NCAA

The Evolution of Opportunity for NCAA Wrestlers after College

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In the world of combat sports, few paths are as well-trodden and revered as the journey from the collegiate wrestling mat to the unforgiving confines of the MMA cage. Over the years, numerous NCAA wrestlers have made the leap to MMA. Many of which showcased their exceptional grappling skills and work ethic in promotions like UFC and Bellator.

Fighters like Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar, and Chris Weidman have not only made successful transitions. They have also left an indelible mark on the sport. Their stories stand as testaments to the seamless integration of wrestling prowess into the multifaceted world of MMA. In this article, we delve into the transformative journeys of collegiate athletes who are taking over the fight game, those who could have successful careers, and those who paved the way.

The Current Landscape

When you survey the rosters of big-league promotions, they’re often stacked with former NCAA wrestlers. Ryan Bader, now a seasoned veteran, carved out a successful career in the UFC. He also clinched titles in multiple divisions under the Bellator banner. Among the impressive cohort of wrestlers acquired by Bellator is Cody Law, Bryan Meredith, Jordan Oliver, and former Welterweight Champion, Logan Storley.

In today’s UFC landscape, the top echelons feature formidable competitors like Colby Covington, Aljamain Sterling, Kamaru Usman, and Henry Cejudo. Each of these men has adorned UFC gold, with some even boasting titles across multiple weight classes simultaneously. And amidst these established names emerges a promising talent like Bo Nickal, heralding the vanguard of the next generation. Let’s not overlook ONE Championship, Asia’s premier combat sports promotion. Their recent signing of Ben Tynan underscores their keen eye for burgeoning prospects.

Enumerating every emerging MMA fighter with a wrestling background would be a Herculean task. But one thing remains evident: The lasting impact of figures like Brock Lesnar and Daniel Cormier resonates throughout today’s MMA landscape. With a myriad of pathways available to collegiate and Olympic wrestlers in the United States, the future of MMA appears bright and poised for continual evolution.

The Future

MMA’s mainstream status is undeniable. As the sport continues to mature, its evolution remains constant. Fighters like Mark Grey, a Cornell University alum, are demonstrating the seamless transition from wrestling to MMA, finding success in promotions like CFFC. Similarly, the decision of athletes like CJ LaFragola from Brown University to pursue MMA showcase the high-level future of wrestling in the sport.

Below are five additional names who will be making noise in the big leagues soon:

Mitchell McKee

Mitchell McKee has his sights set on the LFA Bantamweight Championship as a stepping stone to a future UFC contract. Before venturing into MMA, he amassed an impressive resume at the University of Minnesota. There he won four NCAA qualifications, had 91 career victories, and received All-American honors in 2019. A pivotal phone call with fellow Minnesota alum Logan Storley confirmed McKee’s destiny in MMA. With an unblemished record under Kill Cliff FC, he’s poised for success. Mitchell is definitely one to keep an eye on as he inches closer to a potential UFC debut.

Anthony Cassar

The impact of Bo Nickal’s early success in MMA is starting to have a trickle down effect. Specifically at his alma mater of Penn State University… Now that an American Top Team branch has also been built at Happy Valley, a move Nickal helped push for, the path for Nittany Lions wrestling stars to make the transition to MMA has never been easier. Anthony Cassar, the program’s first heavyweight national champion, seems primed to be the first to follow Nickal’s footsteps.

The 27-year-old New Jersey native went 49-3 during his career at Penn State, where he defeated Olympic gold medalist Gable Stevenson twice during that span. Cassar has all the physical tools and pedigree to be successful. He’s also been training MMA since 2020, is already 2-0 as a pro, and signed a multi-fight deal with Fury FC. I don’t know if he’s got the same natural inclination for the sport as Nickal has shown. However, the foundation and route for him to be a force eventually at 205 pounds is clear. Don’t be surprised if you see him on Dana White’s Contender Series this summer.

Alonzo Turner

Alonzo Turner’s development has been notable under promotions like CFFC and LFA. Setting himself apart from many prospects, Turner opted for an extensive amateur MMA career, competing in nine fights. This experience is sure to bolster his performance as he continues to accumulate victories in the professional circuit.

Prior to making the transition to MMA in 2019, Turner wrestled at both University of Findlay and Notre Dame College. While at Findlay, he qualified for the Division II National Tournament in 2016 and 2017, including a 6th place finish and All-American honors in 2017.  His 39 wins in 2017 were the 2nd-most in Findlay Wrestling history at that time. Only 27 and 4-0, the future is bright for the Painesville, Ohio native.

Bella Mir

It’s crazy to think that Frank Mir’s daughter is old enough to be fighting and is now wrestling for the University of Iowa. Bella’s inclusion on this list brings a unique joy, as she represents the first father-daughter relationship in MMA. At just 21 years old and boasting a 4-0 professional MMA record, Bella’s journey is truly remarkable. While she hasn’t competed since 2022, her time at Iowa has already earned her All-American status as a freshman.

With her father’s legacy as a former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Bella Mir certainly has big shoes to fill. However, she’s well on her way to making a name for herself in the sport. Recently signed by the UFC as their first NIL ambassador, her future in MMA is promising. Now, all eyes are on Bella as we eagerly anticipate her growth as both a fighter and a wrestler over the next few years.

Richie Lewis

Keep an eye out for Richie Lewis. He’s the current Titan FC Lightweight Champion. But, you might recognize him from his appearance on the recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, where he joined Team McGregor as a wrestling coach. He would later became a training partner of Conor McGregor.

Hailing from New Jersey, Lewis initially made a name for himself as a standout wrestler. He honed his skills at Iowa Central Community College, renowned for producing future MMA champions like Jon Jones, Colby Covington, and Cain Velasquez. Following his time at Iowa Central, Lewis continued his wrestling journey at Rutgers University, competing at the Division I level. With his impressive background and recent successes, Lewis is poised to make waves in the big leagues this or next year.

The Prospects We Need

The future of wrestlers in MMA appears to be on solid ground, particularly evident in the bustling regional scenes showcased on platforms like UFC Fight Pass. However, the burgeoning talent pool within collegiate wrestling circles serves as a compelling indicator that the sport is poised for further evolution. Wrestlers today are not only starting their grappling journey early. They’re also concurrently training and competing in MMA, laying the groundwork for a seamless transition.

Take, for instance, athletes like Joey Milano of NC State University and Geoff Magin from the University of Pittsburgh, are not only excelling on the collegiate wrestling mats. They are also actively building their amateur MMA careers during off-seasons.

Furthermore, the intersection of wrestling with other disciplines is becoming increasingly common. Tyler Brennan, a University of Arkansans Little Rock hails from a family of BJJ practitioners. With such multifaceted backgrounds, the trajectory towards MMA seems almost inevitable. As the sport continues to evolve and diversify, the symbiotic relationship between wrestling and MMA is poised to flourish.

Below are seven additional names who could be massive in MMA:

Andrew Alirez

Andrew Alirez has already demonstrated his ability to excel in the realm of combat sports. While at Greeley Central High, he won four state titles. He also recently won an NCAA title for the University of Northern Colorado, becoming the program’s first national champion since 1962. He posted an undefeated record, dominated his opponents with a 71.43% bonus percentage and left no doubt that he was the top guy in the country.

A hometown boy turned champion — it’s a story that writes itself. It’s a story that put Northern Colorado on the map and has inspired the next generation of Bears. Interestingly enough, Alirez comes from a family of fighters. From an early age, he laid out a step-by-step plan for the rest of his life. As an amateur boxer he’s undefeated, and his family runs a gym for boxing, MMA, and wrestling. Thus, following the Olympics, he plans to become an MMA fighter.

The Ferrari Brothers

The Ferrari Family could be the next siblings to transition to MMA. Not only have they all made a mark in collegiate wrestling, they each bring an aura every time they compete. If you’re a Ferrari, you’re expected to produce a certain level of greatness. AJ, Anthony, and Angelo undeniably have all the tools to become major stars in MMA. It seems like some of them may be interested in making that jump too. AJ has been seen in camps with Jorge Masvidal. Anthony was recently seen getting some work in at Kill Cliff FC. So if this is a tease of what we can expect from The Ferrari Brothers in the next 5 years, we’re seated, and excited for it.

AJ’s time at Oklahoma State was decorated, but short. In his freshman season, he took home the NCAA National Championship at 197 pounds, making him the third true freshman in program history to win a national title. It positioned him to go the WWE route, where they immediately signed him to a NIL deal in 2020. AJ would continue his collegiate wrestling career, finishing his 2021 season with a 20-1 overall record, including a 10-0 mark in duals. In 2022, Ferrari started out hot, securing a 10-0 record before sustaining injuries in an automobile accident. OSU later dismissed Ferrari in 2022, and after getting his court case dismissed, would join the University of Iowa with his younger brothers.

