With the biggest event in UFC history on tap this weekend, a couple former Arizona State Sun Devils will have crucial fights in what is sure to be the most watched event in MMA history.
Dan Henderson faces his fellow Ultimate Fighter coach, Michael Bisping, while CB Dolloway squares off with Tim Lawlor.
Henderson and Dolloway, along with fellow former All-American Sun Devil Cain Velasquez, have already competed under several UFC cards and against some of the best fighters in the world.
Ryan Bader and Aaron Simpson have become the next former maroon and gold gladiators to join the UFC ranks. With Bader winning the eighth season of the company’s popular competition show: “The Ultimate Fighter,” and Simpson defeating Tim McKenzie by TKO in his first UFC bout.
“Wrestling emphasizes body and position control so you can dictate where the fight goes,” said Bader, a one time pre-law student at ASU. “But you have to learn all the aspects (of MMA) or you are not going to go very far.”
Bader, along with Velasquez and Dollaway, were all members of the 2006 Sun Devil wrestling team that had a strong showing at the NCAA championships, leading them to a respectable No. 13 national rank.
“We had a great group of guys and we pushed each other. We had a great coaching staff that helped us push from September to March.”
This “pipeline” might have dried up prematurely in the spring of 2008 when, due to the rising costs of operating its program, Arizona State was going to remove wrestling as a varsity sport. 10 days later, it was announced that wrestling would remain at ASU due to financial support from civic leadership.
This support came on the heels of Dollaway’s strong showing on “The Ultimate Fighter,” where “The Doberman” competed in the final competition, and Henderson’s competitive middleweight championship bout at UFC 82 against Anderson “The Spider” Silva, one of the most popular and talented fighters in the UFC. While neither of these one-time Sun Devils came out on top in their respective fights, they generated attention and support for a wrestling program that is not only producing fine athletes, but fine collegians.
“The ASU wrestling program is very successful thanks in part to our terrific coaching staff and the endless number of hours of hard work put in by members of the team,” said current ASU wrestler Sal Musto. “(The staff) always presents the team with high goals that are attainable as long we train hard as a team and put forth our best effort day in and day out of practice, in tournaments, in duel meets, and during our workouts.”
Henderson has become an MMA stalwort, with 24 career wins in 31 professional fights. "Hendo" was the last PRIDE middleweight and light heavyweight champion, becoming the only fighter to hold two titles in any major organization. Henderson also competed in the 1992 and '96 Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Velasquez has become a rising contender in the heavyweight division, with an undefeated record (6-0), and recently defeated Cheick Kongo by unanimous decision at UFC 99. Velasquez will next face Shane Carwin at UFC 104.
Bader, Dolloway, and Simpson are very early into their respective UFC careers, each winning their debut on different episodes of "UFC Fight Night" and becoming attractive prospects for pay-per-view undercards. They also train together at Arizona Combat Sports in Chandler, along with UFC middleweight Thales Leites and WEC champion Jamie Varner.
The foundation for success was laid even before the UFC became a household name by another former Sun Devil. ASU and recent UFC Hall-of-Fame inductee Dan Severn, 50, once coached wrestling at Arizona State and has accumulated 70 professional MMA victories.
First stepping into the octagon in 1994, “The Beast” quickly established himself among MMA’s elite with his commitment and drive to be the best. Severn has fought all over the world, defeating such MMA legends as Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbott, and Oleg Taktarov.
Severn also established his own training facility and continues to train and promote the sport and help amateur fighters “cut their teeth” in a competitive arena, as well as teach officers ground techniques for self-defense.
With Severn as a mold to follow, it’s not hard to imagine any one of these former Sun Devils following his footsteps in and out of the octagon.
The ASU wrestling program will continue that tradition of strong competition and hard work once again this fall, when it once seemed they would not just a few months ago.
UPDATE: According to his Twitter page, Ryan Bader will return at UFC 104 to face Eric Schafer. Bader tore 2 ligaments in his knee in his last fight; a unanimous decision victory over Carmelo Marrero.