Ed Ruth, one of the most decorated college wrestlers in U.S. history, will pursue a career in professional MMA.
The three-time national wrestling champion said he intends to make his MMA debut in early 2017 after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"Once the Olympics are over, I want to go straight into fighting," Ruth told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I can't wait to just get in there and be in that atmosphere and walk out with the belt."
The moment he sets foot in an MMA cage, Ruth would immediately become one of the two or three best wrestlers ever to compete there.
While attending Penn State University, Ruth, 24, compiled a 140-3 record, winning three NCAA titles and earning All-American honors in all four of his active seasons. Already a member of the U.S. national team, Ruth is preparing to represent America as a freestyle wrestler in the 2016 Olympic Games. As Team USA's top-ranked wrestler at 86 kilograms (189 pounds), he is the favorite to secure that spot.
On first exposure to MMA, Ruth admits he was not a big fan. But the more he came to know it, the more he gravitated toward it. Ruth also acknowledged the career path MMA provides for top wrestlers, a path that wasn't available a generation ago.
"I started watching it, and it's a really cool sport," Ruth said. "I've always wanted to do boxing and karate. You can win in any type of way. I just caught the bug. ... It's been something that wrestlers have needed. What do you do after the Olympics? You could coach. But there was really no professional outlook. But now we have MMA. Now we have choices."
Though Ruth has no extensive training in any combat sport outside of wrestling, wrestling is considered a cornerstone skill of MMA and should give him a big leg up right out of the gate. So, too, will the training team he'd like to join: the vaunted Greg Jackson-Mike Winkeljohn camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"There's nothing set in stone, but that's the direction I'm leaning," he said.
Ruth made some waves in MMA circles last December when he spent time helping the team's most famous student, UFC light heavyweight champ and pound-for-pound kingpin Jon Jones, prepare for his UFC 182 title defense against Daniel Cormier, an Olympic wrestler.
An Instagram video showing Ruth working on some glitzy kicks with Jones at the Jackson camp further fanned the speculation flames:
"MMA world: I'm coming for y'all," Ruth said in the video.
Apparently, the experience left a lasting impression.
"There's a higher elevation there, so training-wise, that can test my body a little," Ruth said. "Jon Jones was a great teammate. He was really supportive. And in working with Greg Jackson, he is a genius."
Regardless of the camp, Ruth will bring plenty to the table. According to DeWayne Zinkin, who will serve as Ruth's co-manager in MMA, an uncommon blend of tangibles and intangibles keys Ruth's success.
"For the last two years, he's been our No. 1 prospect," Zinkin said. "We've had our eye on Ed for a long time. He's dynamic, he's explosive and he's everything a coach or manager would like to see. He's that guy."
The rangy but solid Ruth seems custom-made for the grappling arts. His formidable signature move, the cradle, regularly led to wins by fall throughout his collegiate career. But more intricate techniques, like a vaunted misdirection single-leg takedown, seem to come just as naturally.
"He has a bunch of nicknames, and the nickname I see as most fitting is 'Effortless Ed,'" Zinkin said. "He wins so easily it's like he's not even trying."
But it's that physical prowess that will translate particularly well to MMA, said Bob Cook, Ruth's other co-manager.
"There are no secret moves in MMA anymore," Cook said. "There's no secret submission. Those days are gone. The new generation is guys cross-training. People who dominate the sport now are superior athletes."
But a fighter can't live on athleticism alone any more than he can thrive as a specialist in only one discipline. Ruth knows he needs a wider skill set, and that means picking up more striking. Though he occasionally works punches and kicks, he mainly does so for conditioning purposes at this point.
There's also the small matter of learning how to take a strike, which in its own way can be just as tricky as learning how to dole one out. Some wrestlers (see: Brock Lesnar) have not reacted well when another person's fist hits their face. The ability to absorb a punch is not innate for most people, and it is one Ruth has to acquire.
"I think about that all the time. Once you get in there and you get punched, you could say, 'I don't want this,' or you can learn how to take it," Ruth said. "With wrestling, you don't get punched in the face, but you do get slammed on your head sometimes. I've done boxing and sparring and it didn't faze me, but it was with boxing gloves. Those MMA gloves are a lot smaller. I don't know what to think about it, but I'm ready for it. I have no choice but to be."
As for weight classes, Ruth said the 185-pound middleweight division is the most logical fit given that he wrestled at 184 pounds in his final two seasons in Happy Valley. But he also spent significant time at 171 pounds, so a drop to welterweight is not out of the question.
"I might do a test cut to 170 to see how that goes," Ruth said. "But right now, I'd say it'll probably be 185."
For the next year or so, Ruth's primary focus is honing his game for the Olympic trials. He is working with the Sunkist Kids wrestling team at Arizona State University under Zeke Jones, who coached the 2012 U.S. Olympic freestyle team.
In the meantime, there's no major hurry for his MMA career, an approach that seems to be deliberate and which could carry on after he steps into the cage. (He'd still be only 26 if he debuts in early 2017 as planned.) Though Ruth freely shared a desire to eventually compete in the UFC, he does not seem to be in a rush to do so.
"I might take it slow, not go straight to the big time," Ruth said. "That can shorten up your career."
Why does he think he can succeed in MMA? Not every wrestler makes a good MMA fighter. Ruth pointed to the characteristics that made him great at wrestling in the first place, as well as characteristics that wrestling sharpened in him.
"I can get really obsessive over things. If I want to get good at it and I'm not good at it, it drives me crazy," Ruth said. "When I first did freestyle wrestling, guys were flipping me. But I kept working at it, kept changing the game plan.
"Wrestlers are built tough. We know how to work hard and break our body down so we can build ourselves back up."
Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report. For more MMA news and ruminating and joking, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand.