On Saturday night, when Johny Hendricks battles Tyron Woodley in an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout, this much is certain: Victory will go to a former college wrestler.
In fact, this will be the first match between those two since the 2005 Big 12 wrestling championships, where Oklahoma State’s Hendricks upset Missouri’s Woodley for the 165-pound title.
Also on the main card of UFC 192 (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET and PPV, 10 p.m. ET), as Saturday’s event is known, is a bout between former Michigan State wrestler Rashad Evans and former Arizona State wrestler Ryan Bader. The headliner brawl? It pits a former Swedish boxer against Daniel Cormier, a former Olympic and Oklahoma State wrestler.
To add that up, out of the six combatants in the final three mixed-martial-arts fights Saturday night, five are former wrestlers. This is good news for wrestling, a sport so embattled that the International Olympic Committee in early 2013 ejected it from the Olympic Games, before voting it back later that year.
The prevalence of former wrestlers on Saturday night’s UFC card illustrates a new career opportunity for former wrestlers. Some college coaches have pointed to UFC as one factor behind rising numbers of youth wrestlers in America.
“It used to be that once your Olympic dream was done, you looked for a coaching job at a wrestling university,” says Cormier, a 2004 Olympian. Before venturing into mixed martial arts in 2009, he said he expected to follow that course himself.
Once seen as a threat to Olympic sports, UFC increasingly is recognized as a valuable promotional tool. Its fights continue to gain ever-larger audiences on both pay-per-view channels and on Fox Sports 1. That helps explain why the U.S. governing bodies for wrestling, judo and taekwondo have signed partnership deals with UFC. Ronda Rousey has won much more attention as the UFC women’s bantamweight champion than she did for winning a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics. Also visible is the UFC’s James Moontasri, a former taekwondo star. “UFC has such a global reach and offers the perfect showcase for USA Taekwondo,” said USA Taekwondo secretary general Bruce Harris in a recent news release about that governing body’s partnership with UFC.
“I think a lot of these other martial arts saw us as a serious threat to them, in the beginning,” says Dana White, UFC president. But “Ronda’s rise in the UFC and the fame that she has...”
The website of USA Judo says, “USA Judo is expected to reach millions of people through UFC channels.”
Behind the rise of mixed martial arts was a question: Which discipline produced the best fighters? Was it judo or karate, for instance, or boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, taekwondo or wrestling? Experience has shown that success requires mastery of several disciplines. But in the 22-year history of the UFC, former wrestlers have been disproportionately represented among champions, including former two-time heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, who wrestled for Arizona State. Russia’s Bilyal Makhov, who at the recent wrestling world championships became the first wrestler in four decades to win worlds medals in both freestyle and Greco-Roman, has signed a deal to join UFC after his wrestling career. Henry Cejudo, a UFC flyweight fighter, won a gold medal in wrestling at the 2008 Olympics.
After winning a gold medal at last month’s world wrestling championships—which were sponsored by UFC—America’s Helen Maroulis said, “The more I watch UFC, the more I’m tempted to do it.” She added, “My mother wouldn’t like it.”
Cormier—UFC light heavyweight champion—said he has earned more money and recognition as a UFC fighter than he did as an Olympic wrestler. But recently, Cormier was spotted in the aisles of Wal-Mart by a fan who didn’t mention UFC. “To my surprise, he said, ‘Oh, my goodness. You’re one of my favorite wrestlers,’” said Cormier.