up together like that.' I think he is a good fighter, and he has a bright future ahead of him. I want to go out there and fight some tough guys," Gonzalez reflected. "I got into a tough situation towards the end of the fight. I held on there and pulled out the victory. It was a great fight."
If anything, Gonzalez's roundabout wrestling history may have uniquely prepared him for the transition into a simultaneous MMA career. After getting a late start in the sport, he bounced to a few collegiate programs before finally moving to Greco-Roman at the Northern Michigan Olympic Training Site.
"I actually never made it to state for wrestling. I tore my knee my junior and senior year, so I ended up walking on at Northern Illinois University, which was a folkstyle Division I school, which was awesome. Coach [Dave] Grant and everybody up there was great, but I got a little overzealous. I ended up doing everything at the university other than my homework, and I failed out pretty quick. Then I went the junior college route. I went to Harper College for a little bit. I becamde an All-American there. From there I had to option of going back to a Division I school or try to pursue something bigger than that, which was the Olympics," Gonzalez said. "I always set my goals pretty high, and I was good at Greco. I went to Fargo in high school and was a multiple time All-American. I reached out to the head coach at Northern Michigan at the time, Rob Herman, and he got back to me right away, and he was super welcoming and he offered me a scholarship. When I completed my time at the NJCAA level I made my transition over to Greco."
Gonzalez has been hunting for a trip to the Olympics ever since. He came the closest in 2016. He failed to make the Olympic team, but he earned the chance to represent the U.S. for the non-Olympic weight World Championships. To make the team, Gonzalez needed to get past multiple-time World Team member Pat Smith.
"I wrestled him in the semis, I believe. I remember going out there and telling myself to just relax, just go out there and have fun," Gonzalez said. "I went out there and got into an over/under position and I think I ended up with a double underhook throw and I ended up catching him and pinning him."
After making the team, Gonzalez had a short turn around before heading to Budapest for the World Championships. In an Olympic year, the schedule for the extra weights was condensed and abnormal.
"I ended up taking eighth at the Worlds. I think I could have done a lot better, but it was kind of weird how it worked out. UWW came out with, decided to do the World Championships so last minute that I don't think that we were really prepared as a country for it," Gonzalez remembered. "I did not really have a training camp heading into Worlds. I was by myself running on a treadmill. Most of the guys at the Olympic Training Center were on vacation at that time, the coaching staff and team were not really around. I didn't really have a full camp going into it like I would have liked to, like all these other World teams get. I made the best of it. I got my workouts in, and I went over there and ended up taking eighth. I ended up losing in the quarters by criteria to the eventual bronze medalist. I scored the first two points. He scored a pushout and a caution. The final score was 2-2, but because he got the last score he ended up advancing. That was a tough pill to swallow, but it was a good experience."
Chris Gonzalez after his victory at Bellator 221 (Photo/Bellator)
In his mind, Gonzalez was already thinking about making the transition into MMA. Issues with the new coaching staff may have helped give him a push in that direction.
"I was a resident at the Olympic Training Center for right around a year, I want to say, and then they decided that all the residents who were over a certain age could no longer be residents," Gonzalez explained. "They wanted to do more of a youth kind of movement, which kind of forced my hand. I was already transitioning to MMA as it was, but that was obviously like a game changer as well."
Despite this tension, he appears to believe that the U.S. Greco program's focus on the youth movement could pay off in the near future.
"I think they are headed in the right direction," Gonzalez said. "They have got some guys on the coaching staff who I think are really good. They are able to relate to some of these younger guys, and they bring a technical aspect as well. I think they are headed in the right direction."
Even after making the transition into MMA and signing with a major promotion, Gonzalez has not given up hope for the 2020 Olympic Games. He fully intends to give it a shot when the Olympic Team Trials come around next year.
"My focus is definitely on MMA right now," he explains. "I am definitely still going to compete next year. I will probably take a few months off heading into Olympic Trials to refamiliarize myself and give myself the best opportunity to make the team. Right now I am focusing strictly on MMA, but heading into the Olympic year, I plan on being one of the top guys and competing for that spot."
Competing in two different sports at the same time is never easy. While there are obviously similarities between wrestling and MMA, there are also key divergences. Gonzalez competed at the 2019 U.S. Open with very little preparation and less than 15 days before his Bellator debut.
"I went up a weight class for Nationals hoping that I could just win it there and then I would have a bye to the World Team Trials finals. That way I would not have to wrestle the very next week after my fight as well, but in the first match I ended up actually injuring myself a little bit and I ended up losing a close first match to a tough kid," he said. "So then I defaulted out of the tournament just so I could make sure that I could get back healthy for my fight. I went into that fight not really feeling 100 percent, and I still got the job done there. I mean, it was just one of those things. In hindsight, should I have gone to that tournament? Probably not, but I did it and we still got the W in the fight and it ended up working out. But the scheduling was tough for sure."
The 2020 Olympic Games are still on the horizon, and they never seem to far from Gonzalez's mind. However, he will make his return to the Bellator cage this weekend. He faces Luis Vargas who has already fought for both Bellator and Combate Americas.
"My mindset is the same pretty much heading into every fight, just go in there, assert myself, see the openings, don't force anything, take what is in front of me, keep the pressure on," Gonzalez said. "My goal is always win by stoppage, I plan on having the referee pull me off of him at some point throughout the fight, whether it is submission, rear-naked choke, or I am raining down elbows, I do not plan on the fight going the distance."