The UFC’s inception in 1993 enticed droves of hungry and talented amateur and collegiate wrestlers to step into the octagon. Flocks of hard-nosed and experienced mat wizards tried their hands at a new and intriguing sport, coined mixed martial arts by the late Jeff Blatnick, an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling in 1984 and one of the UFC’s first color commentators.
Many of the pioneer wrestlers of the sport, like former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson, former two-division UFC champion Randy Couture and former nine-time UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes, each lent a valuable hand in forging a blueprint that’s used by future amateur and collegiate wrestlers to infiltrate and dominate the sport.
But not every prosperous amateur wrestler who’s dabbled in MMA has duplicated or even come close to matching the heights reached by Henderson, Couture and Hughes, among others.
For every Henderson, the UFC gets a number of esteemed grapplers like Shane Roller, a three-time NCAA All-American who just simply couldn’t seem to utilize his takedown ability within the realm of a cage fight.
Roller certainly doesn’t stand alone in that category, though. Truth be told, UFC president Dana White has awarded priceless opportunities that never materialized to several former Division I wrestlers. Just to name a handful, fighters like C.B. Dolloway, Dave Herman and Jason Brilz, just haven’t mastered the art of wrestling in MMA.
Here’s a look at the 10 most prominent functional wrestlers in MMA today.
Like Jon Jones, St-Pierre ironically didn’t wrestle at the NCAA Division 1 level. Actually, GSP didn’t even give wrestling a shot in high school.
St-Pierre instead took a more unconventional route to learning the sport, training extensively with the Canadian Olympic wrestling team in the early stages of his professional career.
A lack of wrestling pedigree aside, St-Pierre has perpetually proven that it’s never too late to learn the sport that most consider to be the most pertinent base in the realm of MMA.
In his 25-fight pro career, St-Pierre has outwrestled a number of former decorated Division I wrestlers, including Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg, among others.
In his career, St-Pierre has only surrendered eight takedowns, five of which occurred before 2006. In contrast, Rush has piled up 87 floorings, including 52 in his last nine bouts, each of which were title fights.
With a stifling takedown defense of 86 percent, St-Pierre is also nearly impossible to ground. In his last nine fights, only Koscheck, a NCAA Division I champion, managed to ground St-Pierre, doing so at the end of a round and not scoring any ground-and-pound.
He didn’t take the same path as the bulk of the fighters on this list, but St-Pierre’s patented double-leg and his uncanny ability to stay off his back makes him the most dominant wrestler in MMA today.
Although the MMA landscape has always been stockpiled with outstanding wrestlers, few can say they match the credentials of Cormier.
After losing to Cael Sanderson in the NCAA finals in 2001, Cormier competed for Team USA in the 2004 and 2008 and Olympic Games. In 2004 in Athens, Cormier advanced to the semifinals before placing fourth in the 96-kilogram division. Cormier then garnered team captain honors for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, only to have to withdrawal because of kidney failure.
Naturally, Cormier credits his shortcomings in the Olympics with igniting his desire to become a world champion in MMA, a goal he made good on in less than a year with the King of the Cage promotion.
But rather than utilizing his takedown talents in his brief career, Cormier, who’s honed his Muay Thai skills at the American Kickboxing Academy, has contrived a stout takedown defense to implement slick and technical standup assaults. In 10 pro fights, Cormier has racked up eight takedowns and surrendered none. His most impressive performance came in May when he grounded Josh Barnett four times en route to the Strikeforce heavyweight title.
While St-Pierre has certainly achieved more in MMA with his wrestling, the 33-year-old Cormier possesses all the same tools to become a fellow legend in the sport.
It took Jones fewer than three years and just 14 pro fights to harvest the UFC light heavyweight belt, and he did so primarily on the strength of his wrestling prowess.
Like Cormier, Jones has yet to give up a takedown in a pro fight, and in 12 UFC tilts, Bones has piled up 23 floorings.
Akin to St-Pierre, Jones has remarkably established himself as one of the sport’s best wrestlers, despite the fact that his most significant feat in wrestling was winning a JUCO title at Iowa Central Community College.
Jones has used his time since leaving Iowa to repeatedly ground nearly every opponent he’s squared off with in the UFC. In fact, Jones has planted every fighter he’s faced in the UFC, with the exception of former Purdue University wrestler Jake O’Brien, who Bones guillotine choked in the second round of their fight in July 2009.
Since then, Jones has outclassed several other upper echelon wrestlers, including Vladimir Matyushenko, Ryan Bader and Rashad Evans, and he’s done so using unorthodox and explosive Greco-Roman techniques. Slams, tosses and trips are all staples in Jones’ repertoire, and he almost always capitalizes with elbows and punches once he gets to the ground.
At just 25, Jones is the definitely the cream of the crop and his trajectory from here will continue to be upward.
Unquestionably the most dormant fighter on the list in the last year, Muhammed Lawal used his brute wrestling tactics to make a rapid rise to the top of the Strikeforce light heavyweight division.
Sponging off the same coaches as Daniel Cormier and Johny Hendricks at Oklahoma State University, King Mo brought a wrestling skillset to Strikeforce that was unmatched. In his five bouts in the promotion, Lawal landed 15 takedowns, including 11 in a win over then world-ranked Gegard Mousasi in his first title fight in Strikeforce in April 2010.
In his fleeting career, Lawal has amassed 38 takedowns and allowed none. He did some of his most impressive work in his four fights in the Sengoku promotion, executing 22 takedowns, including an astounding 15 against Ryo Kawamura.
A nasty staph infection nearly cost King Mo his life in late 2011 before things continued to worsen when he tested positive for anabolic steroids and had his win against Lorenz Larkin overturned in January.
But the former Big-12 champion intends to use his superior ground abilities to bounce back after signing a contract with Bellator in May.
