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The complete history of NCAA Division I wrestling champs in MMA

This week sees the return of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, bravely and steadfastly pushing forward despite this seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic, as well as, another UFC Fight Night card, serving up MMA action of the highest caliber. Prominently featured in the co-main event is the very talented former NCAA Division I wrestling champion Gregor Gillespie.

At this point in time Gillespie is the lone fighter on the UFC roster with a Division I national title, but you will find others scattered throughout the ranks of MMA's other promotions. Here we will list every fighter who has ever found themselves atop the collegiate wrestling world. Some are well known, others not so much. Here goes.

Mark Coleman (Ohio State, 1988, 190 pounds)

The original world-class wrestler to enter MMA (along with Dan Severn), The Hammer and Godfather of ground and pound, Coleman forged a path many a top-flight wrestler would later follow. Coleman, with his size, strength, and ferocity, accomplished it all in the cage, leaving an everlasting legacy behind. With his MMA exploits lasting nearly a decade and a half, Coleman experienced it all during his remarkable run in the sport.

Mark Kerr (Syracuse, 1992, 190 pounds)

Another pioneering MMA big man with a cool (and appropriate) nickname, Mark "The Smashing Machine" Kerr was something of a protégé of the aforementioned Coleman. Kerr had the size, strength, and physique of his mentor, but his fighting style was a tad more deliberate and sophisticated. Kerr's struggles are well-documented (his HBO documentary was fantastic), but during his prime he was perhaps the most formidable fighter in the entire world.

Kevin Randleman

Kevin Randleman (Ohio State, 1992-1993, 177 pounds)

Another student of Mark Coleman -- "The Monster" -- with his bleached-blonde hair, Mr. Olympia physique, and his off-the-charts athleticism, left a lasting image. Many will remember his in-cage warmup, often consisting of plyometric squats that saw him launched into the air. Randleman developed more dangerous hands than his predecessors, and his wrestling was great fun to watch (look up the "Randleplex"), attributes he used to win a UFC title and become a tremendous attraction while fighting in Japan. R.I.P. Kevin.

Mark Schultz (Oklahoma, 1981, 1982, 1983, 167 and 177 pounds twice

Schultz is something of a myth in MMA circles. A man with all the combative skill in the world but a man we got to see very little of. Schultz took his only official fight at UFC 9 with mere hours to prepare, replacing his injured teammate at the very last minute. He won in impressive fashion, executing high-powered takedowns with incredible ease and showing great finishing instincts. He eventually took up Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and is viewed by most as a grappling god.

Kenny Monday (Photo/Justin Hoch, JHoch.com)

Kenny Monday (Oklahoma State, 1984, 150 pounds)

The supremely talented Monday entered the world of submission and no-holds-barred fighting a year or so after his third and final Olympic Games appearance. He faced a very dangerous and already accomplished foe in his sole cage fight, looking quite stellar in the process. Monday would refocus his efforts towards the wrestling world, but remains involved in MMA as a coach and promoter.

Royce Alger (Iowa, 1987 & 1988, 167 and 177 pounds)

Billed as "Dan Gable's most ferocious wrestler" ahead of his MMA debut at UFC 13 (1997), Alger spent two years and five fights as an MMA fighter. Another entry on this list associated with Mark Coleman's Team Hammer House, Alger fought his heart out against extremely tough opposition in tallying a 3-2 record inside the cage.

Rico Chiapparelli (Iowa, 1987, 177 pounds)

Chiapparelli initially found his way into MMA as a coach and cornerman for his fellow wrestlers taking to the cage. He has immersed himself in the sport ever since, first with his Team R.A.W (Real American Wrestlers), then with his time spent perfecting the union of wrestling and submission-fighting, and furthermore as a fighter (1-0), promoter, and highly sought after coach.

Mike Van Arsdale (Iowa State, 1988, 167 pounds)

Van Arsdale entered the MMA orbit via "The Contenders" submission-fighting tournament that also featured Kenny Monday and other top wrestlers. From there on out Van Arsdale has been a fixture on the MMA scene as a damn good fighter (8-5 record), grappler, and coach of some of the sport's biggest names. Van Arsdale's fight with Randy Couture remains one of my favorite bouts pitting top wrestlers against each other.

