Steve Mocco, High School Wrestling legend
My teenage confidence, crystaline in its fragility, shattered when I peered at a freshly printed bracket sheet to see that I was seeded fourth. The fairly high seed at a very respectable tournament should have encouraged me; after years of struggling as a mediocre wrestler I was enjoying some level of success and recognition. Instead, I felt deeply troubled, for eight lines above my name and next to the number one I found Steve Mocco. He and I were slated to wrestle in the semi-finals. Usually wrestling-based fear results from a natural aversion to potential embarassment, an aversion that was strong in the high schooler Mike Riordan, but this fear was justly founded, Steve Mocco could have seriously messed me up.
Steve was scary. He still is, but he was really scary, particularly to the eighteen year-old version of myself. I was an underpowered and undersized two-hundred and fifteen pound heavyweight with midling skills, and Steve was the greatest high school heavyweight…ever. He was built like something imagined by Maurice Sendak and he wrestled with brutality, a brutality he did not hesitate to unleash on any quality of competition. Whether he was wrestling the pud who took up wrestling because it was the only sport without cuts, or a collegiate All-American, Steve would attempt to obliterate his opponent with extreme prejudice. I’m happy to say that at least he didn’t injure me.
Since I began to follow (obsess about) wrestling in my young teens more than a decade and a half ago, Steve has received probably the third most acclaim of any high school wrestler to pull up singlet straps. He won four national prep titles, four Fargo national championships, an NHSCA national championship, and was victorious at Dapper Dan. Wrestling one of the toughest high school schedules imaginable, Steve lost once in varsity competition, and even that amounted to little more than a fluke.
Behind Steve’s stellar competitive credentials were the best training resources available. Before his junior year Steve transferred to Blair Academy, the nation’s preeminent high school wrestling program. When not receiving top-flight coaching at Blair, he received instruction at the New York Athletic Club and Edge School of Wrestling, the private training school of six (probably more now) different NCAA Division I champs. Steve also supplemented his wrestling with judo, a martial art in which he was also an elite practitioner. His judo background would prove to be very important to his wrestling success, and will prove vital to his impending success in MMA.
Mocco’s Post-High School Career
Steve followed his incredible high school career with a fantastic collegiate and post collegiate career. He made the NCAA Division I finals four times and won in two of them; he then followed this with a 2008 Olympic appearance. These accomplishments appear unreproachable, but a careful reading between the lines reveals a tale of immense potential that never quite went fulfilled.
Mocco had only six collegiate losses. Of those six, two weigh more heavily than any other as they came in the NCAA finals. Both of those losses were razor thin, and occurred against opponents whom Steve had beaten in the past. If either loss were reversed, Mocco would reign as the statisically greatest collegiate heavyweight ever.* The finals loss to Cole Konrad in 2006, Mocco’s senior year, particularly stands out.
After beating Konrad in the 2005 NCAA finals and winning the Hodge Trophy, wrestling’s Heisman, two seasons separated Mocco from his last loss; he looked as if he would to cap off his collegiate career with a third straight undefeated national championship season. Instead Mocco experienced his worst season in college. This season featured the lone time an opponent pinned him in a match, as well as a doubling in his career loss total. Granted, his losses in this season only came to another truly great wrestler in Cole Konrad, and two were decided in tie-breakers, but more alarming than actual defeats was the fact that Steve seemed totally uninspired. In the very least,he was not growing as a wrestler, and as some say, if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.
I believe that Mocco felt the sting of extreme burn out. One season of college wrestling can inflict wear and tear that can last a lifetime, and Steve had been training like an Olympian for at least ten years. The fact that Mocco left the sport for a year to play defensive tackle for the OSU football team lends some credence to my speculation. It seems he just wanted some time away from a wrestling room.
The time away probably did the trick. Mocco regained enough focus and motivation to win the Olympic trials in 2008 and place seventh in the Beijing games, losing one match short of the bronze medal bout.
Looking back on Steve’s wrestling career after high school, I see great accomplishment, but I also perceive some level of disappointment. Out of high school Mocco looked poised to become the greatest college heavyweight ever, and then follow that by winning multiple world or Olympic medals. These may be mammoth expectations, but Steve had justly earned them. The arc of Mocco’s improvement as a wrestler never quite pointed him to the pinnacle of world freestyle wrestling.
Mocco never developed the skill set necessary to consistently generate offense on the world’s best, and he let inferior wrestlers surpass him in competition. Chief among these were the aforementioned Konrad, and more recently, Les Sigman, whom Mocco once would beat handily and regularly, but who closed the gap and beat Mocco in the semi-finals of last month’s Olympic trials. Seven years ago, if a man predicted that Les Sigman would make as many world or Olympic teams as Steve Mocco (one) and win as many world level medals (zero) in his career, I would have figured him for a moron or lunatic.
Most wrestlers at the world class level maintain an almost unhealthy degree of brutal criticism for their performances,and If I detect the shortcomings in Mocco’s competitive career, then I have no doubt that he does as well. This leads me to believe that Mocco may be entering into MMA motivated not just by a payday, but by the drive to achieve greatness on the frontiers of a new sport. This holds particular importance as I would imagine that when getting punched in the face by a giant Brazilian, it helps to have as many motivating factors as possible.