Roman Bravo-Young

The 3x NCAA Division I Wrestling Champion at 133 pounds, Roman Bravo-Young, represents the pinnacle of Mexican-American freestyle wrestling. His prowess on the mat is characterized by impeccable footwork and lightning-fast speed. With his ability to explode into takedowns from a relaxed or upright stance, Bravo-Young possesses a formidable arsenal for controlling the pace of a fight.

What truly distinguishes Bravo-Young is his unique blend of aggression, grit, finesse, and skill. This combination sets him apart from his peers. Already, the tantalizing prospect of MMA has beckoned him. That is evident in his training sessions alongside seasoned veterans like Dominick Cruz.

Even if Bravo-Young elects to pursue Olympic glory, the trajectory of his career suggests that his prime physical years lie ahead of him. Whether he chooses the path of the cage or not, his dedication, talent, and unwavering determination promise a bright future.

Austin DeSanto

Austin DeSanto’s ascent in the U.S. freestyle scene comes as no shock. He boasts a remarkable record as a 4x All-American and a 3x Big Ten Champion at 133 pounds. Despite standing at a modest 5’5″, DeSanto finds inspiration in the likes of Demetrious Johnson and Frankie Edgar. Both men have showed that their stature is no impediment to success in combat sports. His willingness to take on all comers, evident from his clashes with top competitors dating back to his high school days, marks him as a fierce and determined competitor.

Yet, DeSanto’s aggression isn’t without controversy… His penchant for pushing boundaries has led to disciplinary actions. Nevertheless, this ferocious intensity, coupled with his relentless pace and improvement as a wrestler, positions him as a prime candidate for a transition to MMA. In the octagon, DeSanto could leverage his aggressive style and unwavering tenacity. With the right guidance and dedication, he has the potential to make waves in the MMA world.

Carter Starocci

One current collegiate wrestler who has a chance to become a crossover star in MMA, is Penn State University senior Carter Starocci. He became just the sixth wrestler in NCAA Division 1 history to win four national titles this season. Starocci’s a name that should be on any combat sports fans’ radar. He’s also one of the few amateur competitors who has declared his intentions to fight one day.

“I love [wrestling], but I also love fighting,” Starocci said after becoming a 3x National Champion last March (h/t Sports Illustrated). “And I see Bo Nickal eating those dudes like it’s candy. It’s pretty easy. I think that game’s a lot easier. So we’ll just take it a day at a time.” 

This dude oozes confidence. Combine that with his athleticism, and he should be able to soak up the various aspects of MMA. Plus, he’ll have all of the resources to make the transition as smoothly as possible now that Bo Nickal’s success has led to American Top Team building a gym in Happy Valley. After he pursues a gold medal this summer in the Paris Olympics, it wouldn’t be shocking if Starocci makes the fast track to MMA. If anyone is to replicate Nickal’s meteoric rise in MMA, I’d put money on Starocci.

The Other Route

Though we’ve seen so much success for wrestlers in MMA, we can’t deny the fact that going the WWE route may be equally as enticing. Not only is it less taxing on someone if they decide to go into professional wrestling. But, the financial stability it offers can be significant. The money you can earn in WWE is substantial and provides a livelihood. Whereas, the life of a fighter is often financially precarious unless you’re competing at the highest levels.

With the introduction of NIL deals in collegiate sports, being a collegiate athlete and transitioning to the WWE Performance Center straight after has become an increasingly popular path. Two massive names that have recently opted for WWE over MMA are Olympic Gold Medalist Gable Stevenson and former Duke University wrestler, Jacob Kasper. Their decisions highlight the allure and opportunities that WWE offers, in terms of financial security and global recognition. The company offers a platform to continue showcasing their athletic talents, but on a grand stage.

NCAA wrestlers remain highly sought-after in both combat sports and entertainment. As their options expand post-college and Olympics, they face tough decisions ahead once their collegiate and olympic careers come to an end.

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4 thoughts on “The Evolution of Opportunity for NCAA Wrestlers after College

  1. Amazing piece! It’s so good to see all the different avenues people can take. Thanks for including the WWE-route, it’s not talked about enough.

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