During my sophomore and junior years of high school I beat the crap out of one of my best buddies twice a week, regular as clockwork.
He was a great guy. If I felt like drinking beer during the offseason, he was one of the first dudes I called. Girls liked him better than me, so he was worth hanging out with just for that reason alone.
But he wanted my spot on the varsity wrestling lineup. So, when it came down to it, I was perfectly happy to grind him into the mat. He didn't take it personally.
Now, I'm talking about a level of competition that was light years below what happens during the Olympic trials. We were a small school in a small state.
But it's the exact same attitude MMA legend Randy Couture was referring to when he spoke about the possibility of a Chael Sonnen-Dan Henderson fight during a recent Cage Junkies interview. Addressing the possibility of a potential fight between Henderson and Sonnen, Couture said:
"Yeah I think they'd fight. They've wrestled each other for a spot on the Olympic team, they're wrestlers at the end of the day and now they're fighters, they're professionals, this is what we do."
I've heard Couture make similar statements often over the years. Again and again, the always affable Captain America has explained that fighting a guy he likes is no big deal because he's used to competing against some of his best friends in the wrestling room.
Now, there is surely a difference between punching a guy in the face and taking him down and pinning his shoulders to the mat. But if you think the difference is that substantial, then I have to say you have probably never wrestled.
After he won the first of his three NCAA wrestling titles, current Cornell senior Kyle Dake had barely caught his breath when he told the press: "If you watched the first 30 seconds, we were basically punching each other in the face, but we're wrestlers."
Dake, the first wrestler ever to win NCAA titles in three separate weight classes, sounded absolutely cheerful as he made this observation.
An aside: Dake is on track to become only the third four-time NCAA champion in history. He will probably give international wrestling a go, but if he goes into MMA, he will be a serious contender for any 155 or 170 titles from the day he declares.
Being able to beat the crap out of somebody without being mad enough to take it personally is a skill all by itself. Being able to beat up a guy you are friends with just because that is what you are doing today takes a certain mindset.
Beyond the obvious skills that a wrestling background provides an MMA competitor, these intangibles are crucial.
An elite wrestling background allows an MMA fighter to dictate where the fight will take place. But an elite wrestling background also gives an MMA competitor a mental edge that a contemporary American athlete would be hard pressed to pick up anywhere else.