Alan Fried

Alan Fried (Oklahoma State, 1994, 142 pounds)

Ohio and Oklahoma wrestling royalty, Alan Fried never had designs on entering MMA. Yet, here he stands with a record of 0-1 and his singular fight taking place against one of the most dangerous fighters of his time. How? Why? Well, thanks to an offer from Rico Chiapparelli, Fried got to fly to Japan in 1997 to fight Rumina Sato (look him up, trust me) on 3 days' notice. A complete neophyte, Fried hung tough but ultimately got his elbow badly injured by the Japanese legend. This injury played a significant part in Fried's eventual retirement from competitive wrestling.

Rex Holman (Ohio State, 1993, 190 pounds)

Yet another wrestler-turned fighter associated with Mark Coleman. In 2007, a 4-1 Rex Holman got his shot in the big show thanks to a bit of a perfect storm of factors. The UFC was set to hold its first event in the state of Ohio when fellow wrestler and Ohio native Matt Hamill lost his opponent. Holman tapped some connections and voila, just like that he was Hamill's new dance partner.

Carlton Haselrig

Carlton Haselrig (Pittsburgh, Johnstown, 1987, 1988, & 1999, 275 pounds)

Haselrig owns an absolutely legendary collegiate resume complete with seven All-America finishes and six national titles (three a piece in DI and DII). He entered MMA too late to make a real run, but he fought well nonetheless, going 3-2 over roughly a one-year stretch at 42 years old. One of two collegiate wrestlers named by the great Kurt Angle as his most formidable foes, Haselrig possessed the kind of athletic potential that could have seen him become an all-time great had he began MMA earlier. R.I.P. Carlton.

Sylvester Terkay (North Carolina State, 1993, 275 pounds)

A sort of predecessor to the likes of Brock Lesnar, Terkay was the first behemoth pro and amateur wrestling star to enter MMA. From 2003 to 2006 Terkay immersed himself into the world of Japanese combat sports. Competing against a who's who of top opponents in MMA, K-1 kickboxing, and Japanese Shoot-style pro-wrestling, Terkay performed admirably as he scored quite a few impressive wins in the land of the rising sun.

Cary Kolat (Lock Haven, 1996 & 1997, 134 and 142 pounds)

Several years removed from one of the strongest American wrestling careers in history, with the bitterness of the highly controversial 2000 Olympic Games still present, Kolat decided to try MMA. With the backing of Randy Couture and fellow Sydney Olympian Matt Lindland, Kolat was set. Undersized against a very dangerous and savvy fighter with 10 fights to his zero, Kolat found himself tapping out in the first round despite showing real promise as a fighter. It was his only foray into MMA.

John Kading (Oklahoma, 1996, 190 pounds)

Despite being quite an intriguing MMA prospect due to his wrestling background and a his judo acumen, Kading's one and only foray into MMA was probably ill-advised. A late replacement in the now-defunct International Fight League, Kading endured a massive weight cut en route to facing a 16-fight veteran in his MMA debut. Surprisingly, he decked his foe early and had him on rubber legs, but overzealousness and overconfidence saw him knocked out shortly thereafter.

Gable Steveson with Brock Lesnar

Brock Lesnar (Minnesota, 2000, 285 pounds)

Well-known to most, Lesnar's exploits in wrestling and in MMA are combat sports folklore at this point. Going straight from NCAA wrestling to pro wrestling, Lesnar found himself gravitating towards fighting by the time 2007 rolled around. He made a huge splash in MMA, fighting nothing but world-class opposition throughout his nine-fight MMA run. With a UFC heavyweight title in his closet, Lesnar is likely done with MMA at this point in his life.

Stephen Abas (Fresno State, 1999, 2001, & 2002, 125 pounds)

Abas had the disposition, athleticism and the connections to really make a splash in mixed martial arts. He was hooked up with several fighters from MMA's core disciplines and became a part of the coaching staff at the Arena MMA gym in San Diego, California. Abas went 3-0 in his brief MMA run, looking great in the process. When a fight with wrestling rival and eventual UFC champ Henry Cejudo failed to materialize, Abas returned to the wrestling world as a coach.

