The career: Punching guys in the face in the world of mixed martial arts.
The job candidates: Two wrestling state champions from St. Edward, two accomplished college wrestlers, two athletes looking for a way to turn their sport into a job.
The difference: Timing.
Six years ago, after he left Michigan State, Gray Maynard stumbled into his new life in a Las Vegas gym. For the latest generation of wrestlers such as Ohio State senior Lance Palmer, ultimate fighting is part of the plan.
Maynard and Palmer may wind up in the same place, but Palmer is starting his path much sooner
College basketball players have the NBA, college football players have the NFL, and now, college wrestlers have the adrenaline-stoked combat sport that combines the jabs and hooks of boxing, the takedowns and holds of wrestling and the kicks and attacks of judo and jujitsu.
For years, the booming world of mixed martial arts, led by its leading organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC, has been populated by former college wrestlers, including big-name champions such as Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. Former Ohio State national champion Mark Coleman helped introduce wrestling techniques to UFC as it entered the mainstream 13 years ago.
As more wrestlers, including Olympic champions, turn to MMA, the relationship is no longer coincidental. The pure and noble enclave of amateur wrestling is now a breeding ground for the next ultimate fighters.
“I think I’ll be pretty good, “said Palmer, a Columbia Station native, obviously eager to make the leap after graduating next year. “My type of intensity is better for hitting a guy in the face and attempting to brutalize him. That’s actually legal in MMA and not in wrestling, so I think it’ll be fun.”
Grappling with options It’s more than fun. It’s a job, and an opportunity that wrestlers willing to take and throw a punch are embracing, anything to turn years of training into a paycheck. Michigan State wrestling coach Tom Minkel, well-versed in MMA, said more of his athletes now have a way to continue their careers in an outlet other than coaching.
“That’s been the missing link in college wrestling forever, “Minkel said. “Now I think most of the guys who come through here give MMA some thought. They see it’s an option.”
Skeptical of the sport at the start, Minkel become a convert after one of his former wrestlers, Rashad Davis, embarked on an MMA career in 2004 that led to him becoming the UFC’s light heavyweight champion in 2008. Now, Minkel believes nearly everyone in the college wrestling community has come around on MMA, even if some, like Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, have done so reluctantly.
“I’m not a huge proponent of it, “Ryan said. “I want these guys to come out of college and get their degrees and do something. But I do think there’s an element to it that these guys are making a living and supporting their families, and it’s an opportunity for them to have a better lifestyle.
“For me, you have to get with it. It’s become a reality.”
Despite this new acceptance, wrestling is also fighting back, throwing a financial punch to retain its elite practitioners. Last month, USA Wrestling created the Living the Dream Medal Fund, increasing the monetary awards to wrestlers for medaling in the Olympics and world championships. For example, the reward for Olympic gold is jumping from $40,000 to $250,000 — or about what a top UFC performer might earn for a major bout.
But making the Olympic team, much less medaling, remains a long shot. Hopping into what’s known as “The Octagon “in the world of UFC? That makes for a shorter and quicker trip to the bank for athletes who have been training for decades with little expectation of a payoff.
Currently an assistant coach at Cal-State Fullerton, Mark Munoz has been coaching since he finished wrestling as an All-American and a 2001 national champ at Oklahoma State. He backed into his UFC career like so many other former wrestlers — a friend making a suggestion, skepticism fading after the first exposure, the belief in his own abilities pushing him to take a chance.
“I’ve got a wife, four kids, two dogs, a rabbit and a master’s degree, and I can’t support my family with the sport of wrestling I love so much, “Munoz said. “The reality of it is mixed martial arts pays the bills.”
His major break came at UFC 96, the pay-per-view event held at Nationwide Arena in Columbus in March.
(The top ultimate fighting cards have been numbered since 1993, with UFC 100 on the way Saturday in Las Vegas.)
In Columbus, Munoz fought another former wrestler, Matt Hamill, and was sent to the mat, knocked out and motionless for nearly five minutes, by a move a wrestler would never see. Hamill’s kick to the head — actually, a shin to the side of the head — brought a violent end to the evening for Munoz, who eventually walked out of the ring in a neck brace.
Now that’s reality.
Not all the right moves So the move for wrestlers entering MMA isn’t sideways. When you’re coming from the mat to the Octagon, there’s a step back before you go up. Maynard did that, and he dominated his fight at UFC 96 by staying on his feet and using virtually none of his old St. Ed grappling moves, but his three years of boxing training instead. Wrestling is a part of MMA, but it’s not all of it, or even half of it.
Body control and angles and the ability to train yourself into exhaustion are where the crossover occurs, and every MMA fighter will tell you that the ability to take an opponent to the ground when the going gets tough is a great edge. And some matches, which can end with submission holds, can be dominated with wrestling techniques.
“When a guy has an arm or a leg or a guy is wrapped around your waist, it’s more comfortable for guys that have wrestled, “Ohio State’s Palmer said. “It’s more of an easy transition than for someone who has been a boxer and wants to fight MMA and has never been hit by a leg attack or been on top of a guy or underneath a guy. I think it gives wrestlers a big advantage when they step in the Octagon.”
But then there’s that punching in the face — or kicking — part of it.
“You’ve got to have that attitude that you don’t mind getting punched, “Maynard said. “There’s a lot of guys who are good at wrestling that don’t want to start all the way down here. You’ve got to learn boxing, you’ve got to get beat up — it’s hard to go all the way back.
“You’ve got to be tough. You’re going to get punched, you’re going to get kneed, and that’s every day. If you’re in a good training school, you’re going to take a beating every day. I know guys where it’s like, ‘I don’t get like getting punched, I hate getting punched.’
“Me? I don’t care. I like it. It’s up to you, I guess.”
By that standard, Palmer, who radiates a level of intensity and almost-angry toughness, is a model candidate to transition from his first love into his next.
“He’s going to be an animal in mixed martial arts, “said Mike DiSabato, another former Ohio State wrestler who’s now heavily involved in the marketing and merchandising of MMA. “Lance has all the tools to be very, very good and in a very short time.”
He won’t be rich right away. Maynard, a rising star in the lightweight division with a 7-0 UFC record, said he would still be making more money at the moment if he’d stayed in his first post-college career — real estate. But in real estate, you almost never get to punch someone in the face.
DiSabato, who entered the sports apparel business after graduating from Ohio State in 1991 and got hooked on MMA in 2007, would like to see the competitors make a little more money than they do. But compared to staying in wrestling and “devoting your life to poverty, “as DiSabato called it, he believes in this route for athletes like Palmer, and the wrestlers who come after him.
“If there was a young kid who wanted to be [an MMA] fighter, I’d say don’t fight until you’re 18 or 20 years old. I don’t want you getting hit in the head until then, “DiSabato. “But between now and then, wrestle and do jujitsu. Once you’re tough enough to go through that, then go into this game.”
So that’s Palmer’s plan. He won four high school state wrestling titles at St. Ed between 2003 and 2006. At Ohio State, he has been an All-American each year, finishing fourth, eighth and fourth at the NCAA Championships. He’ll hone his boxing and jujitsu skills during the off-season, while still chasing a last shot at his ultimate goal — an NCAA title.
In the past, it may have ended there. These days, that’s just a start.
“When I graduate, I want to go right into MMA, “Palmer said, “while I’m still young enough and have the body to withstand the battle.”