It might sound like a far-fetched assertion, but Sonnen was nearly spot-on with his proclamation of never losing a round in 40 pro fights until his scrap with Michael Bisping in January.
But Sonnen could only make this bold claim because of his incredible knack for planting his opponents on their backs. Since rejoining the UFC in 2009, Sonnen has notched 23 takedowns and has allowed just three.
An expert in both Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, Sonnen developed his gifts on the mats at the University of Oregon, where he became a two-time Pac-10 runner-up and an All-American.
Sonnen has put together his most imposing performances in his last seven fights. With the exception of two losses to Silva in middleweight title fights, Sonnen has been nearly perfect in that span, using his takedown dexterity to dispatch of noteworthy veterans Dan Miller, Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt, Brian Stann and Bisping.
At 35, he’s approaching the twilight of his career, but Sonnen will get one last crack to cement his legacy and obtain UFC immortality when he takes on Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title in April.
It didn’t take Weidman, a former two-time All-American wrestler at Hofstra University, many fights to rise through the ranks of contenders in the UFC’s middleweight division.
Weidman won all five of his fights in the UFC in such impressive fashion that he’s publicly began to demand a fight with pound-for-pound kingpin Anderson Silva.
Weidman has yet to allow a takedown in nine pro bouts, and has accumulated 13 groundings, including a pair against former Oklahoma State University national champion, Mark Munoz. And while Alessio Sakara and Jesse Bongfeldt aren’t regarded as top-flight wrestlers, Weidman utterly rag dolled grappling experts Demian Maia and Tom Lawlor in back-to-back wins.
But perhaps the most frightening aspect of Weidman’s game for future opponents is his well-roundedness. In less than four years on the pro circuit, Weidman has evolved his aptitude for striking and submissions by leaps and bounds. Already a smooth submission artist, Weidman proved that he could put someone to sleep with something other than a choke when he knocked out Munoz with an elbow and a series of ferocious punches in July.
Munoz was expected to test Weidman but couldn’t, leaving many to believe that the 28-year-old Matt Serra disciple deserves a title shot against Silva.
Velasquez possesses wrestling traits that heavyweights rarely display, like nearly flawless technique, a motor that never quits and the hand speed and quickness of a middleweight.
That’s most likely why the American Kickboxing Academy product won six of his first seven fights in the UFC by either knockout or technical knockout. Soon after, Velasquez took the UFC heavyweight title by force by serving Brock Lesnar just his second career takedown, and then pummeling the former Minnesota University national champion into submission in October 2010.
Lesnar was just the second man to ground Velasquez (Cheick Kongo being the other) and only managed to hold the relentless former Arizona State University national runner-up down for a matter of seconds.
After getting knocked out and losing his UFC heavyweight title to Junior Dos Santos in November 2011, Velasquez swiftly regained his footing in the following match by grounding and then bludgeoning Antonio Silva.
On the cusp of regaining his heavyweight belt, Velasquez will undoubtedly need to employ his proficiencies in wrestling to trump Cigano in their rematch Saturday.
From Toms River High School to Clarion University, Edgar has always thrived in the sport of wrestling, something that remained constant when he captured the UFC lightweight title in April 2010.
Whether it was failing to win a state title in high school or coming up short for a bid for national title in college, Edgar never realized his potential until trying his hand at MMA.
He’s surrendered more takedowns than anyone on this list (22), but Edgar has squared off with former Michigan State University All-American Gray Maynard three times and has twice fought UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. Maynard holds a 12-4 advantage in takedowns against Edgar, although The Answer holds a 7-1 edge over Bendo in the same category.
Edgar was so sharp in defeat against Henderson, in fact, that White made him the first man in promotional history to receive a title fight on a two-match losing streak.
In a featherweight title clash with Jose Aldo, Edgar will attempt to join Randy Couture and B.J. Penn as the only fighters in UFC history to hold belts in separate divisions. Edgar will also look to become just the third fighter to ground Aldo, and the first to rough him up when he gets him there.
One of three fighters on the list who haven’t competed in the UFC, Askren went from two-time Missouri University national champion and Olympic wrestler to Bellator titlist in just seven fights and less than two years.
Unlike many of the fighters on this list, Askren has yet to bring his striking up to speed with his wrestling. But a lack of knockout ability hasn’t stopped Askren from defending his Bellator welterweight title against Jay Hieron and Douglas Lima.
Askren not only has freakish strength and flexibility, he also employs a funky wrestling style that none of his opponents to date could cope with. But even without the element of surprise, Askren easily handled Dan Hornbuckle, Lyman Good, Nick Thompson, Hieron and Lima in succession.
It’s almost certain that Askren will continue to blossom into one of the most dynamic wrestlers in MMA. However, if the 28-year-old can truly become a well-rounded martial artist, every welterweight in the UFC needs to take note, including Georges St-Pierre.
One of three former Oklahoma State University All-Americans on the list, Hendricks forged his way into the UFC using a strong work ethic and Olympic-level wrestling chops.
Once in the big show, however, Hendricks has gained fame and notoriety by becoming a one-punch knockout artist.
But many fans forget that Hendricks has only been able to reveal his monstrous left hand to the UFC welterweight division because of his superior takedown defense. While he’s given up 11 takedowns in 15 fights, Hendricks has fought four former Division-1 standouts (Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Mike Pierce and Charlie Brenneman) and bested them all.
Hendricks only tasted defeat in a bout against Rick Story in December 2010, a fight he scored six takedowns in to Story’s two. Since then, Hendricks has only been floored twice, once by Kosheck and once by Pierce.
He’s done everything asked of him by UFC President Dana White to receive a title shot against longtime welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, now the 29-year-old Hendricks must take care of Jake Ellenberger to solidify his status as the division's top contender.