Eric Juergens (Iowa, 2000 & 2001, 133 pounds)

Juergens may have entered MMA on a whim at the urging MMA legend and Iowa native Pat Miletich, but he sure did make quite the impression. Training out of Miletich's world-famous Bettendorf gym, Juergens may have easily won his only three fights between 2007-2008, but it's the ringing endorsements from industry insiders that spoke loudest. According to those in the know, Juergens was equipped to take on the very best in the sport after just one year of training.

Josh Koscheck (Edinboro, 2001, 174 pounds)

One of the more successful and polarizing figures to cross from wrestling over to MMA, Koscheck had a great run in the UFC from 2005 to 2015. As a member of the famed American Kickboxing Academy, Koscheck flourished. Initially "just" a hyper-athletic wrestler with an impossible to stop power-double, Koscheck improved with each fight, becoming equally threatening with his hands and his wrestling. He fought for the UFC title in 2010.

Mark Munoz (Oklahoma State, 2001, 197 pounds)

Equally successful as a fighter and as a coach/gym owner, Munoz made the most out of his eight years spent in MMA. Despite losing his UFC debut in emphatic fashion, Munoz fought well as he ascended the UFC 185-pound ranks, looking great as he compiled wins. He was at his best when he could use his strength and wrestling to pin opponents to the cage or mat and unleash hellacious punches, something he accomplished many times. In all, he went 9-6 inside the UFC.

Eric Larkin (Arizona State, 2003, 149 pounds)

A very high profile entry into MMA back in 2010, Larkin was part of an army of Arizona-based wrestlers who came to MMA in the 2000s. Like many of his contemporaries, Larkin impressed immediately and was flashing combative athleticism on a ridiculously high level. It took just two fights for Larkin to be snatched up by Bellator MMA, and by the time his debut came, his kickboxing and grappling was at an almost expert level.

Matt Lackey (Illinois, 2003, 165 pounds)

When Lackey's wrestling pursuits took him to the state of Colorado, he organically gravitated towards the world of competitive submission fighting, pankration (amateur MMA), and mixed martial arts. Despite having just one pro fight on his record, a first-round submission win in 2005, Lackey remained in the world of grappling and fighting until 2009 when he returned to wrestling as a coach for Lock Haven and then Buffalo.

Jake Rosholt (Oklahoma State, 2003, 2005, & 2006, 184 and 197 pounds twice)

Powerhouse Rosholt had the MMA world buzzing in 2007 when he made the rounds to MMA's top gyms to train. Along with several other big-time wrestlers, Rosholt was a part of the cutting edge Team Takedown. Word spread of Rosholt's "embarrassing" of seasoned fighters in training, and in 2009 he was signed by the UFC. Undeniably talented but inconsistent, the former Cowboy never fully hit his stride in MMA.

Johny Hendricks

Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma State, 2005 & 2006, 165 pounds)

Mere months after wrapping up his college career, Hendricks was fully committed to MMA and had everything he needed to make a mark in the sport. Paired with some of the best coaches, training partners, and facilities in the sport, Hendricks was off and running. Adding vicious striking and a crushing left hand to his wrestling chops along the way, Hendricks captured UFC gold in 2014 before inexplicably beginning a sharp decline in his performances.

Steve Mocco (Iowa, Oklahoma State, 2003 & 2005, 285 pounds)

Mostly due to connections from wrestling, Mocco was closing in on MMA for some years before strapping on the 4-ounce gloves. People were pumped for Mocco's arrival. His size, wrestling, no-nonsense disposition, judo experience, and his joining American Top Team made for high expectations. Mocco went 5-1 from 2012 to 2015, proving to be a real handful for any heavyweight fighter, but really found his groove training other fighters and running a wrestling academy out of the main American Top Team facility.

Cole Konrad (Minnesota, 2006 & 2007, 285 pounds)

Konrad doesn't get much props for his MMA accomplishments, but he definitely should. Training with the likes of Brock Lesnar and fellow NCAA champ Marty Morgan, Konrad went undefeated over two years and nine fights, capturing and defending the Bellator heavyweight title in the process. Despite not employing the most electrifying brand of fighting, Konrad won each of his fights, most of them against very tough opposition, with ease.

Mark Ellis (Missouri, 2009, 285 pounds)

Ellis made a brief splash in mixed martial arts, going 1-1 in 2011 against much more experienced fighters. He was a big, strong, athletic heavyweight and his affiliation with American Kickboxing Academy seemed to bode well for his potential. Unfortunately his potential will remain just that, potential, as returned to wrestling as a coach for Grand Canyon.

