Journo to Journo: Coach Mike Riordan discusses wrestling in MMA

Another installment of my 'Journo to Jorno' weekly segment is in the books. This week's offering is another Bloody Elbow staffer, 'Coach' Mike Riordan.…

By: Stephie Haynes | 10 years ago
Journo to Journo: Coach Mike Riordan discusses wrestling in MMA
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Another installment of my ‘Journo to Jorno’ weekly segment is in the books. This week’s offering is another Bloody Elbow staffer, ‘Coach’ Mike Riordan. Mike brings our readers the wrestling flavor they didn’t know they craved, until it was already in front of their eyes. His breakdowns are some of the very best around, so I couldn’t resist getting some time with him.

My co-host, Iain Kidd gets the snaps, kudos, props and whatever other cool pats on the back there are for his speedy transcription of this awesome interview. Here’s what Mike had to say:

His Twitter ‘Debate’ With Jon Snowden

Well … I don’t want to blow that one out of proportion. It’s just, there’s a pattern, I think, in mixed martial arts writing, of when people get their hands on somebody who has a wrestling background, and they have sort of an outsider’s perspective, and they discuss it the way an outsider would. When you’re somebody inside the world of amateur wrestling like I have been, and am, it’s sort of sticks out to you, it’s discordant when you hear these outside perspectives.

It’s ubiquitous in MMA; people talking about wrestling in ways that show they don’t quite understand, or have a fully nuanced view of what somebodies accomplishments mean, and I think I do. I think I have a strong grasp of what they mean, so I try to enlighten people if I can.


I wrestled Division One in South Carolina. I wasn’t very good, I wasn’t terribly successful at a college level, but I did it. What it did, is it prepared me. I wanted to coach, and I became a high school wrestling coach. My goal was to coach and explain wrestling in a logical and conceptual manner to people. That’s kind of what led into me being a writer, thinking about wrestling in a deep way.

Wrestlers Who Vastly Outperform Their Credentials in MMA

Ben Henderson. Ben Henderson was an All American, but an NAIA All American, and that’s really the lowest division of college wrestling. It still means he’s good, but the fact he has used his wrestling ability in such an effective way to become a UFC champion, and really control the way a lot of matches have gone, and outwrestle guys with better credentials than him, like Shane Roller, shows he has out performed his wrestling credentials.

Demetrious Johnson is another one. He doesn’t have any real college pedigree. He was a good high school wrestler, but not a national calibre guy. He’s one of the very best, and most visually impressive wrestlers in MMA. Pedigree, from my perspective, matters. Generally the better amateur wrester is going to make the better MMA wrestler, and the better fighter, but there are guys, fairly regularly, outperforming the accolades they received in their amateur backgrounds.

Biggest Adjustments Between Wrestling and MMA

The obvious thing is stance. I think you’ve seen guys like Jake Rosholt fighting a little with their heads forward too much. The biggest adjustment, I would say, from wrestling to striking is that for most wrestlers, most of your shooting and most of your offensive wrestling, is going to be off of your right foot. You lead with your right foot. If you’re striking, your right foot is going to be the trail foot, because your power hand is going to be your right hand.

So guys who are left footed shots in wrestling have a built in advantage, because they can fight in a conventional stance, and still be in a position to shoot off that front foot, but if you’re a right footed shot, that leads to a little bit of confusion, and some real choices you have to make in terms of how you’re going to fight in the stand up game.

Relationship Between Wrestling and MMA

I have seen camps and teams try to reach out to the wrestling community. I’ve seen, a few years ago I think, American Top Team was posting on the USA Wrestling message boards saying, ‘hey, are there any top wrestlers who want to fight? Come here.’ And it worked. I don’t know if it’s a direct result, but they’ve got some damn good wrestlers now. The UFC and promotions themselves though? I don’t think they are tapping wrestlers on the shoulder.

I think MMA and Wrestling should have a more symbiotic relationship. You see a sport that’s thriving like mixed martial arts, and a sport that’s really struggling at college and Olympic level, which is on the verge of death. Mixed Martial Arts is becoming a professional league for college wrestlers, and to not have some greater level of symbiosis between each other is foolish. It’s stupid on the part of wrestling to not embrace that, to not try to strengthen that bond.

Now, will it happen? I don’t… The powers that be, that are in charge of running wrestling as a sport, I don’t have much faith in their ability to make savvy decisions like that. Wrestling has never been relevant in any popular, modern sport, until now, but I just… I’m very sceptical of the sports ability to take advantage of it. There’s not much innovation in the way it’s run. It’s getting better though, things are changing a little bit, so maybe it will. I’m hopeful, but not too optimistic.

Here’s something I’d like to address. MMA has still barely, just barely, scratched the surface of the talent pool available in Division I, II and III wrestling. You go to Division One nationals and there are 320 something of the best, toughest wrestlers in the nation, that are aged 18-23. Not every one of them could be a world champ, but probably any one of them could be a UFC level fighter if they played their cards right, and almost none of them go into MMA. A very small percentage, a very tiny little fraction of them will go into MMA, and it’s scary to think about what would happen if that percentage started to rise, and I think it will.

You’re going to see more success, and more wrestlers, and more guys like Chris Weidman coming out of the woodwork and really taking to MMA and taking to the submission game, and becoming world champion calibre guys.

Standout Wrestlers to Watch Out For

In terms of people who are amateur wrestlers now, and could be great fighters … First off, it’s super hard to predict. There are so many different kinds of wrestlers who have succeeded in MMA, it’s not just a simple bang a guy on the head and shoot a fast double type that’s going to succeed, though those guys probably will.

Jordan Burroughs would obviously be your number one seed, your first pick there, of course he has indicated that he’s not going to do MMA, and he has no reason to. He has parleyed his wrestling success to make himself very financially comfortable.

I would say after that, there is a guy who wrestles for Penn State right now, he has won two NCAA titles in a row, he hasn’t lost in two years and he wrestles at 174lbs. His name is Ed Ruth, and the way he moves, the way he wrestles, there’s just a certain indescribable talent about him. Whether he goes the Olympic route, or the MMA route, remains to be seen.

I wish there was more openness from these guys in college saying, ‘Hey, yeah I’m going to do MMA when I leave’, but there have only been a couple of guys who have said that before their last college match, that’s rare. There’s just so much talent out there that just hasn’t been exploited.

You can listen to this interview’s audio here

You can follow Coach Mike via his Twitter account, @CoachMJR

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About the author
Stephie Haynes
Stephie Haynes

Stephie Haynes has been covering MMA since 2005. She has also worked for MMA promotion Proelite and apparel brand TapouT. She hosted TapouT’s official radio show for four years before joining Bloody Elbow in 2012. She has interviewed everyone there is to interview in the fight game from from Dana White to Conor McGregor to Kimbo Slice, as well as mainstream TV, film and music stars including Norman Reedus, RZA and Anthony Bourdain. She has been producing the BE podcast network since 2017 and hosts four of its current shows.

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