With heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar as a role model, college wrestlers are finding that mixed martial arts gives them a chance to compete and make money after school.
By MYRON P. MEDCALF, Star Tribune
When Division I football coaches called, Joel Bauman listened. But the sport didn't fit into his plan -- to become the greatest fighter in the world.
So Bauman, who rushed for 2,941 yards as a high school junior at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg in west-central Minnesota in 2008, pursued his other love -- wrestling.
The Gophers freshman, a two-time prep state champion, would love to earn a few titles in college, but he ultimately chose the sport because he said he believes it will prepare him for a career in mixed martial arts (MMA).
It's a familiar path through an expanding pipeline for Minnesota-based wrestlers who strive to emulate the success of former Gophers star and current Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar.
"It's really cool because it just gives you hope that there's something out there, "Bauman said about Lesnar's accomplishments in MMA. "I love wrestling and it's my passion, but in the back of my mind I always have, 'Be the best fighter, be the best fighter.'"
Lesnar, who defends his crown against former All-America wrestler Cain Velasquez at UFC 121 Saturday in Anaheim, Calif., has always credited his amateur wrestling background for his success.
"In wrestling, there's so much involved, there's a lot of wrestling in the cage, in the Octagon, "Lesnar said during Wednesday's prefight news conference. "Wrestling is the backbone, I believe, in this sport."
The multitude of wrestlers dominating MMA proves as much.
Randy Couture, a former Olympic alternate and collegiate standout, sparked the movement more than a decade ago. His rise to champion in multiple divisions inspired a generation of wrestlers to climb into the cage.
Sean Sherk, a St. Francis native who started wrestling when he was 7, won the UFC's lightweight title in 2006 and remains a top contender. And Minneapolis' Dave Menne, who wrestled for Iowa, was the UFC's first middleweight champion in 2001.
Roger Huerta, who wrestled for Augsburg, fights for Bellator Fighting Championships, a Florida-based operation that airs fights on Fox Sports Network. Former Gophers All-America Jacob Volkmann joined the UFC last year and Nik Lentz, another former Gophers wrestler, quit school to pursue a pro fighting career.
But Lesnar's transition to MMA three years ago helped spur interest among some younger wrestlers.
Konrad turns to MMA
After winning back-to-back NCAA titles, Cole Konrad didn't have a lot of appealing career options. His attempts to continue competing after his decorated Gophers career -- including a tryout with the New York Jets -- fell flat.
Then he found his way to MMA. Konrad, who trains with Lesnar in Alexandria, Minn., earned $100,000 after winning Bellator's heavyweight tournament earlier this month. He said MMA offers wrestlers a chance to compete and make money after college.
Before MMA, Konrad said, you'd work hard, achieve success "and the next day, it's no longer there. It's gone."
Alec Ortiz, a Gophers redshirt freshman who has trained with MMA standouts Chael Sonnen and Matt Lindland, said he understands that he has limited opportunities to wrestle after college, so he's already thinking about an MMA career.
"I'm going to wrestle for as long as I can, be competitive, try to make Olympic teams, but I've seen wrestlers make really good transition to mixed marital arts, so I'd like to try that out and see how I fare, "Ortiz said.
Wrestlers have the skills
Seasoned wrestlers know how to control matches. They're conditioned for long fights. Multiple rounds don't scare them. They are masters at dictating pace. And they develop high-level cardiovascular strength at an early age.
"You've got all these martial arts ... but as soon as you get on the ground, everything changes, "Gophers coach J Robinson said.
Marty Morgan was entrenched in Gophers wrestling as a top assistant when Lesnar asked his former coach to lead his MMA training two years ago.
Morgan said he has seen an increase in the number of young wrestlers who want to pursue mixed martial arts.
"I know amateur wrestling has been hoping for that and they're trying to kind of hook themselves to it a little bit, "Morgan said.
Bauman might represent that new breed of wrestlers.
Some coaches and wrestlers envision a future in which pro MMA operations become the natural destination for the best wrestlers.
"Wrestling has never had a pro facet to it and that's what MMA is becoming, "Robinson said.
And that's exactly why Bauman joined the Gophers.
"Oh yeah, that's my dream, "he said. "Be the best fighter in the world. That's what I tell these guys all the time."