Ben Askren warming up before his Beat the Streets matchup against Jordan Burroughs (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

Ben Askren (Missouri, 2006 & 2007, 174 pounds)

Popular as he was and is in wrestling, Ben Askren has made quite a name for himself in MMA as well. Askren hooked up with famed trainer Duke Roufus in 2008, and while his striking never amounted to much, submission grappling was the perfect complement to his wrestling style. He put his expanded grappling chops to great use in the Bellator cage for three years as an undefeated, dominant champion. Ben wound up in the UFC in 2019 but time and injuries took a major toll and he retired without accomplishing what he should have.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis (Penn State, 2008, 197 pounds)

Davis was another high-profile acquisition for the MMA world, as he had made known his intentions to fight well before his wrestling career was over. Davis was intriguing. Obviously his wrestling chops were top notch, but he wasn't the typical, hard-nosed, explosive wrestler that didn't always capitalize on takedowns. Creative and physically gifted, Davis found himself in the UFC after just four fights, and he enjoyed a very successful 9-3-1 run in the world's top show before moving to Bellator, capturing a title, and resuming his winning ways.

Darrion Caldwell (North Carolina State, 2009, 149 pounds)

As his wrestling career wound down, it was a combination of injuries and burnout that saw Caldwell enter MMA. After two years on the regional scene, along with many other top wrestlers, Caldwell signed with Bellator MMA in 2014. It's hard to believe that he is closing in on a decade as a fighter, but at this point we know what we can expect from the New Jersey native. Extremely talented with all the physical tools he'll ever need, it's not beyond the realm of possibility for the confident Caldwell to win a major MMA title, but will become less likely with each fight.

Bubba Jenkins (Photo/Bellator)

Bubba Jenkins (Arizona State, 2011, 157 pounds)

A big coup for the MMA world, Bubba Jenkins was seen as a perfect fit for the sport. Always a showman, Jenkins is a well-rounded fighter, strong as an ox and with great instincts, but the knock on him has been that he's lost the big fights he's been in, which is fair. However, fighting abroad for a stretch and returning to his wrestling roots seems to have invigorated the 33-year-old Jenkins, and he's now set to fight fellow NCAA great Lance Palmer in his biggest fight yet.

Ed Ruth (Photo/Bellator)

Ed Ruth (Penn State, 2012, 2013, & 2014, 174 and 184 pounds twice)

Ruth was a known commodity in the MMA world well before his failed 2016 Olympic bid. Not only did he sign with Bellator MMA in 2015 but he would stop by various MMA gyms from time to time to flash his otherworldly skill and athleticism, as many a star fighter touted Ruth's future greatness. Ruth debuted in 2016 and thus far has been an incredibly quick study, learning on the job while fighting at the highest level. As a result of this accelerated curriculum, Ruth has shined in most wins and suffered a few very tough but valuable losses. It remains to be seen where his combative ceiling is.

Well, there you have it. The complete history of NCAA Division I wrestling champs in MMA. As MMA grows and more wrestlers choose this path, this list will grow. Look for Bo Nickal, Anthony Cassar, and others who may soon follow suit and join the MMA ranks.

Comments

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Sheerstress (1) about a month ago
Nice article, although a lot of the most prominent wrestlers who succeeded in MMA actually were NOT Division 1 champs.

Guys like Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture were some of the most prominent MMA champions, but never quite reached the summit in collegiate wrestling. It might be interesting to explore why things turn out this way.
rickjnichols (2) about a month ago
No Kevin Jackson? Was the UFC 14 middleweight tournament winner and had 6 fights in the UFC.
michaelmidiri (1) about a month ago
KJ pretty much won everything BUT a DI title.
chasedeez (1) about a month ago
Gregor Gillespie won 2007 for Edinboro. 13-1 MMA Record #15 Lightweight in UFC and literally fighting in the this Saturday. Oof
michaelmidiri (1) about 3 weeks ago
He's listed in the intro. And also, if anyone knows of any I forgot, please do share. Derek Moore miiiight have one fight under his belt, and he does have the Urijah Faber connection, but I couldn't confirm.