What Mocco Brings to MMA
Mocco experienced large volumes of hatred as a wrestler and I suspect he will experience the same as a fighter. Some of this he received as a backlash to the hype that accmpanied him on the high school level. He earned more of this hatred when, after his sophomore year in college, Mocco transferred from the University of Iowa to Oklahoma State. These two programs have won more than sixty percent of the sport’s national titles between them, they bitterly hate each other and the rest of the wrestling community detests them. Exacerbating the situation, Steve’s transfer came at the time when Iowa was struggling and OSU was on top of the sport, lending a LeBron Jamesian feel to the whole affair. In spite of this, for more reason than any other, Mocco detractors hated Steve because he was tubb by wrestling standards, and, at times, somewhat boring.
Mixed martial arts fans will hate him for the same reason. They will call him fat, though if you were ever to stand next to him in his current shape, he would leave you with an impression of surprising leaness and imprssive physical condition for a man of his build. Fans will also whine that he he bores them with “lay and pray” because he will take all but the most elite opponents down whenever he feels like it, and then hold them down at his leisure.
I doubt we will see Mocco fighting in the “sprawl and brawl” style of fellow OSU Cowboy and Olympic teammate Daniel Cormier as he does not quite possess Cormier’s other-worldly physical abilities. However, Mocco still boasts substantial athletic talent. The fact that Mocco spent a year playing Big 12 football at OSU speaks volumes about his physical talent and ability to adapt to different sports. This bodes well for his ability to pick up the striking and submission elements of MMA at an fairly rapid rate, a rate fast enough to stay out of danger against most adversaries long enough to take them down. I can safely, and joyfully predict that his fight strategy will will closely resemble that of his former rival Cole Konrad.
Mocco will distinguish himself from other wrestling centered heavyweights by his preferred takedown methodology. Mocco’s signature takedown is a footsweep. I believe he honed this technique as a judoka, and adapted it to wrestling. While footsweeps are not completely alien to wrestling, and I understand the move on a basic level, I do not know enough to articulate its intricacies on a technical level. Failing a detailed explanation, I have provided a specimen of said footsweep.
Mocco’s judo background makes him a particularly interesting MMA prospect. He has notable judo skills, and he has the advantage of using judo technique in a gi-less environment for many years. Unlike other judo players, he will not have to learn to adapt to shirtless opponents, and he has the folkstyle wrestling base that gives him an unmatched ability to keep competitors on the ground once taken down.
While his foot sweep helped Mocco to amazing success as a wrestler, I believe that his reliance on it may have limited his success at the extreme upper levels of the sport. With very few exceptions, beating the truly elite wrestlers in the world rests on the ability to attack their legs by lowering levels and shooting on them. Mocco, whether because of his dependence on his footsweep or his lack of length, never was able to generate shot-based offense good enough to regularly work on the world’s very best.
What worked to his detriment in wrestling may well result in an advantage in prize fighting. Dropping the head and shooting in a mixed martial arts bout is a perilous thing; it expends massive energy, and all sorts of nasty counters can result. Mocco will instantly become the best heavyweight in MMA at taking opponents down without lowering levels to do so. His greatest advantage will lie in his ability to take opponents down without putting himself in positions that will leave him vulnerable to get taken down himself.
Not that he has ever been particularly vulnerable to a takedown. The possibility exists that we will never see Steve get taken down in a cage, as he almost never was taken down on a mat. I can count the number of takedowns he relinquished in college on one hand, and I do not believe that any of those takedowns were the result of an opponent converting a conventional shot. This parsimony in takedown defense carried over to the international level. I am racking my brain trying to think of a time when an opponent finished a take down on him, and I can not think of one. Mocco makes converting a takedown on him next to impossible
In Steve Mocco, the sport of MMA welcomes a combatant with the invaluable ability to effortlessly take almost anyone to the ground while defending nearly any of an opponent’s takedown attempts. He carries these skills into a thin heavyweight class with a dearth of quality wrestling. Brock Lesnar and Cole Konrad recently ascended to the elite levels of the sport based primarily on their wrestling skills and physicality. Steve exceeds both in the physicality department, and even though he may not have Lesnar’s explosiveness, and not possess the favorable physical dimensions of Konrad, he has better technical wrestling than either, and with the integration of his elite judo takedowns, he comes with a style better suited to MMA.
Steve Mocco has what it takes to go very far in MMA. I see him as an eventual top ten heavyweight in the world and possibly top five. He will always have trouble with powerful strikers with excellent take down defense, as well as any fighter with an active and dangerous guard, but to Mocco’s great benefit, few heavyweights fit these descriptions. Mocco will present a bad matchup for almost any current MMA heavyweight. Expect for him to make some big noise in the division really soon.
And now a GIF of Steve punching Tervel Dlagnev in the face.
*I did not forget about Dick Hutton, also an OSU heavyweight, I just disregard college wrestling results from the 1940’s
Mike Riordan is a wrestling coach and unsuccessful collegiate wrestler. He contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling.
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