It seems like every division of professional sports has a time or day it looks back on as a historic day in its time without even knowing it happened. For fans of professional football, they often look to the 1983 NFL draft and the great names that came out of college football that year.
It’s hard to pinpoint when that moment was for MMA.
Sure, there have been groups of great fighters appear here and there but never in the style that the traditional sports fan would recognize. For any longtime fan of the UFC, you can’t look past the day that Royce Gracie stepped into the Octagon and won the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. What followed was the evolution of the UFC into something much greater and much more marketable via the Gracie way.
But MMA has never had a draft and has never had a time it can point to where amateur careers ended and professional careers began. The closest is The Ultimate Fighter competition.
But for people looking for perhaps an out-of-the-blue, out-of-nowhere event where the future of the UFC was shaped, I’d point to the 2006 NAIA Wrestling Championship in Sioux City, Iowa.
Four of the UFC’s fastest up-and-coming fighters all walked away from that year’s NAIA championship as All-Americans. Most notably is the UFC’s current lightweight champion in Benson Henderson, but you can add Abel Trujillo, Rick Story and Mike Rio to that list.
Henderson’s resume doesn’t even need to be disputed as the former WEC champ, current UFC champ and one of the top fighters in the world regardless of weight class. But the interesting thing about Henderson is that of the four fighters in this grouping, he finished the worst of all of them at the championships that year at fifth place.
Trujillo was dominant in his UFC on Fox fight over Marcus LeVesseur and currently rides a five-fight win streak coming into the company. In 2006 Truijillo slipped up and finished third after having been seen as one of the NAIA’s best wrestlers throughout the season.
Rick Story, who is coming off a loss to Demian Maia by submission at UFC 153, actually wrestled at Southern Oregon at 184 lbs. Currently, he’s fighting in the UFC as a welterweight. In 2006 he placed second at the NAIA Nationals, losing only to Willie Parks, who has spent some time dabbling in MMA with a 5-2 record. Since starting his MMA career, Story is 14-6 and won six straight in the UFC before dropping three out of his last four.
Last is Mike Rio. Rio made his UFC debut on The Ultimate Fighter 16 finale with a win over John Cofer via armbar in the third round. Rio was a three-time All-American in the NAIA and was named the MVP of that year’s championship, receiving the Gorriaran Award. “The Wolverine” is 9-1 with his only loss being to Efrain Escudero.
Henderson has proved his wares in the UFC and Trujillo opened eyes with his latest win. The other two still have a lot to prove if they are to be contenders in the UFC, but there is currently a ton of upside to Rio while Story needs to stop his current slide.
While the 2006 NAIA National Championship isn’t exactly the 1983 draft, it was certainly an unknown starting point some of the UFC’s best up-and-coming fighters.